Living Proof has wonderfully highlighted that most burgeoning mathematicians encounter (and persevere through) self-doubt, setbacks, and failures. These stories illustrate how you can make a place in mathematics.
My story is about how self-doubt and a key failure pushed me to leave my PhD program. How even though my priorities had shifted away from research math, this was a decision I struggled with and felt like a failure over. How I’m grateful I made that choice, and how even though you can make your place in mathematics, it’s really okay if you ultimately decide that you don’t want to. I’ll also remind you that it’s possible to find a fulfilling math-y career (or non-math-y career!) without going the PhD -> Postdoc -> Professor route.
After falling in love with the distilled intellectual challenge of mathematics as an undergraduate, I ignored the advice of a favorite professor who warned me “if you want to make it through grad school in mathematics, don’t take time off beforehand” and spent a year working in a low-level software job. At the time, I thought she was warning me about forgetting content. Later, I realized that by taking a year off from academia, my priorities had started to shift.
Early in grad school, I realized the “pure exploration of knowledge for knowledge’s sake” which I’d previously admired now felt selfish and unmotivating. I’d come to enjoy working on tractable problems driven by concrete issues, where I’d implement solutions quickly usable by others outside my narrow field.
Math also seemed harder and lonelier than I remembered–partly rosy retrospection and partly because I’d relied on great teachers to help me build intuition and see the big picture. In grad school, the professors were less focused on quality teaching, and I struggled to follow lectures and fill in holes–never quite gaining the deeper understanding necessary to draw connections and apply techniques as quickly or ingeniously as I wanted.
Between research and studies, I also questioned whether the effort and frequent self-doubt were worth it. My year away from math revealed there were jobs that I would find satisfying, that would also pay decently, and–best of all–where I wouldn’t feel like an imposter. Was it worth putting myself through 4+ more years of self-doubt? And even if I emerged on the other side, would I get the jobs I wanted? Even if I landed my “dream” job, would I be forever trying to prove to myself that I was good enough for math?
And was I undervaluing the joy and impact I could have teaching lower-level mathematics or finding a different career?
I started investing in teaching (because it brought me joy), taking statistics classes (a field I’d ignored in undergrad and realized the value of during my year in industry), and quietly revised my schedule so that at the end of 2 years I’d complete a master’s degree, in case I decided to leave. I felt ashamed and guilty that I was even considering leaving without seeing the PhD through. It felt like a betrayal of the professors, family, and peers that had invested and believed in me. It also felt like a betrayal of self: like I was admitting I might not be good enough.
In the second year, I failed my qualifying exams (subject matter tests you must pass to move forward with your PhD). I wasn’t alone; others failed too, and they soon started studying to retake the exams. But for me, the failure felt like a nail in a coffin: validation that in order to get my PhD and succeed in the career it led to, I’d constantly struggle, constantly confront failure, and constantly need to prove myself. I no longer thought a PhD would make me happier or vastly change the type of work I wanted to do, but for a time, I planned to stick it out just to prove that I could (and avoid disappointment or judgement from others).
After a lot of reflection, I (mostly) accepted that I could fail to get my PhD and not be a failure. I started applying to jobs that didn’t require a PhD at various community colleges and in industry. I told myself that if I got an offer, I’d leave with my master’s… and that’s exactly what happened.
Life after leaving
I’ve known others that leave math for wonderfully diverse fields. I instead landed pretty close to my envisioned career: for seven years I taught mathematics at a two-year degree-granting institution, Bellevue College. In this time, I got tenure, served as department chair, developed and taught a wide range of classes (from pre-algebra to linear algebra, discrete math, and statistical modeling), and I worked alongside fantastic colleagues. It was fulfilling work with students for whom my teaching could make a real difference: first generation college students; people who’d never “got” math before; returning students balancing studies, career, and children; brilliant minds; and yes, even the occasional aspiring math major. I didn’t need a PhD to teach cool math and inspire students. I even got to live a dream I thought died with my PhD. I led undergraduate research by piggybacking on grants with nearby research institutions (and via informal reading/research groups when I didn’t have grants).
About a year ago, I left Bellevue College (the second hardest decision in my life) to start work as a senior data scientist at Microsoft. My new job has some room for statistics research, but all grounded in problems that can directly improve products and end-user experience. My colleagues are incredible people, many of whom earned their PhDs and chose industry over academia. We promise you: there’s a life beyond ivory towers.
Though persevering in mathematics can lead to a fulfilling career, quitting a program (or mathematics overall) can too. Ultimately, failure can be a thing to overcome, or it can be a catalyst to make a change you’re otherwise hesitant to make. I questioned, I failed, I chose to quit–and I have never regretted that choice.
Staying in math is a valid choice, but if you are feeling shame about considering a different path, remember:
- You are not alone in questioning whether you want to continue in mathematics. In fact, when I started talking about my doubts and frustrations, I found that most of my peers shared them to one extent or another.
- Math has highs and lows; setbacks are common in studies, research, and job hunting. Failures are ok. It’s also ok to leave after a failure: failure can be a good catalyst to pursue action that you’ve been debating for a while.
- No career choice is exactly as you envision it. Speak to math professionals about what their honest day-to-day job looks like. How frequently do they work nights and/or weekends? What takes up most of their time? Are there aspects of their work which are invisible to an outsider? In the end, the work might appeal to you more (or less) than you expect. Speak to people in other careers and ask the same thing. Sometimes the day-to-day work matters more than your passion for the subject matter.
- Most of the elements that spark joy from mathematics are available in careers that don’t require a PhD: problem solving in computer science, data science, public policy and more; teaching at high school or community college. Smart and interesting people are everywhere if you know how to look (though no community is quite like the math community).
- It’s not too late to change careers, whether you are an undergrad, a grad student, a postdoc, or further along in your career. Your analytic skills are valuable, especially if you invest in supplementary skills that let you apply them to different fields. Statistics and coding are the obvious choices and provide access to a number of careers.
- It’s (obviously) much easier to change directions if you have the skills and a path into your new field. It’s also easier to find a new job if you are currently employed or in school. Unless your situation is toxic, invest in building skills and find an opportunity while in the relative safety of your current position.
- It can be really hard to ignore what you believe others will think of you. Remember that they don’t live with the decisions you make for the rest of their lives–only you do. And see point #1: most of them understand your motivations. Heck! Some will even be jealous of your decision!
Jen Townsend (happily not PhD) is a recovered mathematician, a former and future community college math professor, and a person who is currently finding her way as a data scientist. She attended Scripps College (with visits to the Summer Math Program, SMALL REU and Budapest Semesters in Mathematics), and she entered the ACO PhD program at Georgia Tech before mastering her fears and mastering out. After seven years of teaching at Bellevue College, she now works as a senior data scientist on the Experimentation Platform team at Microsoft.
Jen is happiest on day three of a backpacking trip; mile 15 of a bike ride; while curled up under her cat, reading a book and whenever she effectively communicates a difficult topic in an inspiring way.