Ph.D. programs in the mathematical sciences frequently take five or more years to complete. After finishing all required coursework and focusing solely on research for a while, it can become challenging to find motivation to complete the doctoral degree. Without the benchmark of grades and exams, it can be difficult to gauge how much progress you are making and it may feel like the end is nowhere in sight. With this in mind, I asked five current mathematicians to share what their motivation was to finish their Ph.D.
“My motivation to finish my Ph.D. was twofold. First, I liked doing math and was not knowledgeable about potential careers in industry, so at the time I viewed becoming a professor as my ideal job (it turned out well!). Second, coming from a small rural town in San Lorenzo, Puerto Rico, me, my parents, and my then-girlfriend (now wife) had invested a lot of time and energy for me to get to the point where I could work on getting a Ph.D. At the time, I felt like quitting the program would have been a waste of that energy and effort. I don’t view this as a healthy reason now, but at the time it motivated me to keep going.”
– Alexander Diaz-Lopez, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Mathematics at Villanova University
“There were both intrinsic and extrinsic motivators. Unlike my pre-candidacy years, during my last 2 years of grad school, I knew I was smart enough and capable enough to get a Ph.D. But fatigue (read: exhaustion) had really set in by then and staying the course was hard. One big source of motivation was that I knew that this degree was the ticket to a job where I could wear a big afro, snarky t-shirts, and tennis shoes to work for the rest of my life (read: My credentials meant that I could bring more of my authentic self to work). Another big source of motivation were my mentors. They knew I could finish before I did (especially back in those pre-candidacy years) and all they ever asked of me was that I do my best (again, they somehow knew that my best was enough to get a Ph.D.)… I felt like the least I owed them was my best effort.”
– Shelby Wilson, Ph.D.
Senior Data Scientist at The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory
“In no particular rank:
- Be the first to receive a Ph.D. in my close family.
- I was told that “[I] won’t be a mathematician” by a faculty member in my undergraduate institution… Proved him wrong and am now an NSF Postdoc in the same department as him/my alma mater.
- Get out of Kentucky as fast as I could. There were personal motivations such as wanting to be near a large city, a desire for public transportation, being closer to family, and being queer; these played a role into motivating to finish.
- Finish the Ph.D. to move past academic requirements and somewhat be the decision maker of my own mathematical interests and trajectory. You can say that now I can enjoy doing the math and not feel the pressure of trying to graduate (though there are other stressors like finding a permanent job, but that’s another topic).”
– Andrés R. Vindas Meléndez, Ph.D.
MSRI Postdoctoral Research Fellow
NSF Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of California, Berkeley
“By the end of year 1, I was reconsidering my prospects at Burger King. But having a Ph.D. means more backup options in the future, like getting a research position in industry or access to adjunct teaching positions in retirement. I won’t ever get the chance again: life gets busier with time and I won’t be going back to school. Plus, unless I feel really strongly motivated about another path, it’s smarter to not derail myself. It’s also the last chance I got to take classes tuition free in any skills I want.”
– Ravi Shankar, Ph.D.
Mathematics Instructor at Princeton University
“The motivation for me to finish my doctorate mainly stems from my hesitation to choose a career path. I have never been certain on what exactly I wanted to do but I felt like having the degree would make me better prepared for whatever it is that I ended up doing. The pandemic also played a role in my decision to finish as the least year and a half of my degree was completed during it. This cemented my decision as entering the job market at the height of the pandemic seemed bleak and ultimately, I am very happy with my decision.”
– Genesis Islas, Ph.D.
Lecturer at California State University, Long Beach
When I first started my Ph.D., my goal was mostly intellectual and I was motivated by the idea of learning more math. In the time between finishing undergrad and starting graduate school, I had somehow romanticized the idea of academia. After completing a summer internship, however, my motivation for finishing the Ph.D. has become much more practical. I now see grad school as more of a job than a passion. Since I do not plan on staying in academia after graduation, I am motivated by the prospect of having more stability (income), more limits on my work time, and less ambiguity in my research objectives.
A common motivator in the responses by current math Ph.D.’s is the idea that finishing the Ph.D. gives you more options and opportunities down the road. All of these individuals are proof that completing the degree is possible, even if you are doubting your ability to do so.