Many of us are passionate about issues that affect our communities. For example, some of us care deeply about increasing the representation of minority groups in research mathematics. Others have similar interest in increasing the representation of women in academia. Still others are passionate about improving K-12 mathematics education. Often, we are eager to get involved in these activities as soon as we can. This post represents the advice I give students and postdocs about when to get involved and how to be patient.First, a confession. I got involved in teaching high school math in special programs (on weekends and after school) during my first year of graduate school. This is not something I recommend. I did it because I didn’t know any better and it turned out that these activities slowed my progress in graduate school. The danger is to let outreach activities take up too much of your time to the point that they affect negatively your advancement in a graduate program or postdoctoral position.
I have known many graduate students that ended up dropping out of a Ph.D. program due to their involvement in outreach activities. Of course, they continued to be involved in those activities and continued to enjoy doing what they were doing. However, their efforts can only have so much impact. What I tell students is to think of their outreach contributions as a life-long effort and that the more successful they are as researchers, the more of an impact they will have.
For this reason it is necessary to pace your outreach activities and dedicate the necessary time to making sure you advance academically. This is difficult to do because it requires you to refuse to get involved in activities that you care deeply about if the time is not right. It requires you to be selfish at critical moments of your education and dedicate time to your own advancement. This can make you feel guilty. However, remind yourself that you will have a much larger impact over the course of a lifetime as your own career reaches higher levels. The more influential you become as a result of your research career, the larger the impact you can have in outreach efforts and the broader the impact will be.