By Luis Sordo Vieira
I recently heard Dr. Rochelle Gutierrez talk on “Rehumanizing mathematics: A vision for the future” at IPAM during the Latinxs in Math conference. So before I begin on my reflections, I want to include a picture of me, a human being, and not just a set of words that might or might not make sense, such as we often find in math papers.
I am Luis Sordo Vieira, a Latino postdoc at UConn Health Center for Quantitative Medicine using mathematics for my profession. I am much more than a mathematician. This is my doggie Ivy; my other dog Glenn (named after Canadian pianist Glenn Gould) would not pose for the picture. So he doesn’t make an appearance. Below, is my best friend and wife, Sarah Sordo Vieira, M.A. in mathematics too. She went to grad school and decided that a PhD in mathematics was not for her and she is my favorite mathematician.
I just finished my first year as a postdoctoral fellow at UConn Health in the Center for Quantitative Medicine, so I have had the privilege of living through my undergraduate and graduate years and a whole year as a postdoc. Before I forget how difficult grad school is (very difficult), let me share some of the most important lessons that I have encountered in my (yet academically inexperienced) career so far. I wish I had such a set of notes early in my grad school career and that several faculty members had read these notes as well, to get an idea of what grad students struggle with. These notes come without any sense of authority and, as is all advice, it is to be taken at your own risk!
Almost everything that you succeed at looks easy in retrospect.
Of course, this does not mean that it was. I got so angry when I would hear situations such as:
- Graduate student John tells undergraduate Stacey “Undergraduate is nothing compared to graduate school.”
- Post-quals grad student Donald tells the first-year terrorized student Marcos that writing a thesis is much harder than quals.
- Early faculty Michelle trying to get tenure tells poor graduate student Robert that graduate school is some of the most fun years of your academic career, and nothing compared to the difficulties of pre-tenure.
These insensitive comments are more harmful than helpful. They degrade the difficulties of others and enable the sense of not belonging. These comments are extremely harmful to underrepresented groups. We all have our own struggles.
We are defined by our failures as academics just as much by our success.
This year, I heard from a status quo successful and well-established professor that scientists endure more failures than enjoy success. In this case, this professor is a “successful” mathematician and a wonderful mentor and person, but this is not always the case with every mathematician we consider successful. I wish I would have heard this earlier in grad school! Keep in mind this is a professor with several prestigious awards, publications, grants, etc. so I naturally asked him what he was talking about. He told me about some of his grants; several of his grants were given to him after more than three tries! Keep in mind that grants can take months to produce and think about. In retrospect (see point 1), this seems obvious. If you talk to many older mathematicians in academia, they will tell you they applied for the NSF Career award two or three times and never got it, or they submitted a paper 50 times before it got accepted. I failed my first qual in algebra! I think you get my point. Which brings a key point here: A CV is a cleaned-up version of someone’s academic career. It only shows (what we consider) success. Keep that in mind when you decide it is a good idea to compare yourself to others (it never is).
Take your mental and physical health seriously in graduate school and academia.
Perhaps it is easier to think of the importance of maintaining your physical health in grad school. The impression I got early from my undergraduate years and early graduate school is that a lot of graduate school is about suffering and we seem to be OK with this as a community. This is so wrong, and if you don’t believe me, read this article on the mental toll grad-school takes on students. I would not be too surprised if this extends to later in life in academia, although I do not know. This is a very serious issue and not something to just say “it’s normal in grad school.” NO. It is not normal to be depressed or feel severe anxiety. Keep a check on your mental health. Have fun in graduate school! Keep a hobby and don’t let your personal life fall behind. If you need it, go to the counseling center. Seeking help when you need it is a strength, not a weakness; as cliche as that might sound, it is absolutely true. Never, ever hide your wonderful personality to try to fit in. It is not worth it.
Find a mentor(s). Be a mentor.
This might be your academic advisor (hopefully this is the case, but it is not always, sadly). I was privileged to have a good academic advisor, mentor and friend, David B. Leep. Maybe your academic advisor is not a mentor. Regardless, it’s never a bad idea to have several mentors. For me, I was very lucky to find several people outside of my institution that I could always go to for advice, such as my good friend, theorem-proving machine, fellow dog-lover, and Mexican friend (to the right), Dr. Pamela Harris. She is an incredible mathematician that takes no nonsense from me. More impressive than her stellar CV is her willingness to stand up for what is right, regardless of how uncomfortable it might be. That includes when I say something insensitive or stupid, as we all do. (Picture is courtesy of my dear friend Pam.)
Mentors might even lead you (unintentionally, I think…) into a whole different field from your focus in graduate school. They will open a set of doors that you might not have even known existed.
For me, that was my other local mentor at the University of Kentucky, where I earned my PhD. Dr. Murrugarra somehow convinced me that biology is super cool and mathematical. He is a good friend of mine, and I still come often to him for advice on navigating academic nonsense, such as reviews that make no sense, the ten million-journals out there, and the grant-writing landscape. He also gives me good advice on good Peruvian food and where I can get a good Pisco Sour. (The great picture on the left is courtesy of my friend David.)
Pay it back. Find an undergrad in your institution and tell them your experiences. I bet you have plenty of things to contribute (keep in mind point 1!)
A plea to the academic community.
My last point is that we please reconsider what a successful mathematician is. Coming into grad school for a PhD, realizing it’s not for you, and leaving with a master degree is not a failure. Finishing an REU and realizing research is terrible and you never want to do it again is not a failure. Let us redefine a mathematician to encompass our fellow academes in math-ed. Math-ed is just as important for the math community as number theory. Stop using terms such as number-crunchers for scientists and industry workers applying mathematics to their respective careers. Let us stop considering mathematics as the ultimate science. Let us celebrate diversity in mathematics. I like the progress we are making here in the math community, but we still have a long way to go. A mathematician comes in all different shades, shapes, sexual orientations, sex, physical abilities, national origins, and length of hair (if I miss something, I apologize). We still have a long way to go. In the biomedical sciences, there was recently an uproar about celebrating the birthday of James Watson, highlighting the importance of what we consider to be a successful scientist. It’s worth thinking about.
What do you consider to be a successful mathematician?