Summer Meditations by Sharon Garthwaite

Another academic year is over, and summer is here. This is the perfect time to study for quals, read papers on the arXiv, and contemplate your future. Aiming for academia? Intending Industry? Guessing you’ll do government work? Now is the time to really think about what you want to do with your hard earned degree.

For many of us, graduate school can seem like we’re stuck in suspended animation. We watch friends enter the real world: building careers, buying homes, and starting families. In the meantime, we pursue our love of mathematics. We spend day after day correcting calculus quizzes. We spend week after week forcing Matlab to compile. We spend month after month diagram chasing. After years of mastering these tasks, we earn our degrees and now enter the real world ourselves, or rather enter the job market.

Before spending that last year in graduate school writing the perfect cover letter and practicing the perfect job talk, why not take a moment to think about what you value in life? What do you want foremost from your career?

Is it financial security?

The AMS annually publishes statistics on starting salaries for new Ph.D’s entering academia, government, and business and industry. The AMS also publishes more detailed data for academia by type of institution. Check out last year’s report at:
http://www.ams.org/profession/data/annual-survey/2010Survey-NewDoctorates-Report
For a more long term picture of academia, the Chronicles of Higher Education annually publishes median salaries by academic rank at most institutions:
http://chronicle.com/article/faculty-salaries-table-2012/131433

Is it location?

Start looking at the universities, companies, and government organizations in the places where you want to settle. Be open to all possibilities, and be realistic about your chances of landing each position. You may be more than qualified to work at every institution in the area but will be competing with a large pool of equally qualified applicants. Are there particular classes you can take or skills that you can develop to strengthen you application? Do you know someone, or know someone who knows someone, who can help you network before you apply? Don’t be afraid to mention geographical connections in your cover letter.

Is it scholarship?

Academic positions usually mean some balance of research, teaching, and committee work. You choose your own scholarship, but are expected to produce quality results. Publish or perish, as they say. As a graduate student, it can be difficult to know the expectations at different types of institutes, and the resources available at each. For example, smaller schools may expect fewer papers per year, but may also have no colleagues you can collaborate with, and limited travel funding to find some. If you have an opportunity to attend conferences as a student, use down time to chat with participants about their institutions. If you don’t, keep in contact with fellow graduate students who finish before you, and ask about their experiences.

Also remember that research groups, businesses, and government agencies can offer interesting and fulfilling problems with real world application; the catch is that you may not pick which ones you work on.

Is it the students?

Institutions granting Ph.D.’s or Masters degrees offer the opportunity to mentor graduate students and/or postdocs. You can help a new mathematician launch his or her career, and further your own scholarship in the process. You might teach graduate level courses in your specialty, which can also help you strengthen your knowledge. Don’t forget there are undergraduates here too, and undergraduate research is very in.

Institutions without such degrees shift the focus to undergraduates. Many have smaller class sizes, meaning you can get to know your students well. Some also offer unique teaching opportunities or activities with student organizations. Small schools can often focus their mission. Some schools court high achieving students ready to dive into undergraduate research; some schools specialize in offering opportunities for under-represented groups, such as first generation college students; some schools attract students interested in community outreach.

Navigating the job market can be an overwhelming task. It can help to first sit down and really think about what you are looking for in a career. What is an absolute must? When are you willing to be flexible? What skills can you cultivate now to make you more competitive? Who do you know who can help you in the process?

Good luck.

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