Epsilon and Beyond

Origami Paper Crane

This is me, flying beyond epsilon! Photo by Rachel Ridenour.

I started writing for PhD + Epsilon in 2014, when I was just starting my third (!) academic job (my double fabulous co-blogger, Sara Malec, started at the same time; we took it over from the extremely fantastic Adriana Salerno).  For the last four and a half years I’ve been really thrilled to tell stories about my life and help others tell theirs through this blog. But, alas, it’s time to let someone else take the wheel. Folks, this is my last PhD + Epsilon entry.  Stepping away got me thinking back on what this blog has meant in my life, and what I hoped to bring to others through my writing.

I started reading PhD + Epsilon when I was in graduate school. I hadn’t entered grad school planning to get a PhD. At that point I was committed, but I still felt ambivalent about academic life and about going all in on math. I also had no idea what I was going to do with this degree when I finished. In fact, I still had few ideas on what, if anything, I was going to do with the degree when I graduated in 2011 and started my first job as a visiting professor at Wesleyan University. My choice to give liberal arts teaching a try owes quite something to Adriana’s blog entries—her warmth and openness in sharing her experiences sketched a sort of roadmap of the possibilities of one kind of life in math. Exactly how does person pick up and move to a new place, start a job, learn how to be a great teacher, do research, and stay really excited about math?  This, and more, is all in Adriana’s PhD + Epsilon posts.  They spoke to me in making that first transition and the many I have made since.

In 2014, as a freshly minted Associate Professor, Adriana moved on to co-edit the Inclusion/Exclusion blog, which I love. Getting tenure is a pretty sweet way to end the “early” stage of a career and move on from an early career-focused blog. No, I didn’t secretly get tenure without sharing it on the blog, and I’m not leaving academia or anything like that. I’m moving on because, tenure or no, eventually epsilon gets big enough that it needs a new name (lest we risk absurdities like “let epsilon approach infinity”).  Friends, my epsilon is now seven and a half years and four jobs. So much epsilon! It has been a winding path for sure.  But that’s part of the story that I’ve been trying to share for the last several years—there are a lot of different paths through mathematical life, not all of them go in any sort of straight line, and tenure is not the one thing that can mark success or progress along the way. An early career in mathematics can go many different ways; it doesn’t have to mean young, pre-tenure in a tenure-track academic job, research-oriented, or any other single thing.  Starting out in math is the uniting feature.  The career can be almost anything.

pentagon billiard earring

Many paths on a pentagonal billiard table, and many paths in math. Beautiful earring and mathematics by Diana Davis, earrings available at the Joint Meetings and on etsy. Photo by Rachel Ridenour.

I have many mathematical goals, but my main career goal has been to figure out how to make the possibilities and realities of the profession work for me; I want to do a good job for the people around me while making my work as much as possible a reflection of my own passions. In this early stage, I have been pretty successful in some aspects of this, and hope to keep getting better at using the framework of the mathematical profession to do the things that I think matter—in research, teaching, and interacting with the larger world.  This blog has been a big part of the process for me. In the academic world, we spend so much time applying for things—jobs, grants, awards, promotion… it is a whole system of ranking and rewards that can seem like the only way to success and validation.  But many of the most satisfying things in my mathematical (and non-mathematical) life have come through stepping away from this machine and looking for another way to do what I really want. One thing that I really wanted to do was talk to people about their math lives, hear what they have learned and how they see the world around them. That’s not necessarily an easy thing to start on in a field where some people seem to think that intellectual intimidation and arrogance is the natural order of things.  Lucky for all of us, there are way more awesome math people out there and this blog has given me a way to connect with them (you!), both as readers and as people who respond when I reach out for a piece I’m writing.  This blog has been my platform, in the sense of a tall thing that I can stand on and talk loudly about my ideas, and also a solid scaffold from which I have built connections.

Being part of the AMS through this blog has been wonderful. They have supported me in every way.  I have not always been the most punctual blogger, and sometimes when I needed to write a blog but also needed to write a test and do a thousand other things, I would think, “why does blogging even matter?” But as soon as I had a minute to breathe and listen to myself, it was clear that this was an amazing way to do what mattered to me—ask questions, tell stories, and help more people feel connected to this community.  Thanks so much to the AMS, especially Mike Breen and Annette Emerson, for the opportunity and the support. And thanks to everyone to has read the blog or shared with me. I am very grateful for it.  YOU ARE AWESOME. I still want to hear about your life in math—if you have read this far, you know that’s why I’ve been doing this at all. I’d like to invite everyone out there to keep the conversation going.  To ease my blog withdrawal pangs, I’ll be blogging for AMS at the Joint Meetings in Baltimore in a couple weeks, so say hello if you see me around!  Wishing you all the best in the New Year and beyond.

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