Interview with DeMarco and Wilkinson

Nice joint interview with Laura DeMarco and Amie Wilkerson at Scientific American.

I didn’t know this about Amie:

 I went to college, and I was feeling very insecure about my abilities in mathematics, and I hadn’t gotten a lot of encouragement, and I wasn’t really sure this was what I wanted to do, so I didn’t apply to grad school. I came back home to Chicago, and I got a job as an actuary. I enjoyed my work, but I started to feel like there was a hole in my existence. There was something missing. I realized that suddenly my universe had become finite. Anything I had to learn for this job, I could learn eventually. I could easily see the limits of this job, and I realized that with math there were so many things I could imagine that I would never know. That’s why I wanted to go back and do math.

This was basically me, too.  After college I got into the fiction writing program at Johns Hopkins, which made me think maybe I could really make it as a writer, and I deferred grad school and moved to Baltimore and wrote fiction all day every day for a year, and while I valued that experience a lot, there was not a single day of it where I didn’t kind of wish I were doing math.  Having had that experience — not just suspecting but knowing how annoying it is not to be doing math — took the edge off the pain of the painful parts of grad school.

15 thoughts on “Interview with DeMarco and Wilkinson

  1. Dick Gross says:

    There were painful parts of grad school?

  2. Amie says:

    Since I trash Harvard (ca. 1985) pretty good in parts of that interview, I would like to say that Dick Gross was by far the most encouraging and supportive faculty member I came across there, and he’s the one who got me to take some courses that led into my eventual choice of research area. So thanks, Dick.

  3. Alexander Woo says:

    I have to say I am somewhere between annoyed and disturbed by how completely encouraging and positive the published interview was. Based on what’s available for reading, there doesn’t seem to be much of an acknowledgement by Amie or Laura of how incredibly lucky they were both to have the talent they have and to have been able to find jobs that supported and encouraged their development as research mathematicians. (Nor is there an acknowledgement of how hard they worked, though I can see they might not want to be perceived to be bragging.)

    Most people going into graduate school in mathematics will not find a job in which doing mathematical research is an important component. Many will leave mathematics, some by choice, but many because they cannot find a suitable job. Most of the ones remaining in academia will be at teaching focused institutions, and that mostly means regional public universities, not elite liberal arts colleges. Frequently these jobs will be in small isolated rural communities and pay full professors with twenty years of experience a smaller salary than what an actuary could expect in their third year on the job. They will not have an environment that encourages research any more than a job as an actuary. To find any academic job, they frequently have to put their families under significant stress, because they and their spouse or partner may have trouble finding jobs within 500 miles of each other. Frequently, at least one person has to give up an academic career in order to live together. Those who want children may have to delay doing so. With continually declining public support for research, and especially for research without immediate applications, the situation seems unlikely to ever improve, even if the economy improves.

    Sadly, survivorship bias is powerful. I don’t want someone going to graduate school picturing he or she will become the next Laura or Amie when such an outcome is only a somewhat unlikely possibility.

    I don’t want to be too discouraging either. There are still some research university positions, and graduate school allows you the opportunity to spend a few years doing math every day while being paid at least enough to live on. People learn a lot as graduate students and most go on to have happy, productive, and fulfilling lives whether or not they end up not doing math regularly. (On the other hand, most people who decide not to go to graduate school also go on to have happy, productive, and fulfilling lives.) However, potential graduate students should be told what the range of possibilities is and what their relative likelihoods roughly are. This includes learning that, more likely than not, graduate school will only suspend for a few years the annoyance of not learning and doing math on a regular basis.

  4. Did you also worry you’ll eventually fully master every aspect of fiction writing?

  5. Amie says:

    @Alexander Woo: it doesn’t come across in the interview perhaps, but I do feel fortunate and grateful, of course. Read the response I wrote to the Satter prize:

    But I don’t understand why someone reading this interview should not aspire to be like Laura and Amie. Isn’t that what role models are for? It should be obvious that not everyone can reach this level, and I suspect if the interviewees had been male, this would not have come up.

  6. Alexander Woo says:

    I’m sorry I didn’t manage to get my first paragraph across properly. I did not mean to imply Amie and Laura did not feel fortunate and grateful, nor did I mean to imply that the interview gave the impression they were not fortunate and grateful. I just meant to say that I didn’t see an acknowledgement (or, better yet, a warning) in the published text that they are the exception, not the rule.

    As for the gender issue, I think it is even more important for men to tell potential graduate students about the range of potential outcomes after graduate school. In my experience, men considering graduate school are actually far more likely than women to be unaware about what happens afterwards.

    I don’t know how many readers have seen the recent article
    by a German literature PhD warning students against graduate school. Is the job market in pure mathematics better than in German? Yes, but not by as much as some people claim, and the pure mathematics job market might be just as bad after a couple more recessions. Did the writer exaggerate for effect? Undoubtedly so. Does the article reflect a failure in advising by her academic community, even if it is impossible to pin the failure down to specific pieces of advice from specific individuals? I think so, and I don’t want to see the same article come out from a recent mathematics Ph.D. in a few years, not so much because it makes us look bad as because it would reflect a failure on our part to properly advise the student.

    It is obvious that not everyone will become as successful as Laura and Amie, but there are a substantial number of prospective grad students who think not being as successful just means having roughly the same kind of job with roughly the same kind of working conditions, just at less well-known schools. In reality, not being as successful could mean trying to cobble together a living from several part-time positions paying $3000 per course (with no healthcare or other benefits) giving community college students who cannot add fractions the illusion of learning college algebra. Aspirations are good, but people also need to know the range of what can reasonably happen. We tell even very good high school basketball players aspiring to be the next Michael Jordan that it’s nice to have dreams, but chances are overwhelming they won’t even make it to the NBA, and they have to decide if it’s worth it to try. The odds here are not as bad, but the same principle applies.

  7. JSE says:

    Alexander, do you think every interview with an NBA player ought to emphasize that making it to the NBA is an unreasonable goal for almost all high school basketball players? I don’t, and it’s not because I think high school basketball players are much more well-informed about their realistic prospects than math grad students are.

  8. Alexander Woo says:

    Emphasize? No. Mention? Yes.

    (Just to be clear – I assume we are talking about in depth interviews here, not two lines after a game.)

  9. Alexander Woo says:

    On second thought, given the situation in basketball is surely much worse than in mathematics… Yes, substantial mention should be made of it. It’s not necessarily the fault of the basketball player either; the journalist should make a point of asking questions about it and include them in the piece. I’m fine with the player answering that it’s worked out for him and he thinks it would have been worth it even if it didn’t work out, but the issue should be raised prominently.

  10. Amie says:

    Alexander — I’m going to bring gender back into it. I can’t think of a single young woman interested in math who would say to herself, “I’m just going to pursue my interests, and I will be successful and land a job in a top research institution.” I wish there were more women who would, many more. I know a lot of women who see all of the pitfalls that you mention, and decide that it’s not sensible to try. You correctly see a crisis in the academic world in the underfunding of research positions and over reliance on temporary lectureships. I hear you. This is real and is a huge problem.

    I see an ever bigger crisis: an appalling lack of women at the higher levels of research mathematics. In terms of talent, there are many young ‘Laura’s and ‘Amie’s out there: the world is filled with gifted women. Just as many as gifted men. They do not go into math. Math suffers for it. I’m not going to be the one to tell them not to try. I’m going to be the one to say, go for it. You belong. Period.

  11. Andy P says:

    Alexander — I think you are making the situation out to be much, much worse than it actually is. Looking at the recent graduates of my current institution (Rice University; our PhD program is good but far from elite), most of the people who wanted academic jobs have gotten them. A substantial number are at small liberal arts colleges (though a decent number are at research universities), and thus they have high teaching loads. However, their situations are not at all like those of the adjuncts you describe. They’re on their way to getting tenure, they have good benefits and decent pay, etc. And the situation of people graduating from elite places is even better; my classmates from the University of Chicago had no trouble finding jobs.

    I think the big difference between math and the other subjects you describe (ie the NBA and the humanities) is that the price of failure is tiny. If you have a PhD in math and reasonable social skills, then it is *easy* to find a very well-paying job outside of academia, even in the current economy. So if someone is talented and enjoys math, then I feel no guilt about suggesting they go on to graduate school.

  12. Alexander Woo says:

    @Amie: I agree there is an appalling lack of women at the higher levels of research mathematics. I agree it is important for gifted young women to know that there is a real possibility of a research career in mathematics. (I hate that there are no good words for probabilities in the 25-45% range.) I agree that many gifted young women need to be told it is a possibility for them and encouraged to consider it. I agree women particularly need to be told this because there is still an appalling shortage of role models for them. I think it’s a great thing that you are giving such encouragement. I also think that individuals, when they are encouraged to try to help solve this problem, should also be informed of the risks to their own lives. I’m not saying you had to be the one of the three of you to mention these risks.

    I realize the following is a ridiculous analogy for a number of reasons, but there is a similar logic. We have an appalling lack of knowledge about how to treat cancer. It is important that various treatments be tested to see how they work, and there is no way to test treatments except on actual patients. Nevertheless, doctors are supposed to make sure patients are as informed as they can be about both the benefits and risks of experimental treatments before trying them on patients, even if this means some ideas for treatments end up never tested because of a lack of willing patients. (The biggest flaws in this analogy are that the worst outcome of graduate school is not nearly as bad as the worst outcome for an experimental cancer treatment, and that prospective graduate students are in a much better position to inform themselves than cancer patients.)

    @Andy: My count of the people I went to graduate school with (at Berkeley) is quite different. Just counting the ones who finished their PhDs, about half are no longer in academia. Did they want academic jobs? This question doesn’t have a simple answer; I think all of them would have preferred a tenure track job at a major research university in a suitable location over their current jobs, but they couldn’t get those jobs and prefer their current jobs to the academic jobs they could get.

    Looking more broadly at other mathematicians I know, some are six or seven years out of graduate school and still in temporary positions, and I mean 1-year VAPs, not a second or third postdoc. I know someone looking at unemployment for the next academic year, in part because relocating for yet another temporary job does not work for her family. I know people with PhDs in mathematics making about $30K a year as full time lecturers. I don’t personally know anyone making $3000 per course, but I do know math departments that have hired adjuncts with PhDs at that salary. Yes these are the worst cases, but at the same time they are not freak anomalies.

    Let me make another ridiculous argument, in this case saying that encouraging someone to go into math is actually worse than encouraging someone to play basketball. With a good BA in math and some programming skills, one can get a job in software paying $75K a year, with yearly $5K raises until $110K. It takes 5 years to get a PhD in math, and a decent paying program now pays about $20K a year. After that, one can get a job in software paying $90K, with yearly $5K raises until $110K. Adding it all up, the math PhD costs the student $350K in lost earnings. In contrast, the basketball player can either take a $10/hr job, or spend 5 years failing to make it to the NBA and then end up in a $10/hr job. Trying to make it to the NBA only costs the basketball player $100K in lost earnings. (The biggest flaw in this argument is that $100K to someone making $10/hr is probably a much bigger deal than $350K to someone making $110K a year.)


    I realize at this point some psychological full disclosure might be necessary, and if you think this makes me a zealot not to be listened to, it’s possible you’re right. Before graduate school, I spent two years working in computer consulting. I did miss doing mathematics, but from the descriptions above I don’t think I missed it nearly as much as Jordan or Amie, and doing mathematics is something I could give up, even if I would prefer not to. The reason I really left was because, in my opinion, the consulting industry continually lies (mostly by omission) to its clients about the capabilities and quality of its work, and furthermore, because clients are sufficiently ignorant, any company that was really honest would find itself at such a competitive disadvantage it would shortly be out of business. I don’t actually care that much about money, but in terms of lost earnings, that decision has cost me about $500K and counting. So I might have a big psychological investment in what I perceive as issues of full disclosure.

  13. Richard Séguin says:

    I left math a long time ago after a few years in grad school and started working with computer software. There were various reasons for this, but those are not important for the original theme that JSE advanced here. The problem was that math did not leave me, and I soon found myself working on some ideas that I had hatched in grad school. Then in early middle age I found myself distracted for a while by a love for landscape photography, and then finally was crushed by a (rare) and long-undiagnosed medical condition that eventually made it difficult for me to even read my old math notes. After years, I finally got relief and immediately that old math area of my brain started to perk up again and I slowly started working and writing again. Now it’s clear to me that not exercising that math aspect to my brain, nurtured since high school, beginning with several summer NSF programs, needed constant attention and nurturing, for if not, something felt amiss, neglected and stagnant. Now in retirement, I still take little vacations from math—I recently read a number of novels—but then I’ll have a distressing dream that I’m somewhere, horribly late getting to somewhere I’m supposed to be, and then I slowly begin working again.

  14. Nonlinearity says:

    I agree that one should assume, without it being explicitly stated, that the people in the AMS interview are not representative. I’ve seen several biographical interviews like that in the AMS notices and they are always leading figures, not random Joes or Josettes with PhD’s. It would be rather uninteresting to read interviews with such people since I pretty much know the usual paths that mathematicians take. I found the interviews interesting.. especially the parts about how much of an effect outside encouragement had in enhancing their careers.

    But I do disagree that math PhDs can very easily get satisfying careers. I went to a top school and several people I knew have pretty awful careers. I was like that for a while myself. It may be true that if they were more socially well-adjusted they’d not have these problems, but let’s face it, there are a lot of oddballs going to math grad school who probably don’t come off too well in interviews or in the workplace.

  15. […] post was shared on University of Wisconsin mathematician Jordan Ellenberg’s blog and received this […]

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