Monday, November 9, 2009

Still Right Here

This post was inspired by my lack of having posted anything else here in a while (2 months, to the day, apparently). Of course, if you've got nothing to say, which I don't, then not posting isn't a bad thing. Another inspiration for this post is that when I sat down to do "real work" (research, toward my Ph.D.) today, I found that I was on the last page of yet another notebook. Seems like a good time for reflection. I wish I could say that I felt like this last notebook had useful ideas. Or that I felt that way about any of the previous notebooks. I guess if it were true I might be out of here by now, or on my way out in the spring.

This post is fairly personal. The only thing you'll learn about, from reading it, is me. And I'm not a particularly interesting subject, I promise. Go find something else to do, there's plenty out there.

For some reason this academic year has been a huge source of confusion and frustration for me. I'm now in my 6th year of graduate school (for math, in case you forgot that part). For the past 5 years, I knew why I was here: I wanted to be a math professor. Maybe I still do, but I'm not so sure any more. My thesis advisor says he thinks I'd make a good prof at some small school, which was always the goal. And yet, I have a hard time convincing myself that this is still what I want. It's sort of an odd feeling to have your main plan in life for... a decade?... not really matter to you any more. Or, to maybe not matter.

I only have some vague idea(s) why I don't care as much about being a professor as I used to. I'll see what I can put into words, as much (more) for my benefit as yours (hopefully you stopped reading around the end of the second paragraph).
  • Research sucks. Or I suck at research. Or... something like that. I've been reading math books for fun since high school (after I read all the books on sharks at the local library, and then decided I wasn't one for the water). I still do. And I love reading about math. But perhaps "doing math" is not something I care much for. I know, I know... math isn't a spectator sport, and... if you aren't reading with a pencil and paper and trying to guess what comes next, you're doing it wrong. But F that. I love reading math, the way I read math. If the way I read math means I'm not a "real mathematician", then maybe I shouldn't be here anyway, or shouldn't be teaching the next batch of math students.
  • How am I supposed to be a professor, and tell my students how to learn math, if I don't do it myself? How can I tell my students to go home and work more problems (a habit I never had), and bang their heads against problems for a while (when, every time I sit down to do research I find something else to do as quickly as possible)?
  • Sure, I can tell my students about math. I can tell them definitions and theorems and how to work problems, and maybe even tie it all together in some meaningful way. But lots of people have already done that, and their work exists in textbooks and, increasingly, online.
  • Speaking of online, I feel like (and I know I'm not the only one) higher ed. (and probably other ed., and plenty more) is going to be going through a bit of an upheaval in the near future. I'm not sure I see how small, private, liberal arts colleges (like the one I went to, and always envisioned myself teaching at) are in a sustainable position currently. They are too expensive, and for what? I believe that many people are going to start recognizing that the diploma you get from such an institution isn't as valuable as, say, an impressive online resume, which is now something anybody can create with little effort (besides the "doing things that go on the resume" part). People can show everything they are capable of online, for everybody to see. What good is another diploma in relation to that? (I know that a diploma is still good... I'm not going to argue any of the things I say here)
  • And also, while I'm on the subject of "online"... the experts are out there posting work online. Awesome teachers are posting full lesson plans, and all sorts of incredible resources. And my students could get to it as easily as I can. What extra value do I bring to the table? A convenient face to bounce ideas off of, to ask questions to (before thinking about the problem long enough alone)? Scheduled hours when I'll be around? I think there is a place for web collaboration tools in education, and I'm not sure how I complete with the sorts of individuals that my students have access to online.
  • And a final thought: even going in to grad school, I was making a choice between grad school for math, or grad school for computer science. By the time senior year rolled around I was decided on math. I know at least one of my closest friends at the time was surprised. I sort of wish I had talked to my advisor and my CS professors a bit more about my decision, before making it. These days, I feel like I was probably wrong. I can spend all day online reading about computer/tech/programming stuff. I'll work on Project Euler problems, happily, until I solve them - in contrast to research, which I have a very hard time convincing myself to spend even an hour a day "doing". I don't know, maybe this is just a case of "the grass is always greener". Also, Project Euler problems, from what I've seen, aren't meant to be long, whereas math Ph.D. problems are sort of meant to take a little while. But what gets me excited are the projects I want to work on as a programmer, not as a mathematician.
Earlier this year I was at a party, and eventually the group I was sitting with decided to play a "tell me about yourself" sort of game. Mine was "I've been thinking about quitting grad school". Somebody asked me why I was still in it. "Inertia". They thought this was a good answer. To stay 5 years in grad school, and leave before getting a Ph.D. sounds like a pretty stupid idea, all around. But I was seriously considering it. A lease that runs until next summer, and no job prospects if I left, though, made it hard to leave. Around the same time as this party I had several talks with my advisor about what I wanted to do, and such. Eventually we decided I'd stick around into my 7th year and finish up, and then I could re-evaluate "be a professor" or "don't be a professor" at that point. That worked for a while. I'm basically back to wishing I'd just quit. I've also re-adopted my anti-social role, skipping most of the parties I've been invited to since. There are simply more interesting things to do. Which is the same problem I have with doing research.

So, anyway. I don't really know where I am. I don't really know where I am going. I'm apparently in not too much of a hurry to find out. I've killed another hour that I should have spent on research.

And, yes, the title of this post is a nod to Tool.


Rick Regan said...

The best advice I ever got was "finish your Ph.D., then do what you REALLY want."

sumidiot said...

Right on, thanks for passing that on. Hopefully by the time I'm getting out of here, I'll have some firm idea what it is I really want. Guess I'll find out...

Anonymous said...

too late to stop now (like van morrison sez... from "tool" i know nothing).

i never wanted to do research.
never felt like i'd be *able*
and my thesis didn't change
my mind. seven *more* years
hanging around with pros
and living in the library
might have done it but one
never knows ("... do one?"
as fats waller said but
that was before even my time).

teaching woulda been okay
if they didn't have all these
weird unstated expectations
about pretending to believe lies.
you're probably much more adept
socially than i ever was and
won't face the same obstacles.
there will be others.
trust no one.

sumidiot said...

Thanks, @Anonymous. I'm not too great with my music references... is the above a quote from somewhere? Or is it an original from you, and not a quote at all?

divisbyzero said...


Stick with it and finish! You clearly love math and it sounds like you enjoy teaching. The big challenge for you is to find the right job. The expectations of every school are different. There are some that require no research, others that insist on publications in top-tier journals, and there are schools with expectations everywhere in between. Different schools also have different definitions of what "scholarship" is. Publishing in Math Magazine or the CMJ counts at some schools, but not at others. Math Ed counts at some and not at others. Obviously the expected number of publications differ too.

One problem with graduate schools is that it instills in its students the belief that the goal for everyone is to end up at a school like the graduate school. Many people are made to feel like failures if they don't end up in such a school. In fact, most people don't end up at a top tier research university. We all know that there are many, many other types of excellent schools.

Also, if you end up in a small department, you will probably be able to use your computer expertise as a mathematician. You may be able to teach computer science classes.

Stick with it and find the right school for you.


sumidiot said...

Thanks, Dave, for the thoughtful reply and advice. Definitely helpful.

Tom said...

Hello Nick - I had seen your math blog, and asked you a question about diophantine approximations. You were kind enough to answer.

Yes, as Rick Regan said, finish the darned Ph.D. even if sometimes it feels like you're just trying to salvage the time you've already spent. You may have to spend a year or two in which you ruthlessly stop giving so much time to distractions. You'll know you've reached that point, when the way you know you've woken up in the morning is that you realize you've been thinking about your thesis topic for the last half hour.

After that, you may teach, work in industry or whatever you want. But my guess is that you will enjoy teaching at a small college.

sumidiot said...

Thanks, @Tom, for your thoughts. I've considered the "eliminate distractions" tactic in the past, but clearly haven't adopted it yet. I do believe that some of my distractions have cleared up, at least a little, and I think it's had a positive effect. I also like to think that actually putting time into some of my other distractions helps me focus on research when I make the time to do so. I'm not thinking "I wish I were working on..." as much, since I've already worked on it that day, or have scheduled into another part of my day.

Perhaps with New Years coming up, I should be making work-related resolutions...

Anonymous said...

I quit my Physics PhD pursuit after 5 years for similar reasons and because I was sick of being poor. Bad mistake. If you get your doctorate in math, companies will be happy to hire you as a computer programmer if you want, believe me (I've been one, and a circuit designer, systems engineer, etc.--it's having the degree in a technical area that counts!). And if you like programming so much, you can do programming in math research areas such as experimental mathematics! Otherwise, having a math degree means you can do software algorithm and high-level modeling work as well. To me, a math degree with a computer science interest is a win-win, but please finish your degree first or you'll regret how much that limits your future options. Just my opinion--good luck.

sumidiot said...

@Anonymous Thanks for the advice. It's always good to hear from somebody who's done what one is thinking about doing.

Matt said...

Hi Nick,

I'm going through a wave of Ph.D depression at the moment, and after a deflated Google search I stumbled across your blog. Not only are you another math student, you are mirroring so many of my feelings SO closely. I know I love teaching and I love mathematics in general, but I find myself completely lost when it comes to "figuring out what my research focus should be" ... let alone coming up with new, interesting, semi-relevant ideas. I feel like I lack the research passion that everyone tells me I should have if I want to do this job, and yet this is the only job I want, because I want to teach university students. Totally trapped!

For the record, I'm finishing up the third year of my Ph.D. at the University of Guelph in Ontario. I just wanted to tell you that you are definitely not alone! I wish I had some answers, but I'm looking for them myself. Here's hoping we find our way. :)

sumidiot said...

@Matt Good luck! Wish I had something helpful to say...