*Concerns of Young Mathematicians*
An electronically distributed digest for discussions
of the issues of concern to mathematicians at the
beginning of their careers.
Volume 3, Issue 22
July 19, 1995
Advice Regarding Nonacademic Employment
I have noted several excellent recent articles on industrial prospects
for new graduates. I have had some modest technical industrial experience
dating back a few years so I am qualified to express an informed opinion.
This article is directed at those several years back in the graduation
pipeline since it is usually too late if you have not picked up on these
comments by graduation.
First of all, let me be on record as encouraging a healthy consideration
of career paths other than classical academic employment. With today's
job prospects in academia and the current production levels of new mathematics
graduates competing for them, any prudent person would be unwise not to
consider and prepare for several employment options. I am certainly not
negative against a career in academia, merely realistic.
On the other hand, I do have to caution against viewing industry as being
a sponge to soak up every new surplus PhD. I encourage exploration of various
careers, but be realistic. Most American industries, governmental agencies,
and national labs that have been traditional employers of large numbers
of new graduates are having some major problems of their own these days.
They should not be viewed as openhanded charity organizations dedicated
to solving the problems of every young mathematician the schools turn out.
The work in industry is somewhat different than college teaching. The work
assignments, your career advancement, and your survival chances doing layoffs
are enhanced if you are a mentally flexible individual. The most valued
employees are those that are capable of receiving a new assignment in an
area related to but different than their last project. (A barbed joke was
that he/she wasn't very useful since all they could do was extend their
thesis.) This often means a great deal of self education and learning from
peers. Since one is often under time constraints, efficiency in learning
is essential. People who have excelled in formal course work may or may
not prove adaptable. Many studies over many years have shown that there
is little if any positive correlation between a high GPA and earnings five
to ten years after graduation. Certainly, success in formal schooling is
something to be proud of and never hurts; I merely point out that long
term success is a combination of several attributes in a person -- and
a big dose of luck.
At the top of the list is an ability to formulate a problem from a nebulous
set of often conflicting conditions. Some math graduates function extremely
well when presented with a clearly stated formal problem and objectives
but flounder when having to abstract and model a problem from scratch in
the midst of panic and confusion. Your value on critical projects, especially
on the critical path in the PERT chart, is often directly related to mastering
this skill. Take math modeling courses and otherwise develop some empirical
skills while retaining ability in formal analysis.
One of these sets of attributes that is sadly not stressed as much as it
should be in formal studies is an ability to clearly communicate. Engineering
memos, technical reports, design studies, etc., are rarely the equivalent
of the great American novel. That is not their purpose. However, they do
have to be well written in clear, technical, well punctuated English. People
in a large corporation first know you by your writing; alas, there is usually
NOT the time to rewrite and reword and ponder that exists when writing
most math articles. A senior manager or chief engineer often has less than
10 minutes to review a typical technical memo. He will pick up the next
one in the stack, regardless of the quality and merit of the analysis,
if the first couple of paragraphs are an English teacher's nightmare come
true. That's not right, and it is not good sense, but that is what happens.
Learn to write well. I know; I wish somebody had said this paragraph to
me in my 20's.
Similar advice applies to speaking and public presentations as well as
personal interreactions. Be sensitive to the fact that these skills are
extremely important. Develop a positive, professional, style and presence.
Never forget; "would a boss interested in advancing his/her own career
want YOU representing him or her in front of the customer or their OWN
Learn to establish priorities. I went to Case Institute of Technology at
a time when T. Keith Glennon was president. In that era, there was there,
by policy, three times more hours of homework and test preparation per
week than could be accomplished in all of a sane person's waking hours.
The whole point, although I was too overworked to appreciate it then, was
to force one to learn to spend most of your time at those tasks which brought
the best payoff. Glennon had been the first head of NASA in its glory days.
He knew the real world. In industry, one should start worrying about your
job security when presented with ample time to clear items off your desk.
You are most valuable when everybody wants you to do something at once
so you have to stay focused on the two or three most important. The trick
is to learn to identify which ones they are.
This essay will close with the following comment. There are many bright
bodies out there with PhDs looking for jobs these days. There are also
many excellent PhD level jobs for which a PhD is NOT absolutely required
although it certainly would be helpful. So WHY should an employer hire
sweet, wonderful little old YOU with YOUR PhD when he has a drawful of
impressive resumes resulting from any job notice appearing today in a widely
circulated source. The days when an employer would hire a bright young
lad or lass with a fresh sheepskin and then spend two to three years grooming
them to be useful are mostly golden history. So adapt; learn at least one
trade while in school. Seriously, develop AND DOCUMENT solid actual job
related skills and experience whenever possible, even if your goal is to
teach at CalTech. Don't even knock the lowly off campus summer job as a
technical grunt. I cussed one at the time; it later was more valuable than
any five courses I ever took. Plan so that when you graduate you have an
clear helpful answer other than "Dah!" to the question "Do I have identifiable
specific skill(s) sufficiently learned that an employer who wants to get
some, in demand, real task done NOW for real MONEY would hire me?" How
could I prove it to him/her?" These are the types of questions one should
ask oneself at the start of every quarter or semester. After graduation
is often too late.
C. E. Mannix Jr.