Selected From:

*Concerns of Young Mathematicians*
Volume 3, Issue 22
July 19, 1995

 An electronically distributed digest for discussions
of the issues of concern to mathematicians at the
beginning of their careers.


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 boss?"

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.

Good luck!

mannix@amath.washington.edu
C. E. Mannix Jr.