Math and Programming

A blog about my love of mathematics, functional programming, and computers.

Why I Left Academic Mathematics

| Comments

I want to write something about why I decided to leave academic mathematics. I feel I owe it to colleagues and friends I’ve worked with, and I want to force myself to think clearly about my reasons. Aside from a few close friends, I haven’t talked to many people about this yet.

Things that aren’t reasons I’m leaving

Right away, I’d like to clear up some misconceptions people might have about my decision.

I’m not leaving because I felt I wasn’t good enough

or that I wasn’t smart enough to make it. It’s usual, in a field like mathematics, to feel dumb or to feel like you’re failing or not getting anywhere. I’ve had my fair share of this. But I made progress often enough, and enough people had confidence in me that I never really doubted my own ability to suceed. I wasn’t the smartest or the quickest mathematician (not even close) but I am smart enough.

When I talked to my advisor about my decision to leave, he told me that he thought I had the potential to become a good academic mathematician (which, if you know my advisor, is one of the biggest compliments I’ve ever recieved). So there was never really any doubt about my ability to have a successful academic career.

I’m not leaving because of the people or the culture.

Although I’m certain that leaving mathematics is the right thing for me, it’s also not an easy decision. I’m choosing to leave a community of exceptionally intelligent, enthusiastic, quirky, fun, and kind people. It’s hard for me not to think of it as a betrayal; these people encouraged me, answered my dumb questions, went out for beers with me, let me stay with their friends and put up with me for a month (Ric, Catherine), and invited me to give talks.

The community of Geometric Group Theorists (particularly you Out() and mapping class people) is a wonderful one, and I will miss attending conferences and events terribly (oh man, I’m kind of tearing up writing this part).

And if there’s any doubt about this, I still love mathematics.

The reasons

Let’s start with the easy one:

I don’t really enjoy teaching at a university.

I love explaining things I’m excited about to people. Ask any of my friends or mathematical acquaintances: if I get excited about something, I will try to explain it to you, and you will probably get annoyed with me if you spend enough time around me.

I hate dealing with all the bureaucratic crap that comes with teaching. I’m tired of all the students who don’t want to be there. I’m tired of students trying to get me to change their grade.

I loved talking to students one-on-one in office hours. It gave me a good chance to get an idea of where they stood mathematically and tailor my explainations to them. Unfortunately, most of the students who showed up to office hours for help were the good students. The bad students that showed up were almost always there to ask me to change a grade.

I really did care about teaching the material and trying to pass my excitement about mathematics along to the class. But I’m also of the philosophy that if a student wasn’t willing to try, I wasn’t going to put in any extra effort to babysit their education (which probably explains why my mediocre-good students gave me excellent reviews and really liked me, while the bad ones consistently trashed my teaching in reviews).

I have lots of hobbies

My greatest flaw as a mathematician (just winning out against my distain for working out details) is that I had too many other hobbies. I firmly believe that a good academic mathematician (at least in their graduate school and post-doc years) needs to be obsessed with their research. You can have other hobbies, but given the choice, you’d ultimately pick mathematics over them if push came to shove.

I have nothing but respect for people that have the ability to do that. I don’t. I heard a lot of advice of the form “you should get really good at one thing” or “you should pick something you’re really passionate about and do that.” I’ve spent more time that I’d care to admit thinking about why I didn’t have that one thing I was really passionate about. I’ve often wondered what was wrong with me. I mean, I love mathematics, but I can’t see myself doing only that for the rest of my life. In fact, I couldn’t think of one thing I’d give up everything else for.

I love math. I love to ride my bike. I love to work on bikes. I love to play video games. I love to problem solve. I love to code. I love to learn about computer science. I love to read. I love to build things. I love to think about philosophy. I tried for a long time to pick one (math) and force myself to love it above everything else, and I think it made me really unhappy for a long time.

My ephiphany? There is actually something I’m passionate about, and it’s something I missed my entire adult life until extremely recently. I’m passionate about learning new things. About solving problems. About not getting bored doing the same thing over and over.

I need time (and money) to have hobbies.

I need to be able to obsess about things that aren’t my job.

I don’t like to move

As anyone who’s ever been at a conference with me can tell you, I don’t like being away from the things that help me de-stress.

Let’s list some of those things: a bike, a coffee shop I like, video games, the places I normally eat, good internet.

I enjoy some degree of consistency in my life, and I don’t feel an academic life can provide this. The idea of moving for a post-doc and eventually a tenure track job every 3 years for the next 6-9 years sounds terrible to me. This is compounded by the fact that I wouldn’t get to pick where I’d be moving.

I want to chose where I live.

I want the ability to have a stable relationship.

“But wait!” you say. “I know lots of mathematicians, even grad students who have partners and even kids.” That’s true. But those families move around with that mathematician. My girlfriend happens to have a good software job in my favorite part of the country (which has great weather, lots of jobs, and great mountain biking). And even if I were single, the notion of being able to have a serious relationship without asking the other person to move every three years (or doing long-distance) would be attractive.

Let’s talk about money

I’m not leaving to get rich, but I believe that the hard work and talent of most mathematicians goes unrewarded. These are people who work absurd hours, deal with piles of bullshit from university administrators and students, and still manage to produce original research and educate undergrads. Unless you’re one of a handful of super-star mathematicians, you will get paid as much as or less (at a tenure/tenure-track position) than many first-year software developers fresh out of college.

I appreciate that people are so passionate about mathematics that they’re willing to put up with that. I’m not.

I would be happy with enough money to have a nice apartment/house, have a nice bikes, buy loved-ones nice things for birthdays/holidays, and travel some.

Please don’t take this the wrong way

Any mathematicians reading this, I don’t mean to offend. I really am in awe of people who love math so much that they’re willing to put up with all the things I described. I don’t understand it, but I think it’s amazing.

I will miss it.