Yesterday I was happy to receive the following email from Ryan Croke at the Department of Mathematics, Colorado State University. He had read the article I wrote for the AMS notices regarding moving from the academic to the startup world and had similar views on a number of subjects, especially those related to the insularity of academia and its lack of acceptance of other options. I had stayed shy of delving into the full details of how I perceive the situation in the article itself. Below is an excerpt from Ryan’s email, which I thank him for allowing me to post, where he discusses some of these issues.

I am graduating this year with a PhD in mathematics and my experiences have been eerily similar to yours. I recently got a job with Raytheon, a defense contractor. I was applying for postdocs, but once contacted by Raytheon I realized there are other opportunities out there.

What spoke to me about your article is the heretical nature of working in industry prevalent in academia. I am at Colorado State University, a third tier research university. Even here the idea of going to industry is blasphemous. I routinely hear faculty, who have never worked outside of university, pan industry because it is “restrictive” and you “don’t have freedom.” It’s incredible.The biggest disservice is done to the grad students. Every year I see students scratch and claw to go to universities they don’t really want to go without even considering working outside of academia. Many of them have skill sets that would be very successful in business but they never give themselves the opportunity. And, as you say in your article, we have a unique skill set that makes (most of us) very malleable and amenable to vastly different industries.

Between you and me, I find the whole system ridiculous. My colleagues are writing letter after letter, competing with hundreds of other people for positions that pay little and may have to go to places they don’t want to. The entire process with Raytheon took under four weeks. It included 4 interviews, a background check, a bit of paperwork, and that’s it! I was one of 45 that got jobs that began with around 1100 applicants. According to Raytheon my strongest asset was my advanced degree in mathematics. Most mathematicians do not realize the gift they have (or learned) to assimilate new information quickly and solve problems and how that is useful in other areas.

I find it very strange that I will be working on projects that put peoples lives on the line and the process was so streamlined and efficient, but, some of my colleagues that will be going to liberal arts universities “just to teach” are going through a hellish process.

Anyway, I found your article refreshing and enlightening. I think that departments need to nurture and cultivate ties with industry and government. A corollary to few people considering jobs outside academia is that academia is flooded with possibly under qualified and out of place people. It’s crazy if you ask me. But, what do I know?

Thanks for the article,

Ryan

Ryan is a friend of mine from long ago. We started grad school together at OU. His experience at CSU is also pretty typical of the attitudes at OU. When I applied for a summer internship with the Office of Naval Research (which Ryan also applied for), I was told by an analysis professor that such things were “distracting,” and “would lead” me “away from mathematics”.

I’m now a postdoc at the National Severe Storms Laboratory, doing very similar things to what I did in mathematics, only on a much larger scale. I’ve tried to get my fellow grad students to branch out and take classes and look for research in other departments, with little success. There’s always a pretty lukewarm reception to the notion of doing “useful” math.

Very good to know you and Ryan are acquainted. There are many worthwhile pursuits out there – “pure” science is just one of the options. It is an unfortunate side-effect of the academic culture that the various choices are not discussed (this is not limited to academic math, or science as whole, by any means). The status quo has no good reason to be, for an open discourse would benefit many.

In my case, I looked around a few years ago, examined my employment opportunities, and made the choice to go looking. This is just where I ended up after a research assistantship and learning a lot of atmospheric science.

As one of those grad students who are less interested in “useful” math, I have to respectfully say that there is a place for everyone and every piece of math. Being “useful” or not doesn’t make math “good” or “bad.” I got into mathematics because I like playing with objects and finding ways to relate two things that seemingly have nothing in common. But that doesn’t make what I do any less than what you do; I admire what you do and find it fascinating to hear about, but I’ll stick with my little corner of the mathematical world and keep counting (something I really love to do). To each their own! Find what kind of math (or engineering, or journalism, or basketweaving) you enjoy, and do it!

I am also very tired of people ragging on “just teaching.” Some of us actually got into this whole grad school thing for the sole purpose of learning awesome math and then going off to share it with another generation of students who might become tomorrow’s Gauss, Newton, Abel, or Dirichlet. How are we supposed to expect anyone to learn mathematics at any level if we reserve the best minds for strictly internal work? Why not share that amazing intellect with everyone? Choose your path, but don’t demean my choice.

-Grad Student, CSU

There is no demeaning of mathematics here. As a matter of fact I’d say all who have contributed and most who read this blog have a lot of respect for the subject and think it definitely worthwhile – hence, the reason many of us chose math. Your comment is beside the point and simply emotional. I suggest a closer reading.

Ryan –

good luck with your choice. It’s a good one and you are opening doors for others.

Daniel –

I used to think that the ideal degree for nonacademic work would be a broad MS with math and stats in it, and in fact I started an MS program just like that at Georgetown University about five years ago. That program is doing very well by the way.

Since June of this year I have been working at Satmap Inc., a startup here in Washington DC that makes routing software to increase sales success in inbound call centers. Lots of statistical analysis of complicated and messy data, lots of optimization, lots of R. I am on unpaid leave of absence from Georgetown (Satmap is paying me) and will return there in August next year … at least that’s the plan. And with the experience of the last six months, I think that the abstraction capabilities and problem solving skills that one acquires in a good Ph.D. program could be even more useful.

That said, today’s Ph.D. programs in math typically aren’t designed to produce these kinds of graduates.

Good luck to both of you and I look forward to seeing more of this discussion.

Hans,

Thank you for the comment. I have to agree that good problem solving skills go a long way, as well as general interest to work on questions that have both mathematical and non scientific components. Many of the the problems I think about regularly are not “mathematical” in any way, but are nonetheless interesting as well as important to the task at hand. It takes a certain kind of person to do mathematics and also a certain kind to not just do math. I am curious to hear about the details of the MS program you started, as well as what you think might be good ways to let students in mathematics, statistics, physics, etc know that the choice is not solely between Wall Street and academia. (Of course, it is also not between WS, academia and startups, but if this became common knowledge it would be a good start. )

The work at Satmap Inc. sounds really good; looks like Gale-Shapley meets 21st century – would love to learn more….