Career Related Article
Preparing for a Job Outside AcademiaStan Benkoski
From the Notices, October, 1994, p. 917-919.
Stan Benkoski is chair of the AMS-MAA-SIAM Joint Committee on Employment Opportunities and a member of the Subcommittee on Employment of the AMS Committee on the Profession.
The current difficult job market for Ph.D. mathematicians has been well documented by many sources. In July 1992 the AMS Task Force on Employment estimated that "the U.S. job market will demand around 800 new mathematical sciences doctorates per year over the next ten to fifteen years." The 1992 Annual Survey of new doctorates (Notices, November 1993) shows that U.S. institutions awarded 1,202 doctorates in the mathematical sciences between July 1, 1992, and June 30, 1993. This represents a tremendous imbalance in supply and demand. This imbalance is probably understated, since those statistics do not take into account the cumulative effect of the oversupply of doctorates in the years leading up to 1992--1993 and also do not account for the number of emigrant mathematicians who have come to the U.S. in recent years.
One of the recommendations of the AMS Task Force on Employment was that "the AMS use the various means available to it to make clear to the mathematical community the value of, and opportunities for, nonacademic employment." The purpose of this article is to attempt to respond, in part, to this challenge. In particular, these remarks will be directed at second-year graduate students.
(The information should also be helpful to any graduate or undergraduate student or to a faculty member who wants to learn more about mathematics in industry.) The goal is to provide information about the nonacademic job market and describe steps to prepare to obtain a job in that market.
For the purposes of this discussion, I will use the word "industry" to refer to the possible fields of employment that are outside of academia.
A couple of caveats are appropriate. First, most second-year graduate students have spent most of the last nineteen years in school. The academic environment is well known, understood, and comfortable. The effort to learn about nonacademic mathematics usually starts from a position of very little knowledge. Second, students will be required to do a lot of the work themselves. In particular, there is currently no single source which will provide comprehensive information about industrial mathematics.
The remarks that follow fall into three sections. First, I briefly describe my background in order to establish my credentials and biases. Second, and perhaps most important, is a somewhat philosophical discussion about the differences between employment within academia and outside academia. I believe that seeking a position (and being successful) in industry requires a different mindset than in academia. If this different mindset is not achieved, then the specific suggestions in the third section are unlikely to be successfully employed.
I have worked for Wagner Associates for twenty-one years. We are a consulting firm in mathematics, operations research, and software development. In the thirty-one-year history of the firm, we have worked on a wide variety of problems. The vast majority of our work has been funded by government agencies. In particular, the Department of Defense (in various guises) has been our biggest sponsor. A lot of our work has been in the search for lost objects, such as satellites or sunken ships.
I received my Ph.D. in number theory from The Pennsylvania State University in 1973. My academic training was in pure mathematics: I did old-fashioned elementary number theory. (My Erdos number is 1.) The experience of looking for a job in 1973 gives me some empathy with current job seekers.
While my academic training was in pure mathematics, I had three summer jobs which used applied mathematics. Two of these were government jobs. The technical work in these jobs involved operations research and software.
I first made contact with Wagner Associates at the Employment Register at the Joint Mathematics Meetings in 1973. Wagner Associates was (and still is) unusual in that when hiring, it sought research quality in mathematics and not necessarily an education in applied mathematics. However, I am sure that my work experiences allowed me to stand out from the crowd.
I personally found the transition to industry to be a relatively easy one. (Some of that ease of transition must be attributed to my previous experience with summer jobs.) I have thoroughly enjoyed the breadth and depth of work that I have done. However, it is quite different from an academic experience. Each individual has different priorities and goals, which may or may not fit into an industrial setting.
The change in philosophy that is required for an effective industrial job search can be summed up in two sentences. In academia, you get hired if they believe that you are smart. In industry, you get hired if they believe that you can help them.
The graduate student must assume 100\% of the responsibility for finding out what opportunities are available and for convincing an industrial employer that he or she could make a contribution.
At one level, mathematics is like the arts (philosophy, drama, music, etc.). It is intrinsically valuable, and our society supports that endeavor. The arts enrich our lives and are part of the "examined" life. However, on another level, mathematics is quite different from the arts. In particular, our society spends a much greater proportion of its capital in support of mathematics than the arts. We like to think mathematics is somehow a high-level endeavor that is intrinsically superior to other studies. The crass truth is that mathematics receives greater financial support primarily because it is an "enabling technology." Its application and practical use are what gives it a privileged position.
The perspective of business is quite different from that of academic mathematics departments. Few businesses believe that they can afford basic mathematical research, and they probably cannot justify it to their stockholders. As an institution, the interest a business has in a mathematician is based on the need to solve problems requiring mathematics. The company's desire is to do something better, faster, smaller, cheaper, etc. Mathematics is a means, not an end. Industrial mathematics problems rarely appear as such. The value a mathematician brings to industry is the ability to see a problem which is posed as a real, practical problem (or perhaps see something that is not even perceived as a problem), state that problem in mathematical terms, and proceed to develop insight into the problem which results in quantifiable improvements.
As a mathematician who has worked in industry for many years, it is amusing and somewhat annoying to observe the negative correlation between the job prospects for mathematicians and the academic mathematics community's interest in greater involvement in industry. If the academic mathematics community really believed that doing mathematics in industry is a noble profession, then the community would be interacting with industry and sending a share of the best students into industry in good times as well as bad. But the interest ebbs and flows with the job market, and, when hard times hit, industrial opportunities get more attention.
In this section, I give some specific suggestions for ways to learn more about industrial employment. These are:
- College career centers
- Reading/seminars/short courses, etc.
- Academic classes in a broad range of subjects
Many college career centers are excellent places to learn about industrial employment. Most of the information provided there concerns industrial employers. A great deal of literature is available that describes what these employers do and the skills and talents they require. In addition, some of these employers may be looking for part-time, internship, or summer help. Visit this center and find out what they have to offer.
One of the goals of this process is to learn about applications of mathematics by reading, attending seminars, attending short courses, etc. SIAM puts out a number of publications that would be useful. (For example, the March 1994 issue of SIAM News contains an article on the use of linear programming to maximize delinquent account strategies in the consumer credit business.) In addition, the SIAM Mathematics and Industry Project is directed at improving the match between graduate education and industry. The Journal of Operations Research would be a good place to start to learn about operations research. Other good topics are biotechnology and digital signal processing.
Taking academic classes in fields other than mathematics in order to expand one's knowledge of application of mathematics is another useful idea. The most directly applicable courses will be in computer science. Computer science comes first and foremost, because almost any summer or part-time job will involve writing software. Most full-time jobs require (as a minimum) a working knowledge of software and may well require the ability to write good code. Other suggestions would be numerical analysis, biology, economics, engineering, physics, statistics, and operations research.
The most important suggestion is to actually work in an industrial environment. Doing so provides experience in what goes on in an industrial job as well as an opportunity to determine one's aptitude for, and interest in, industrial employment. (Of course, any one particular experience is a very small and biased sample of industrial employment. Another job at the same company or a different company could be a totally different experience.) In addition, the best reference when applying for a job is solid evidence that one has already accomplished something similar.
How does one get such experience? One of the best bets is summer employment (part-time work is also useful). There are two basic sources of summer jobs---government and business. The government is probably the best source, since there are fewer institutions to contact and there are often specific programs to support summer employment. The government also has employment offices which have lists of available positions and directions on how to apply.
Large companies have personnel offices which can provide the same kind of information. These methods can be successful, but they require work. There are also online services such as Help Wanted---USA (telephone 813-725-9600 for information), E-span employment database (telephone 800-682-2901 for information).
An even better method is to get a contact inside the company. One approach to this is called networking. Talk to your friends, acquaintances, professors, etc. Let it be known that you are looking for summer employment. The campus career center may also be able to help.
One very effective process is known as consult visits or informational interviews. A consult visit consists of a twenty-minute interview with someone in industry who is involved in applying mathematics. The steps in the process are:
- Develop a list of names and addresses of individuals involved in mathematics in industry
- Research the company and the person you will visit
- Write letters to some of those individuals
- Make follow-up phone calls
The first step in this process is to find individuals who may be appropriate for consult interviews. The AMS Membership List is a good source of names and addresses of mathematicians who live in your vicinity and work outside academia. For example, I was recently asked to speak at the University of North Texas on the job opportunities in industrial mathematics. I found that the AMS Membership List contains eleven companies in the greater Dallas area that have employees who belong to AMS, MAA, and/or SIAM. There was a total of 107 listed members who are not associated with a college or university. This appears to be a rich source of possible contacts for consult interviews.
Prior to the consult interview, a substantial amount of preparation is required. In particular, one must know what sort of business the company is in and as much as possible about the individual who will be interviewed. Sometimes this can be accomplished by simply calling the company and asking for appropriate information. Other sources include the library, online newspapers, Hoover Handbook Company Profiles, trade magazines, etc. At the minimum, you should know what the company's main lines of business are.
Following is an example of a consult letter. This should be tailored as much as possible by mentioning the company name, the kind of work it does, and so on.
In the follow-up phone call, simply mention that you are following up on your letter and would like to know if it would be possible to schedule a twenty-minute appointment to discuss the application of mathematics in that particular company.
The interview itself should be conducted as an interview of an expert. The objective is to determine how mathematics is being used (or could be used) at that company. If, during the interview, the discussion moves toward possible part-time, internship, or summer work, then this is a golden opporEhtunity.
At the end of the interview, ask the individual if he or she can recommend anyone else who could provide information on mathematics in industry. Follow-up on those leads. Send a thank you letter within three days of the consult interview.
Some diligent work with consult interviews should produce a much better idea of what is done in industrial mathematics plus some possible leads for summer or part-time jobs.
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Effectively investigating industrial mathematics is not an easy task. It does not require advanced skills, but these skills simply are not taught in academia. It does require a serious commitment of time.
The result of such an effort might be the realization that only an academic career is of interest. On the other hand, such an effort might generate a set of rich and challenging opportunities in industrial mathematics.