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Starting Our Careers: A Collection of Essays and Advice on Professional Development from the Young Mathematicians' Network

Curtis D. Bennett and Annalisa Crannell, editors
Publisher: 
American Mathematical Society
Publication Date: 
1999
Number of Pages: 
116
Format: 
Paperback
Price: 
25.00
ISBN: 
978-0821815434
Category: 
General
[Reviewed by
George Ashline
, on
01/10/2000
]

As the title suggests, the intended audience for Starting Our Careers is recent Ph.D.s in mathematics. In particular, the book is well suited for those mathematicians who have just completed the "most crucial stage" of their careers in completing their dissertations, and are about to begin the "most crucial stage" of their careers in finding a position and beginning a career. As a relatively "young" mathematician myself, I am a member of this group, and have been faced with many of the issues discussed in the book. In this review, I will highlight some of my impressions of the features and qualities of this book.

The purpose of Starting Our Careers is a significant one: to provide a collection of articles and essays which discuss professional development issues for mathematicians. These issues are faced by all mathematicians, especially those having recently completed graduate school. Edited by Curtis Bennett and Annalisa Crannell, the text contains contributions of many mathematicians, ranging from experienced, established researchers to new members of the mathematical community. Many of the essays included in the text arose from some of the best discussions that took place in the weekly electronic newsletter entitled "Concerns of Young Mathematicians (CoYM). CoYM is the main publication of the group known as the Young Mathematicians Network (YMN). The YMN provides a forum for considering and addressing the problems of young (in terms of number of years after Ph.D.) mathematicians. Although the topics considered in the text are very pertinent to recent mathematics Ph.D.s, they will also be of interest to more established mathematicians who want to stay abreast of the current conditions faced by their junior colleagues. Anyone interested in learning more about concerns of young mathematicians should visit the YMN home page at http://www.youngmath.org/. This site provides more information about the YMN and CoYM, as well as links to useful resources on employment, teaching, grants, organizations, and policy. The home page also offers a link to the archives of CoYM for anyone wishing to access more discussions like the ones featured in this text.

Before continuing with a description of Starting Our Careers, it may be helpful to indicate a few areas which are not emphasized in it. Its focus is primarily not on the job application procedure and not on the tenure process. Since there are publications which already exist that address the woeful job market and finding positions in that market, Bennett and Crannell felt there was much more of a need to address a rarely considered area, that of the professional development of young mathematicians. Although one of the chapters does consider applying for tenure, Bennett and Crannell wished to concentrate more on issues felt in the early stages of a mathematical career. Perhaps the "most crucial stage" of applying for tenure and promotion would be worthy of a sequel to this text, in which could be considered other issues pertaining to concerns of more "experienced" young mathematicians. From the outset, it is clear that the focus of this book is on early career professional development, and that there are many issues in this context worth considering.

The illustration on the cover of Starting Our Careers summarizes the main areas of emphasis in the text. Depicted on the cover is a hand-held watch with hours divided into the areas of research, teaching, industry, publishing, grants, recommendations, jobs, and time. These significant topics are all considered from various perspectives in the text. I feel that this illustration is an effective representation of the many challenges faced daily by mathematicians in balancing the various components of professional life. Mathematicians in academia regularly must make important choices as to the amount of time to devote to teaching, research, and service activities. Although the ultimate decisions between these choices are personal and will depend on many circumstances, this text offers helpful guidelines for determining professional plans.

Bennett and Crannell have effectively laid out Starting Our Careers so that the early chapters describe issues in finding the right job, while the latter chapters consider concerns in creating a niche once a position has been found. In particular, the first two chapters include a variety of comments about finding a position in academics or in industry. The third chapter addresses some of the expectations of teaching at a small university or college (such as a four-year liberal arts college or community college). The next three chapters contain advice for maintaining and sustaining a research program, publishing results, and obtaining grants to fund more research, respectively. The next chapter offers a discussion on applying for tenure and includes "the excellent (and harrowing) descriptions" of one mathematician's experience of that process. Although containing details specific to his institution, Dana Mackenzie's The Tenure Chase Papers offers many points worthy of consideration by all involved in the tenure process. The final chapter emphasizes ways to become active and stay involved in the mathematical community.

The most salient feature of each chapter in Starting Our Careers is specific, concrete advice from mathematicians with a variety of experiences and insights. For instance, early in the book, one of the authors includes a sample consult letter which, after appropriate modification, could be used by anyone wishing to set up an interview with an applied mathematician in industry. Then, another author provides a contact list of agencies and companies offering summer internships in industry. Other authors describe methods to document success in academic positions, to maintain an active research plan when faced with many teaching responsibilities, to develop a lifelong commitment to teaching and scholarship, to avoid professional isolation and stay connected with colleagues at other institutions, to apply for NSF grants, and to become a more active contributor to your local institution and to the greater mathematical community. Through their varying writing styles and emphases, the authors recount useful experiences and anecdotes especially relevant to the professional goals of a young mathematician.

Each chapter begins with some useful introductory editorial comments, contains a variety of perspectives on the critical issues at hand, and ends with a list of references for further reading. These references are of particular importance to anyone wishing to learn more about these issues. Due to space considerations, I can't highlight all of these useful references, but will mention a few of them. For example, in the chapters on getting research published and becoming more involved in the mathematical community, the editors cite some pertinent articles by Paul Halmos. These are "What to Publish" (American Mathematical Monthly, 82 (1975) no. 1, 14-17) and "How to Talk Mathematics" (Notices of the AMS, 21 (1974), no. 3, 155-158). In the chapters on job and tenure applications, the editors mention several popular articles by Edward Aboufadel, including his "Job Search Diary" (FOCUS, 12 (1992), no. 5, 6; 13 (1993), no. 2, 3, and now, with his other "diaries," on MAA Online). I feel that these, like many of the other references given, provide helpful follow-up articles to the text. In these references, one can then find further citations, if so inclined. For example, one article which I find useful in describing the elements of a successful presentation is Joe Gallian's "How to Give a Good Talk" (Math Horizons, April 1998, 29-30). The reference lists provided at the end of each chapter provide a good place to begin looking for more such information.

In conclusion, I feel that Getting Started is a valuable resource for young mathematicians (and even more experienced ones) to explore ways of establishing and developing a niche in the mathematical community. I thought the epilogue was quite insightful, and I'll end with a quote from it:

The majority of this book is devoted to describing what you can do during your first years after your dissertation, and so we conclude with a brief exhortation about what we, the editors, believe you should do:

Do what you love, and do it with enthusiasm.

Certainly these are encouraging words which all mathematicians should take to heart!


George Ashline (gashline@smcvt.edu) is an assistant professor of mathematics at St. Michael's College in Colchester, VT. He is a member of Project NeXT, a program which focuses on improving the teaching and learning of undergraduate mathematics and addresses concerns of young mathematicians.

  • Applying for jobs
  • Industrial mathematics
  • Life in small schools
  • Doing research
  • What to do with your research once you've done it
  • Getting grants
  • Tenure
  • The active mathematical community
  • Epilogue: A pep-talk
  • List of authors
  • Index

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