Instead let me just tell you my story, and how I ended up where I am today, soon to graduate with a PhD in mathematics with what I see as relatively rich career options.
But the tacit assumption is that I would go to college. I grew up in a very small rental house on a ranch we didn’t own, in a rich white town in the SF Bay Area. My parents moved there because the public schools are highly rated. To give you a taste of my living situation: we had a wood stove for heating, so every Summer I chopped and stacked wood; we had no water running from the city, instead we collected and filtered rain water, meaning daily showers were a sorely missed luxury; and we lived too far in the boonies for high-speed internet, so we had dial-up and later satellite internet (which is still pretty awful). So my parents were far from rich, but they could afford to send me to Cal Poly State University, which I picked over UC Davis mainly for the price difference (a few thousand bucks a year).
At Cal Poly you apply to a chosen major, so I picked computer science. But that misrepresents my mindset. I loved to program, no doubt, but I had nearly as great experiences in my English and German courses, with video production, public policy debate, music, and writing. Ironically I disliked math, physics, chemistry, and biology, though I did well in all of those classes. I had been doing Tae Kwon Do and Boy Scouts for six years and at the end of high school I got my black belt and achieved Eagle Scout.
So I had pretty wide interests. And while I knew computer science was lucrative, I spent a lot of time in college pursuing other things. I wrote a column about music for an online newspaper. I tried reading Harry Potter in German. I did creative writing. I learned to play the guitar, harmonica, didgeridoo, and a few other instruments. I took two performance literature classes, and at the end of the second my professor suggested I apply to a graduate program in performance literature. By that time I knew I wanted to study mathematics, but still on two separate occasions I performed slam poems I wrote about math and CS (another story for another time).
By the end of my freshman year I landed a part time job working for a startup called CreateSpace, which does on-demand publishing and has offices in downtown San Luis Obispo. They hired the best CS students from Cal Poly to work part time. The hiring manager was actually my algorithms professor. When CreateSpace was bought by Amazon, the clear path was to move up to Amazon, and now some of my old bosses and coworkers are software engineers or managers at AWS, Microsoft, Google, etc. The next Summer I did an internship at Amazon, deciding afterward that Amazon wasn’t where I wanted to be (another story for another time). I was at the top of my CS classes, honed my skills, and found myself with lots of opportunities. The next Summer I got an offer to be one of Marissa Mayer’s project management interns at Google. I declined, was followed up with an offer to be a software engineer intern, and declined again.
This was the first point in my life when I had to start making big decisions. I don’t doubt that if I had gone to be a PM intern, I’d have done well enough to stay in that business, or maybe become an entrepreneur and land either in the gutter or make it big, or just get by. I also don’t doubt I would have succeeded as a software engineer. Everyone around me was telling me to go to Google. So why would I turn them down?
One reason was logistic. I was planning to study abroad in Hungary the next Fall, and unless I squeezed and contorted my schedule uncomfortably tight I wouldn’t have had time to do both. But I probably could have made it work if I wanted to.
But the better reason was because I had found what I really enjoyed, and it wasn’t project management, and it wasn’t typical software engineering. In fact, over my time at Cal Poly I realized that computer science was split into two parts, one part I really enjoyed and one part I found disgusting. I disliked systems programming, operating systems, networking, security, hardware architecture, and most anything that involved “dirty hacks” and low-level details. It’s inelegant, and I cringed in horror every time I did something like modify the call stack or intentionally induce buffer overflows. The things I liked were programming languages, compiler design, algorithms, abstraction, and writing simple, elegant, intuitive code. Slowly, gradually, it dawned on me that what I enjoyed was mathematics. The mathematical aspects of CS were what got me excited and kept me up at night working on projects.
And so I signed up for a math minor, learned to write proofs, felt extremely stupid all the time, and switched from a CS major to a math major (for political reasons I couldn’t double-major, despite having basically completed the CS major). I studied math in Hungary for a semester, which was wonderful, and I did well enough to get into the math PhD program at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
The Summer after I graduated, I decided I had too much awesome stuff in my head that nobody wanted to hear me talk about at parties, so I started a blog called Math Intersect Programming, where I revel in the glory of my two favorite things (math and programming). I write about the cool algorithms and applications I come across, use it as an excuse to learn about new math topics, and I write mostly with myself as the target audience. The blog has since become somewhat popular, and I get a surprising number of emails proposing I drop out of school and go work for company X. I make a nontrivial chunk of change from advertising and donations.
During graduate school I tried studying pretty much every math topic there was to study. Logic, algebra, geometry/topology, combinatorics, and finally I landed on theoretical computer science. Roughly speaking, this field is the part of mathematics that seeks to prove theorems about what computers can do (or better, cannot do!). You can go a more applied route where you run experiments in code, but I like the theorem proving part more.
During my PhD I did internships and part time work for two government labs. While they were fine and presented perhaps the best job security any person could hope for, it’s not where I want to end up long term (another story, another time).
So here I am, on the eve of my final year in graduate school, about to spend many months on the job market. Without trying to sound pompous, my prospects are surprisingly wide. I’m going to make a serious push for a good academic fellowship and a high-end postdoc. But in addition I have my eye on a few teaching institutions that seem like they would be a good fit for me. These obviously have lower pay, but one natural transition would be to education reform (US math education is in dire need of an overhaul). Then there is finance. PhDs in math are well known for going to Wall Street, and I have both friends who want to start hedge funds with me and friends who have already started hedge funds without me. I could always go back into software, and since I have built up a nice reputation through my blog I don’t think I’d have too much trouble getting a job. My radar includes a few of the more mathematically-leaning software jobs. And then, I could respond seriously to the cold emails I get, or become a mathematical consultant, or try to become a math and science writer. I’m happy with all my opportunities, and I’m certain I am happier now than I would have been as a dev/dropout or a project manager.
So what advice can I give? I’m not “successful” yet, and don’t really have an established career yet. But I have some observations I think are useful. I was talking with my friend Michael about this, and we agreed on a distinct difference between the advice our parents give us and what we see around us.
Our parents tend to see a job as a way to get income (and maybe get rich) so that they can retire early and then do what they really enjoy, or do what they love on the side. My father is the epitome of this view. He hates his job, wants to be a full-time adventurer (sailing, flying, backpacking, kayaking) but he never tried to make a career of it, opting instead of engineering and project management. When I told him I was planning to get a PhD, he told me it was a terrible idea because I’d have this huge gap of time I could have been using to make money if instead I’d gotten a masters degree (this was reflected by Cal Poly’s administration, which felt very rude and patronizing coming from a paper pusher). Then my dad flip-flopped because he read a statistic that the heads of big companies tend to have PhDs; so his reasoning was that I should get a PhD so that people know I’m smart and I can be a CEO. He has also tried very hard to get me into automated trading.
On the other hand, when I look around at my generation I see Youtubers, with what appear to be no skills at all (in the traditional sense), making a living with video game commentary or cooking while intoxicated or just getting lucky with one viral video and turning that into a career. I hear about people who love to be matchmakers starting a dating company, or people who love to make podcasts starting a podcasting company. I see people combining disparate things like crazy stunts and slow-motion cameras land advertising deals with Fortune 500 companies. I read a blog about a family’s struggles and joys around having a gender-nonconforming child, and if the author of that blog isn’t already doing this full time, I don’t doubt she could turn it into a career.
The message is clear. While you can go the traditional route of working just to work, an increasingly viable alternative is to (1) figure out what you love to do, what you’d do for free and for fun, and (2) turn that into a career. And you can tell if you’ve found that thing if you answer yes to the following question: would you accept a deal to do this job 9–5 for the rest of your life (no retiring) for a comfortable-but-not-excellent wage, let’s say $60k per year plus inflation (that’s roughly $20/hour counting no vacations). If someone offered me this deal to write about math and CS, I would take it in a heartbeat. I would never want to retire.
And maybe your passion is starting companies. Maybe it’s learning new languages or collecting rocks. Maybe it’s recreational mathematics or tinkering with electronics. Maybe it’s talking to strangers. I have yet to hear of a passion or pursuit that I’m convinced could not be turned into a career.
But my point is that it takes time to find a passion. You can’t drop out of school at 13 to go start companies and expect to be happy (or to make money, for that matter). Hell, it took me until the end of undergrad just to realize that I didn’t know enough about math, the thing I was just starting to feel passionate about, to know exactly what part of math I was passionate about. Without my education I would have missed my train entirely! But moreover, a broad education is a great way to have the time and security to try new things. And while more and more high school students are doing meaningful things in their teens, most high school staff are far too undertrained and overconstrained to give serious career guidance.
So that means you actually need to go try new things! My advice is to get over your college frat parties and alcoholism as quickly as possible. Go try surfing and rock climbing. Take an astrophysics class and an acting class. Plant a garden and cultivate bees. Read politics and science and fiction and interior decorating tips. Make a Youtube video or knit hats for cats. Take a metalworking class or a cooking class. Learn to use Illustrator and design a t-shirt. Learn to brew tea or ferment beer or kefir. Go to a storyreading. Any of these things can become careers.
And when you find something that sticks, you’ll do it so much that you’ll master it and you’ll find a way for people to pay you to do it. If it’s something many people do, you’ll find a way to be different. You’re a painter who likes Star Wars? Paint mashups or paint murals for tech startup offices. I’ll pay money for that. Find a niche that needs filling, and you’ll learn how to be entrepreneurial as you go.
Because you want pursue your passion on weekends and pine for retirement, or you can make your passion your job. I’m still figuring out how to do it myself, but I feel like I’m on the right track.