Why I left academic mathematics

Jason Polak
4 min readSep 15, 2023

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In 2016, I received my PhD in mathematics from McGill University. All my life, I’ve loved mathematics and I still do. One of my first memories was finding the factorial button on a scientific calculator and figuring out on my own the strange pattern I was seeing: 1, 2, 6, 24, 120 …. ah, the joy of discovery.

Now, academic research is a distant shore to me. Of course, I still use my advanced mathematical knowledge here and there simply because I enjoy math, and I find it even practical at times. However, I have no plans on returning to academic research. Right now I’m a writer and wildlife photographer, though I’d prefer to say I’m a person who likes exploring art.

So, what was wrong with academia? Modern math itself was a huge part of it. These days, modern math is all about hyperspecialized topics. A good paper these days might have thirty citations. Basically, the people who will be truly interested in your work will likely be countable on one hand. I think this is mainly due to the fact that math is simply running out of interesting problems.

Math is running out of problems? But it’s infinite! Indeed. But there are only so many times you can generalize something without it turning sterile and forbidding. And you can see that clearly in modern mathematics: it would be quite difficult to kindle interest in mathematics undergraduates for the majority of results being published today. Math is indeed running out of good problems. Of course, there are still famous holdouts like the Riemann Hypothesis or the twin primes conjecture, but after that there really is not much left.

Maybe that’s subjective, and maybe it’s all art for art’s sake and all that, but in my heart, I simply don’t feel that. The system of math in academia doesn’t encourage curiosity. It encourages going down endless generalizations to justify grants for research. Of course, it’s undoubtedly true that there are a few individuals that enjoy these random abstractions, but no matter what we do, the usefulness of furthering knowledge is always constrained by the law of diminishing returns. And that is what math has become: an entity that is aimed solely at furthering pure knowledge and abstraction.

I also don’t agree with the modern academic philosophy of discovering anything and everything without taking responsibility for that knowledge. Knowledge is not neutral and will be used in inevitable ways due to the lower basal instincts of people, especially when they are inserted into the modern large-scale global economy. In my opinion, researchers have immense power and therefore they have a serious responsibility to shape society through the use of the knowledge they discover.

However, academia is currently a lot more like a children’s playground where scientists go about obliviously discovering knowledge without a single care in the world regarding how their discoveries are used. Of course, I am not making a universal statement. There are people like climate scientists and ecological researchers who do care about the world through their professional pursuits, but by and large, and especially in mathematics and computer science, this is not the case.

Deep down, I want to change the world for the better. I want to contribute positively to society. I don’t believe that any human endeavour can claim that it’s independent from these goals, and if it does, it’s a rather diseased endeavour. Of course, not every pursuit can directly impact the problems of society, but it should at least create an environment that allows the free functioning of the human spirit through some sort of creative activity. And that’s because in my opinion, creative activity is fundamental for realizing our own good nature. Sadly, I don’t believe mathematics in academia does that.

About seven years ago, I realized that I was losing interest in becoming an academic, but I didn’t fully understand why. After being away from research and becoming a wildlife photographer, I gained enough mental space to think about it, and realize the true underlying cause of my departure from research mathematics. I hope math can change for the good of society, and I’m still very happy that I got my PhD because it was a personal goal of mine, but I’m glad I left.

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