One Hundred Days of Disquietude

As I walked up the five towering flights of stairs to my advisor’s office, I thought to myself: today will be better. At first, I wrote my thesis with ease. Five years of research itched to get out, and one hundred pages effortlessly flowed from my brain to the page. I now had to turn that first draft into a polished thesis by checking the tedious details.

When I worked, it felt like trying to stop flowing water by slapping it. Every detail fragmented into more and more subdetails. I had to let them trickle down to well-known facts or to small statements I could prove myself. Many of these trickles remained unresolved this week, and I needed this meeting to discuss the issues. I worried we would not get to my thesis problems, because conversation always shifted to my post-graduation plans.

I had two months left to get my thesis ironed out, yet I went to bed every night in a state of panic. Nothing ever got resolved. I understood that my advisor had my best interests at heart. It didn’t matter to him that I wished to leave academia, but he needed to make sure I had a solid plan; otherwise, I’d drift endlessly and waste my life. It was what an advisor should be concerned with, but at this point I needed to avoid that discussion.

I knocked on his door with a plan this time: bring up the math immediately and stick to the topic. He got in the first word and foiled my plan.

“How’d the interview go?”

I had interviewed for a data science position at a university on the other side of the country, because I thought my husband would be there for another year. It gave me something less embarrassing to tell people when asked about my job prospects. I turned down the job, because a different university offered him a tenure-track position.

I replied, “Um, actually I have some issues I’ve run into while writing the thesis that I need to talk about.”

“Oh. It went that bad?”

“No. In fact, it went well. They offered me the job, but I just can’t commute that far.”

He furrowed his brow. “The trip isn’t that far. There’s even a ferry.”

“Well, the position would be unpaid, because it was not a real postdoc. It’s a position they invented to let me work with them. My payment would be experience and being allowed to use the department resources for free.”

“So what’s plan B?”

My gut filled with dread. I got pulled into the wrong conversation again. As if writing a thesis wasn’t stressful enough, I now had the added stress of telling everyone I knew that I had wasted the past six years of my life pursuing a degree I’d never use.

I lied, “I don’t know.”

It made no sense, but the lie seemed better than the truth. I wanted to avoid a “real job” to dedicate myself to writing. Throughout grad school, I spent what little free time I had working on my craft. I completed a rough draft of a novel, around 800 blog posts, several short stories, and some chapters of a nonfiction book. I loved writing and couldn’t make myself explain this. At least with data science, the math Ph.D. didn’t seem squandered.

I wasted time in my meetings by walking the line between not lying too badly and not committing myself. How do you tell someone who has sunk five years of their life into training you that you want to throw it away? An advisor’s reputation is tied to their student’s success. My decisions affected everyone involved in my education. Fear got the best of me again, and I pretended to not know what I wanted to do. I kept the hope alive that I’d go do amazing things with math.

Another reason for keeping my decision quiet had to do with department politics. It is in the interests of a research institution to send students to prestigious postdocs and professorships. If you want to attract the best students, then you need an untarnished reputation. Behind closed doors, professors admit that no one fails the thesis defense if they have a good job offer. They want you to move on, so the department statistics can improve. I worried about the opposite. I didn’t think anyone would obstruct me from passing based on poor job prospects, but everyone had their reputation to defend. Reputation is everything in the academic world.

I often reflected on how I got to this point. I was not a math major when I started my bachelor’s degree. In fact, I was quite an unusual student. Typical undergraduates want to scrape by with minimal effort to get to their job at the end. In fierce divergence from the norm, I avoided thinking about jobs until six years into graduate school. My philosophy as a student was to put my head down, blinders up, and grind through the work. I trusted the system and never asked why I was doing any of these things.

My undergraduate math department sought me out as a rarity: a hard-worker with natural talent. They pulled me into the math community before I realized what had happened. That community soon became my identity. I inherited their norms and values before I had a chance to determine if they aligned with my own. Did I want to go to grad school? It didn’t matter, because that’s what one did.

I never needed to ask myself the fundamental question: what do I want to do for the rest of my life? The community decided it for me. They cultivated me early as one of the elite to continue the tradition of educating and training more elite to continue the cycle of professorships. I now realized that it was this academic community that made leaving so difficult. To leave a community is to go against its values. To let someone leave without a fight is to deny those values as worthwhile. The community I loved became the source of my one hundred days of disquietude.

*

I’m sitting at my regular spot in the airport trying to write. Again. Yes, I have a regular spot. No, I’m not making this up for colorful language or to illustrate a point. No one tells you this when you’re a math major. If you don’t want to commit career suicide, you attend summer schools, winter schools, fall meetings, spring meetings, regional meetings, national meetings, and random invitations to give talks.

I’m always either traveling or sick. The sickness comes from the lack of sleep associated with travel. This morning I woke up early to have my plane delayed twelve hours. I won’t get to the hotel until after 1 am. Tomorrow I’ll wake up for the conference at 5 am. All of this happens on weekends even though I teach a full class with the responsibilities of preparing the lecture and writing a quiz by Monday morning.

Nothing exemplifies the absurdity of studying abstract math for a living like a conference. When people joke that only five people in the world are interested in the same research as you, they often forget it’s funny because it’s true. At my last conference, I sat in a “special session” with an exclusive sounding name that emphasized one sub-sub-branch of math and thought to myself: surely this is narrow enough to get someone from my group of five to come.

I looked around and recognized no one. It made sense. Some people from my group didn’t live in the U.S. This conference was too small to justify the time and money spent on international travel. Others may have had conflicts. So I was on my own. A talk ended, and I got up to present my research.

Considering these mathematicians weren’t specialists in my field, I had a tough job facing me. They had no interest in what I had to say, and they weren’t well-acquainted with the terminology I wanted to use. I had twenty minutes to explain complicated definitions, the motivation, and the results of a couple years of research. In other words, I had an impossible task.

There I stood, presenting my research at a conference, when I realized, the attendees should care. If they didn’t care, who would? I had figured out a long-standing unsolved problem. This should excite a mathematician. Instead, all I saw was a sea of bored faces. They wished they were elsewhere. As with all conferences of this type, people slept during the talks. I assure you this is not something only immature, disrespectful teenagers do to their high school teachers. Professional adults fall asleep from boredom at conferences.

As the absurdity of the situation became clear to me, I knew I had to get out. I had to get out, because the torture of no sleep and constant travel was too much for me. I had to get out, because I wanted to do other things with my life. But this conference defined the issue in a new way. I had to get out, because people should at least feign interest while they’re among colleagues. If I continued on this path, then I would spend my life doing abstract academic nonsense no one cared about.

Lunch break approached — my most dreaded time at these things. I considered sneaking away and hiding to eat by myself. The thought embarrassed me enough to find people I knew. I would face my fears. The questions flew before we even left the conference building. I had heard them so many times in the past few months that I cringed in annoyance at the predictability of the conversation between young researchers.

“Are you on the market?”

That question. Ugh. The question itself embodied a metaphor which illustrated my feelings on academia. We were cattle being raised by our brand to be sold to other schools. We followed each other through the system and never thought about a possible alternative. I couldn’t stall forever, so I fell back on one of my rhetorical tricks.

“I applied to some postdocs.”

This phrase was my crutch. It allowed me to tell the truth, yet falsely imply I wanted to stay in academia. This wouldn’t hold out long, because postdoc hiring season had ended.

“So, where are you going to be next year?”

I paused. “Um. Well, that’s a long story.”

“Is there a short version?”

I ended the stalling. Maybe conversation wouldn’t deteriorate this time.

I said, “I’ve actually decided to leave academia.”

“What? But you’ve done such good stuff. Why would you do that?”

Another person in the group chimed in at this point.

“I’m tempted by the money, too.”

Oh no. This again. Conversations on leaving academia go through three stages of denial. First is confusion. There must be a misunderstanding. No one would leave. Second is to jump to the conclusion that you are motivated by greed. You can’t sacrifice money for the greatness of the academic life, so you sell out. In math, this means you take a job in finance or big data. The third and final stage is anger. This comes when you claim it isn’t for either of the first two reasons.

It was that anger stage that made me so fearful of these conversations. I didn’t want to get into an argument. I wanted to go hide in my apartment and not speak to anyone until it was over. I was even afraid to be present on my own university’s campus. Students and faculty wandered the halls, all eager to pull me into this same conversation. For valuing creativity so much, no one talked about anything original.

I settled on the honesty tactic. “It isn’t about the money. I’m not interested in doing research anymore. It seems so pointless.”

“To be fair, everything is kind of pointless.”

I had put a lot of thought into this reply, because everyone used it. Still, I had no counter, because I agreed. Maybe I took the notion of having a meaningful career too seriously. It was a weird infatuation that seemed to concern no one else. Recently, everyone I saw jolted the thought into my mind:

What do they do? Do they think it’s meaningful? Do they care? Maybe I should do something I don’t care about to make money like everyone else. I can unhappily work a job to support my family and barely make it to the nights and weekends when I can do what I enjoy.

More people meddled with the conversation before I answered. They were ganging up on me, as usual, to defend the profession. A voice came from the group.

“I think of it like sports. Pro basketball players are playing a game for a living. You can’t say we are worse than that.”

It was another analogy with which I had become intimately familiar. I didn’t want to defend pro sports, but my meditations drove me to the conclusion that sport as a career was more meaningful than pure math. Professional athletes push the bounds of what is possible. They help advance our knowledge of the human body in a useful way. Athletes offer entertainment to stressed out people. Entertainment is a service to humankind. Writing thirty page papers that, to most people, are indistinguishable from a monkey pounding on a keyboard is not a service.

I stayed silent, because I had no intention of walking this path. I knew how it ended: they point out that abstract math research has potential benefits in medicine, protein folding, cryptography, blah, blah, blah. They weren’t wrong, but I couldn’t build my life around a tiny possibility that in one hundred years my work might be useful.

Before you get the wrong impression, let me say, I still love math. Serious math is grappling with the hardest of puzzles. To plunge headlong into abstraction is often frustrating, but ultimately rewarding through moments of clarity. Unfortunately, popular culture is filled with platitudes like “follow your dreams” and “do what you love.” These sayings miss the point.

There are more important things in life than selfishly doing what you love. You should do something you love that you think is important. If you love doing sudoku puzzles and someone paid you to do them all day, would you consider that a life worth living? Probably not. A fresh question snapped me back from my thoughts.

“Are you applying to some of the tech jobs in your area? It’s good you’re a grad student there with all the industry nearby.”

I hated the person who asked this. He struck the one question for which it was impossible to bend the truth. I realized where we were headed, and I wanted to run out of the room rather than answer it.

I said, “Actually, I’m moving across the country next year.”

“Oh? So you already have a job lined up?”

“No, but my husband has a tenure-track position.”

There it was. Relief flooded their faces as they jumped to the wrong conclusion. It wasn’t that I couldn’t get a postdoc. It wasn’t that I wanted to leave academia. My husband was making me give up my career, so he could have his. It made perfect sense now. They had found the missing piece. Someone like me doesn’t give up research after all this work. Their thoughts were wrong, but this made too much sense in their minds for me to ever argue otherwise. The conversation ended, and I felt defeated.

*

My usual spot at the airport is taken, so I sit at an awkward circular bench. I check my email and see two messages that most people wouldn’t bat an eye at. For me, they cause more anxiety. The math department is having an end-of-year party. These types of events magnify the problem a hundredfold.

I prepare my excuses for not going. It is dangerous enough to get caught by a professor walking the hall, but putting all faculty in a room together where they have nothing better to do than to ask me about my future is a nightmare. I may as well walk into the room, grab a microphone, and announce I’m leaving math.

This gets me thinking along some dangerous lines. What if I emailed the entire faculty list? It would be a rude and unprofessional thing to do, but at least it would be done all at once. How have I come to contemplate these things?

My other email is a dentist appointment: more anxiety. I see the same person at every visit. She knows how long and hard I’ve worked to get this Ph.D., and I always tell her I want to become a professor. It shouldn’t be a big deal to say I’ve changed my mind. I imagine the conversation, and it leads to her saying, “Why did you get a math Ph.D. if you want to write? Couldn’t you have used the last six years to develop your skills in a better way?” No one has ever been that blunt, but subtler forms of those questions come up every time. I decide I’ll lie instead.

Lying may sound harsh, but I screwed up. I spent six years getting a degree I don’t intend to use. Now I relive this through every meeting with every person I encounter unless I lie sometimes for relief. I just want a place where I can settle in and start over. For now, I take the lying tactic when I’ll never see the person again. Unfortunately, I’m at the airport to go to a wedding, so I expect to re-encounter many of these people.

We arrive at the wedding early. This gives me ample time to panic. For the hundredth time, I tell my husband my concerns. He reassures me. This is a wedding. The focus is on the bride and groom. No one will focus on what is happening in my life. This is my fear. I’ve learned well over the past months that “What do you do?” is the first bit of small talk made after asking where you’re from and the weather.

We stand in the lobby of the wedding hotel, and guests arrive that I’ve never seen. The awkward small talk begins. We introduce ourselves, and the inevitable question arises. I try to weasel out by using a strategy I call “the grad student tactic.”

He asks, “What do you do?”

I shoot my husband a look that says: I told you so.

“I’m a graduate student in math.”

“Oh. I’ve always hated math. Do you plan on teaching with that?”

“No. I haven’t decided yet.”

“I see… Well, you have plenty of time.”

The person sees someone he knows and excuses himself before any further prodding can happen. I look young for my age, so he probably assumed I had several years left on my degree. The next people we run into are scheduled to sit at our table during dinner. They are my husband’s aunt and uncle. I’ve never met them. The questions they ask are far more specific than I anticipate for this early stage of the night.

“What do you do?”

“I’m a graduate student in math.”

“That’s great! When do you finish?”

I contemplate a way out of this one. I see no alternative.

“I’m defending my thesis in one month.”

“What do you plan to do with your degree?”

I freeze. How do I answer? I don’t plan on using my degree. I feel compelled to answer the question asked rather than the one intended. Strictly speaking, the answer is “nothing,” but it feels rude to give that answer when they are curious about my career plans. As my mind reels through the possibilities, I stand staring at the family. Luckily, my husband jumps in to save me.

“There’s plenty of time to answer those questions at dinner. We should go find a seat, since the wedding will start soon.”

At dinner, the question comes back. But now I’ve had time to prepare.

“Do you know what you’ll be doing after you graduate?”

“Yeah. I’m looking for jobs in data analysis. I think it’s really cool, and I’m excited about the idea of using math to help people. It’s a hot topic right now. I’ll probably start looking a lot harder for specific jobs in the summer.”

It was a lie, but only a partial one. I had been looking at data science jobs. Unfortunately, we were moving to a rural area, which limited my options. This brings up another problem with academia. You have no control over where you end up living.

I had already lived apart from my husband for three years. A postdoc would mean at least three more. Even at the end of all of that, there was no guarantee we would end up near each other. We would be thirty-five, living apart, and constantly moving. Many people told me I should stick it out until tenure, because it was job security to do whatever I wanted. Those people forgot that you have to give up half of your working life and a third of your personal life to get to that point.

This is called the sunk-cost fallacy. It is the main reason that dissatisfied academics stay in the system. They believe that since they’ve put so much time and effort into it, they may as well keep going to get to the benefits. It is a fallacy, because you should cut your losses. To keep going is to keep losing more time, energy, and work. Academia exacerbates the fallacy, because everyone has a lofty view of the academic lifestyle. This is where the dinner conversation headed, because my husband’s aunt is a law professor.

She continues, “You don’t know what you’re missing out on. The academic life is great!”

Her husband is not an academic, so she didn’t have to live apart from him to pursue academia. Also, she taught students interested in her subject. They had the basic reading/writing skills to succeed. I could see teaching one or two law classes a semester to be a wonderful job.

A starting math professor has a different environment. The teaching duty is rarely rewarding. You teach Calculus students who hate math and don’t have the basic skills to succeed. Your other full-time job is research. I do not consider two unrewarding jobs to be “great.”

She based her view of academia on her personal experience. It would be impossible for me to explain how different my own experience would be, so I don’t even try. I just smile and nod for the rest of the conversation. This is my last resort when people tell me what they think. Ultimately, their opinions don’t matter. It is my own decision to make. Fortunately, the school year would soon come to a close, ending my days of disquietude.