I will confess that when I switched from studying poetry to studying mathematics, I didn’t notice much of a difference. This will tell you something about my sensibilities (though I’m not sure what exactly).
When I announced over dinner to friends that I was leaving my graduate program in Comparative Literature, none of them seem surprised. This is not a particularly rare thing for a grad student to say and I was not a particularly enthusiastic grad student. Mostly, people nodded and continued to eat. Someone asked me what I was going to do instead, and I answered “The opposite of comp. lit,” and after a moment’s consideration of what that would be, came up with “I’m going to be an electrical engineer”. We finished eating. (This is still pretty much how I do my “career planning”.)
I wasn’t entirely sure what classes I would need to become an engineer, but I figured I’d have to finish the calculus sequence, so that’s where I started. I got myself an extremely cheap apartment, a job as a cook, and a seat in a calculus class. One semester into my new plan, I enrolled in a class called something like “Introduction to Abstract Algebra”. (This course had nothing to do with electrical engineering, but it fit into my schedule, didn’t have many prerequisites, and had a baffling course description. It seemed like the thing to take. Probably there were some practical considerations, possibly that actual engineering classes were not offered over the summer, but maybe not even that.) I found this class to be exactly what I thought studying poetry would be like. And if that is a surprising sentence to read, imagine how surprised I was at the time.
A couple of classes later, I started my PhD program in math. This went much better than my first grad program, I defended a few years later and went on to a tenure track position in Northern California. I was in a quaint college town, a few hours up from San Francisco, with a job that I had been working toward for the better part of a decade. The students were nice, my department was happy with me, and it seemed very much like something I did not like. Despite my hopes, even tenure didn’t make the job more satisfying – it just made it more secure, which is not the quality I was looking for in a job whose challenges I didn’t find enticing. So, I started looking for other opportunities, despite having no real idea where to look or for what I was looking. I am very proud of what I did as a professor and grateful that I had the opportunity to do it. But I am also certain that it was not the right place for me, and I am just as proud to have left behind comfort and stability for new challenges and uncertainty. I would say that it wasn’t the most practical decision, but I don’t believe that; happiness is extremely practical and it’s worth going out of my way to find.
A serendipitous bit of timing gave me my next opportunity. I was offered the position of Chief of Education at the National Museum of Mathematics, still a few months from opening its doors in New York. So, I left California and headed back east. Being part of the team of people who opened the Museum was one of the most exciting times of my life. The work was difficult, unending, and exhilarating. I was there to design the educational programs for North America’s only math museum and had a great time doing it. Much of my job was coming up with programs at every level (and we hosted pre-k through graduate students) that gave everyone a taste of the kind of fun that mathematicians get to have. And after working nearly non-stop for my first couple of months, I stood inside a brand new museum, next to my colleagues and friends, and waited until the appointed hour to open the doors and let the public see what we’d made.
The first year of operation of the Museum was a bit of madness (in a good way mostly). It was just what I left academia to find – always-new problems waiting for creative solutions. This was also my first truly collaborative project, with so many people bringing so many different skills. This was a feature that I was actively looking for when I broke away from what I felt was the isolation of academia. Working as part of such a dedicated team was inspiring and terrific fun. Once the Museum settled into its second year, my post settled into a more straightforward administrative position, and I moved on to find something more exciting with more opportunities to learn new things.
Which brings me to where I currently am, the mathematics editor for Birkhäuser, North America. We mostly publish research monographs and graduate (and some advanced undergraduate) textbooks, though I don’t “edit” any of them in the way you might be thinking. Mine is an acquisitions position, which I think of as detective work: I am looking for the best math books that only exist in the future and then work backwards to find the people to write them. My job has me traveling the world, meeting with top researchers in all areas of math, along with some areas of engineering, computer science, physics, and philosophy. I look for the most exciting research and try to find the most suitable people to put it to paper. Not bad.
I’m not sure what kind of person would have planned such a path, but I don’t think we’d have much in common (except for our resumes, I guess).
I’m looking forward to sharing my week. Thanks for reading!
K Lagos says
Hey, this is to say I really enjoyed reading your story. I wonder, does this impractical pursuit of happiness come natural to you or did you need to take courage before your every major change?