The Accidental Mathematician

The state of the profession


There’s plenty of talk about the crisis in higher education. Countless books, articles and blog posts have professed the deterioration of college education and blamed it, for the most part, on the faculty who don’t care about the students. Instead, we spend most of the academic year on research, then take a nice long vacation over the summer.

I would have a different story to tell, and then a mental exercise to suggest.

There are indeed many of us who have made research our lives’ work. We’re in it for the challenge and the pleasure of discovery, for the outlet that it provides to our creativity. That’s why we ended up in academia in the first place. We’re good at research and we’ve demonstrated this to everyone’s satisfaction.

And yet, a full professor at a large research university in the U.S. or Canada often has to work a full-time job, 40 hours a week or close to it, before any research gets done. We spend that time on teaching, writing grant proposals, supervising graduate students and postdocs, serving on committees, attending faculty meetings (here, attendance at promotion and tenure meetings is mandatory), editorial work, refereeing, writing evaluations and reference letters, and more. Much of it (calculus teaching, many committees) is completely unrelated to research. Some tasks (refereeing, various evaluation exercises) call for the scholarly expertise we’ve gained in the course of our work as researchers, and some (grant proposals) are quite directly related to that work, but writing about research and actually doing it are two different things.

The time we have left for research while classes are in session amounts, essentially, to evenings and weekends. (The actual schedule may vary: we may carve out a weekday afternoon or two for research meetings, then prepare for classes after hours instead.) Maintaining a quality research program requires a good deal of time, preferably in long uninterrupted blocks. From the time classes start to the end of the final exams, we’re, for the most part, dead to the rest of the world.

It would be unrealistic to expect that more than a handful of us could make a living purely on research. Traditionally, academic jobs have always combined research with teaching. But the same tradition also defined university teaching in terms of making advanced knowledge available to students, with emphasis on the students’ own agency in partaking of that knowledge. That’s what I remember from my own undergraduate days. The university professors of old were not evaluated on their ability to inspire interest in otherwise indifferent students, nor did they have to teach the addition and multiplication of fractions. They were not under constant pressure, either, to use clickers, classroom technology, or innovative teaching techniques.

This is not to defend bad teaching. Boring and pointless lectures are boring and pointless. Better teaching requires more time and effort, though, and so does maintaining the current quality of teaching when classes get larger and students come in less and less prepared. This rewrites our job description, increasing our teaching workload in terms of hours spent on it even as the number of courses we teach remains unchanged. Such work can be worthy, challenging and satisfying; but, in the present quantity and combined with everything else we do, it is barely compatible with research, the activity that (as I said already) attracted many of us to academic jobs in the first place.

It’s not just teaching, either. The demands placed on us get ratcheted up across the board. NSERC has effectively made “HQP training” mandatory for all scientists who seek Discovery Grant funding. Projecting from current data, it may well become next to impossible to get a research grant 10-15 years from now without some form of outreach activity and/or engagement with the industry. New administrative tasks get added on a regular basis. Promotion and tenure committees have been known to raise questions if there is some specific type of activity that we did not engage in (why did this person not teach large classes?).

Research still gets done. We still have the summer (the “4-month vacation”, in the popular opinion), we learn to guard our time, and some semesters are lighter than others in terms of teaching and administrative loads. And we still have sabbaticals, although with the multiple postdoc jobs at the beginning of the career it can take a very long time before we’re eligible for one. (12 years, in my case. But at least I didn’t have to teach throughout graduate school, as many students do nowadays.)

But the cracks are beginning to show. I’ve known talented and accomplished young researchers who quit academia so that they could spend evenings and weekends with their families. There’s often a slump in a researcher’s productivity around the time the administrative and HQP duties really kick in. People burn out and give up. The plague of “least publishable” incremental papers is due not just to the constant pressure to publish, but also to the lack of time to work out something more substantial.

More importantly perhaps, the mindset required by the ever expanding non-research part of our job – entrepreneurial, businesslike, competitive, often adversarial, well suited to running multiple tasks in parallel on tight schedules – is not at all what it takes to do mathematical research, a quiet, focused, intense pursuit, sometimes playful, sometimes contemplative, almost always unstructured. Some of us combine the two well enough, be it through natural predisposition or learned skill. Others don’t.

True creative talent in mathematics is rare. It should be nourished and encouraged wherever it can be found. And yet we’re apparently willing to discard it unless it’s coupled with a passion and gift for teaching, a comfort with the pressure cooker of paperwork and deadlines, and any number of other skills completely unrelated to research per se. We saddle top researchers with more and more duties that just barely (if at all) touch on their particular exceptional talent.

Now, here’s the mental exercise. With all the above in mind, what other hypothetical models of an academic career might be feasible that would give us more research time and attract those potential researchers who may be discouraged by what they see now?

I, for one, would be very interested to see a world where teaching is highly valued and well rewarded, where being asked to teach three courses instead of two is a mark of prestige, where financial compensation for teaching is higher than research pay. That would make teaching more desirable for those who wish to go that way, but by the same token, it could provide opportunities for others to scale back or opt out. We’d earn less money and miss out on teaching prizes, but we’d have a more manageable workload and more time available for research. Some of us would find it to be a reasonable trade. (I also wonder how gender dynamics might work in that world. It could well turn out that women are only good at research, and only interested in research careers, but never as good as men when it comes to teaching. But I digress.)

(And yes, this would cost money. Teaching, at every level from kindergarten to college, is demanding and difficult work that has long been underpaid, especially in the U.S. Want better teachers? Pay them better.)

Universities may have to become more flexible in offering workload-reducing arrangements. This is already being done on a small scale, from personal and family leaves to sabbatical leaves to teaching buyouts. Part-time appointments might become more common, not just for health or family reasons, but also for those of us who are willing to accept a lower salary in return for a lighter schedule with more research time.

Some European countries (e.g. France) have government-sponsored research institutes that offer research appointments with no teaching. The system varies from one country to another, but there’s usually some trade-off involved, for instance lower pay or lack of job security. Perhaps someone better informed could fill us in on that?

And why not combine a part-time research appointment with a non-academic job? We could make our living working elsewhere, say at a financial institution, in the tech industry, or at a start-up, and combine that with a university affiliation through which we could supervise graduate students or apply for grants. No, really. Think about it. Many employers are already used to part-time work arrangements, and a grant system similar to the NSF summer salaries could supplement our income. Most of the possible objections from our individual point of view – the other job has little to do with our research specialization, it would take time and effort to learn it, and so on – apply equally well to teaching. Much of the administrative overhead might just disappear. NSERC is encouraging us to “engage” and “interact” with industry – what better way to do so than actually working there? There must be institutions or start-ups out there that would be happy to have some of our time.

Well, that’s enough speculation for now. But please feel free to add more in comments.