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I am currently an undergraduate math major in my 3rd year (in America). I have taken lots of pure math courses, and anything I put in my resume tells potential employers I'm probably going to be an academic.

However, I still would like to know from current researchers what is it like to be a math professor. More specifically, I have already guessed at basically what they do (research approachable problems, teach zero or one or two classes at a time, go to conferences and seminars to get ideas, life is probably easier after tenure and more stressful before, pay is sufficient but probably less than industry). When I look up career-related questions on this site, I generally get questions dealing with the items mentioned above.

But what is the job satisfaction like (people probably get impressions from colleagues)? What sorts of things should one consider before committing to an academic career (as it's a long road)? What is the work environment like (what sorts of people with which one has to interact)? Which types of people generally like an academic environment?

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Be prepared to relocate. –  rschwieb Jan 3 '13 at 19:12
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The future may not be like the recent past. Tenure is under pressure. And by no means everyone ends up at a research-oriented university. –  André Nicolas Jan 3 '13 at 19:23
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Sorry for being vague @AlanSimonin, I took it for granted that he would stay in the US. What I meant was that it is nearly impossible to choose the city you will work in and find a position there. S/he will almost certainly have to go to a different city or state. –  rschwieb Jan 3 '13 at 19:25
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You’ll interact with students, colleagues, and administrators. Overall I enjoyed the students most and the administrators least, but (a) I’m a teacher first and a mathematician second, and (b) never had a lot in common with most of my colleagues. You might be more fortunate on the latter score. –  Brian M. Scott Jan 3 '13 at 19:31
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It seems like a lot of the comments hint at the competitiveness of being in academia, and that you can't always get what you want. These warnings seem to be useful for the general audience, judging by the responses, and I still welcome whatever people might think are valuable to add about those areas. I'm fortunate enough, though, to be a good student at a top university, and I think that persistence will land an academic job somewhere, even if it is not at some top research institution. So personally, I am still more interested in what people have to say after you get a job. –  Dtseng Jan 4 '13 at 6:41

3 Answers 3

In my opinion, it really depends on the type of academic job that you want/are able to land. Professional life in (1) a top tier research university, is different than in (2) a medium tier Ph.D. granting department, is different than in (3) a Master's granting department with a more modest research agenda, is different than in (4) a predominantly teaching oriented, four year college.

The teaching load/research expectation continuum certainly varies across the four. On one end of the spectrum, say at (1)-(2), the teaching load will be light (as you describe) but with research expectations in terms of papers in top tier journals and landing external funding that is very high. However, even if the actual course load is less, you will spend a chunk of time working with graduate students in reading courses, research seminars, their thesis, etc. As you move from (2) to (3), the research expectations decrease as teaching loads increase. In (4), you very well may have no requirement to produce original mathematical research in the form of journal articles, but instead be expected to demonstrate "continued scholarly activity" which can take a variety of forms. On the other hand, you may be teaching 4 classes a semester.

Pay, generally---but not always and certainly not uniformly---decreases from (1) to (4). The autonomy of academic life is usually very attractive and serves to counterbalance a salary that is less than what people in some mathematical specialties could garner in industry.

In my opinion, the type of job one shoots for (and will eventually find success/satisfaction in) is a combination of one's passions (research vs. teaching vs both), innate talents (again, in both research and teaching), aspirations, competitiveness, willingness to deal with pressure, and geography, to name a few.

As a nod to pragmatism, one thing to keep in mind is that the vast majority of jobs are in (4) and (3). Jobs in (1) and (2) are highly competitive to land. I have many friends in all four categories who are happy and very few (none?) who are unhappy, although admittedly the latter category probably self-selected out of academia.

Finally, since you are a third year undergrad, you will get a MUCH better sense of how much you really like mathematics in graduate school. During that time all of this should crystallize greatly. You will also get to see the profession much more up close than you do as an undergrad. It is great that you are thinking of these things now; keep your eyes and ears open in the coming years.

This is all just my two cents. Certainly others may have very different opinions, experiences, and perspectives...

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+1 for "you will get a MUCH better sense of how much you really like mathematics in graduate school". Research is very different from taking classes. –  JeffE Jan 15 '13 at 1:03

I agree with most of what JohnD wrote, but let me mention some additional points.

Many people that leave academia do so less because they're not "smart enough" and more because it doesn't suit their personality. Research often involves long stretches of work with no clear signs of progress. To quote Hans Bethe: "Two things are required. One is a brain. And second is a willingness to spend long times in thinking, with a definite possibility that you come out with nothing." You may enjoy reading Paul Seymour's article: "How the proof of the strong perfect graph theorem was found." (This is an account of the backstory of solving one of the biggest open problems in discrete math in the last 20 years.) Particularly early in your career, this can be scary. Pre-tenure you have to balance a desire to hold yourself to a very high standard versus your desire to get tenure, which requires publishing papers, even if they don't always meet your ideal.

To succeed in research, you need to learn how to chart your own agenda. No one tells you what topics to work on, who to work with, how long to spend on a question, where to submit your papers, or which speaking invitations to accept. Personally, I enjoy making all of these decisions. But for some people, this lack of structure is very difficult to handle. It's essential that you develop a clear vision, perseverance, self-confidence, and the ability to solve odd miscellaneous problems that arise.

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I heartily agree with all of that, Dan. And that Bethe quote is spot on. –  JohnD Jan 15 '13 at 18:24

I think it would be useful to read Letters to a Young Mathematician by Ian Stewart. It gives a great deal of insight into the mathematical community and the teaching profession in particular.

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Great suggestion! I can't say I agree 100% with the portrayal in this book, but it's a pretty good portrayal and it's overwhelmingly better than just imagining what being a mathematician might be like. –  Anonymous Mathematician Jan 15 '13 at 1:29

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