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TL;DR: I'm a pure math graduate student who doesn't like research mathematics. Should I continue and get the PhD because I suspect I might like teaching at a 4-year liberal arts college?


I am currently in a pure math PhD program at a fairly good university. I just finished my second year there, and after passing qualifying exams have been awarded a Master's.

Ever since I arrived in grad school, I have been fairly dissatisfied. I went to grad school because math in undergrad felt relevant, and I loved the feeling of leaping from logical lily-pad to logical lily-pad en route to proving something. In grad school, though, these feelings have become fewer and far between. I feel like things have become more mechanical and more like banging my head against a wall. For the most part, I find it very difficult to motivate myself to do my work; I never look forward to getting started in the morning. I have finished required courses and qualifying exams, but the difficulty continues as I do a reading course in preparation for work with an advisor.

Overall, I have realized that research math is not for me. I have quite enjoyed my teaching experiences, which so far consist of leading recitation sessions, tutoring, and the first week of teaching a summer course. Because of the heavy emphasis on "teaching to the test" in secondary education, among other things, I suspect I would enjoy teaching at, say, a liberal arts college more than teaching at a secondary school. However, I feel pretty inexperienced in teaching, and so I don't feel certain by any means about these feelings. This is now the only reason I would want to stay in graduate school. Is this enough reason to continue for the next 3-4 years to the PhD?

According to my advisor, I would be in graduate school another 3-3.5 years for the PhD. I would love to work at a liberal arts institution in the US, but ideally one where the research load is minimal/nonexistent. The impression I got from skimming MathJobs recently was that such positions were relatively rare compared to research-intensive positions. Do you feel like I would be very likely to find such a job if I stayed for the PhD?

Any advice is much appreciated! Thank you, everyone.

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    If you don't like research and want to teach, then community college teaching is statistically much, much more likely to work out for you than looking for a four-year college that hires people without expecting research. Community colleges typically hire some people with PhD's and some with only master's degrees; specific departments and specific schools may have preferences or customs that slant more toward one degree or the other. – Ben Crowell Nov 20 '13 at 16:50
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    Another thing to mention about teaching math at a community college is that at the larger schools, teachers tend to specialize. Many spend their entire careers teaching remedial courses, while others teach calculus, linear algebra, and vector calculus. – Ben Crowell Nov 20 '13 at 16:58
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You should know that these days, most 4-year liberal arts colleges in the US expect their tenure-track mathematics faculty to do research.

Colleges want to be able to offer their students the opportunity to be taught by experts who are contributing to their field. There is also increasing interest in getting undergraduates involved in research, which means the faculty have to have research programs to get them involved in.

Of course, there is a wide spectrum of expectations. At the most selective liberal arts colleges, research expectations can approach those of a mid-level research university, demanding a regular output of papers published in good journals. Elsewhere there can be more flexibility, replacing a specific requirement for "research" with the broader term "scholarship"; they might require only occasional publications, and they could be projects with students, or articles about teaching.

But in general, if you want an academic job in mathematics that doesn't require you to do any research at all, you're going to restrict yourself to the least selective tiers of liberal arts colleges, or to non-tenure-track positions (and often liberal arts colleges tend to have relatively few such positions, compared to large universities).

You might have a look at MathJobs to get a sense of what jobs are out there, and what they expect. Note that there are not so many listings in summer, since this hiring cycle is mostly finished; many more will appear in the fall.

  • Thank you so much for your answer! Do you happen to know any data/anecdotal evidence about the number of less selective liberal arts jobs out there? MathJobs seems to suggest there are not that many right now... – user7380 Nov 17 '13 at 18:09
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    @user7380: I don't know of any data, though the AMS or MAA may have some. One other point: It's my impression that less selective institutions are less likely to advertise on MathJobs. Sometimes they use EIMS instead. – Nate Eldredge Nov 17 '13 at 18:23
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Although it is generally a good rule to think that one oughtn't commit to things one doesn't want to do... and the other answers reflect this in several good ways... sometimes there is an "entry fee" that is unpleasant to pay.

Yes, it is true that there is an ever-greater pretense that all faculty in colleges and universities "do research", but, as one might imagine, not quite all of this is cutting-edge... In fact, the requirements of completing a PhD at most "good" places are a bit more strenuous than the "research" required at little colleges. In particular, as I gather from substantial anecdotal evidence, it is possible to be much saner/human in "small" situations, about pretension-to-research. True, it may not be wise to be "too honest", as in many professional/human situations.

That is, you might try to view "the PhD" as simply a college teaching license. Certainly if you do not have it you'll be at an extreme disadvantage forever... One might view it as a prolonged licensure ordeal?

And, at the same time, it is quite excellent that you have realized so clearly that you don't want to "be a researcher". This is much better than the self-conflicted delusional versions of the story. But what remains is to gain the credentials. "Cred".

This is not necessarily a recommendation to stay in your PhD program, especially since your recoil has been fairly strong (though one doesn't know how to interpret printed words' intensity...) But, sure, no one likes to take "drivers' training", and many other things. But it can be done, routinely.

The last adverb is a significant point: unless you're at an elite place, and unless you are truly severely allergic to "higher math", ... "it's not that hard" to finish the PhD. The fact that you've already done the qualifiers and such shows that it is easily within your power... if you so choose.

So, srsly, the question is about what you want your appearance to be for the rest of your life. Not that being PhD'd makes anyone a better person! But, it adds something to the ol' resume, undeniably.

And, again-at-the-end, being "too honest" about one's disinclinations is not necessarily a good thing.

Good luck, ... in figuring out complicated things.

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Notably given the especially difficult employment market in academia (in France but I guess it is the same everywhere), I always advise: do a PhD for the years doing research themselves, not for what you expect to gain from the title. As Dave Clarke stresses, doing a PhD requires a lot of motivation and hard work; but if you do not like the good times enough, it can be really wasted years. If you think you won't enjoy the years of your PhD, you should consider seriously all other opportunities you have.

By the way, I think the same applies to postdoc positions.

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I know of people who have completed PhDs at prestigious institutions (in computer science) just so that they could teach at a liberal arts college. It certainly seems to be one way into that profession, and an admirable profession it is indeed.

Doing a PhD requires a lot of motivation and hard work, even if you are not aiming for a high profile research career. The question you need to ask yourself is "Are the benefits of finishing the PhD worth the effort? Will you be motivated enough to complete if you are not interested in research?"

Consider also doing some pedagogic studies, so that you know the theory of how to teach and, more importantly, how to help students learn.

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    I find the question "Do you have what it takes...?" a bit insulting. Walking away from a PhD is not failure; lack of passion for research is not a character flaw. A much better question is "Are the benefits of finishing the PhD worth the effort?" – JeffE Jun 10 '13 at 14:50
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    I will change the question. – Dave Clarke Jun 10 '13 at 15:45
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    "Consider also doing some pedagogic studies..." I absolutely agree (though the worth of such classes varies considerably, depending on the teacher and the curriculum). I would also strongly consider trying to get assigned to teach a full-on class which you are wholly responsible for. Planning, grading, coordinating, dealing with student concerns (sometimes aka "whining") are all part of the bigger picture, and you should know that you like that before launching a career in teaching (and I and many others love it!). – Chris Gregg Jun 11 '13 at 4:41
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I can't comment on the US, but in Canada there are a number of "lecturer" positions, even at research universities. Lecturers only teach; they don't do any research, and it is not necessary to get a PhD to be a lecturer (though I'm sure it doesn't hurt, and some positions do request a PhD). It seems that these positions are becoming more common, especially because the current Canadian government likes to cut costs, so funding is harder to come by. I would suggest searching for these types of positions, and hopefully that will give you an idea of what is out there, how many positions are available, and how many require PhDs.

Here's one example at my university that does require a PhD (in Psychology, not math, sorry).

EDIT: Having said all that, I don't think it's worth continuing your PhD if you're not enjoying it. If you don't like what you're doing, it's going to be very difficult to put the time and energy into completing your thesis. If the area of research is a problem (you're not interested in your research project, or you simply feel stuck), perhaps you can ask your supervisor for a different project, or switch supervisors, or even switch to another department, program, or university.

  • "Lecturer" or "Institutional instructor" positions are rare in the US, but they are a growing trend. – Alex Szatmary Aug 16 '15 at 14:51

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