I am currently a data scientist working in natural language processing, with an undergrad background in math and CS, and a masters in CL/NLP. Mathematics was always my preferred area, but I wasn't sure I wanted to do mathematics graduate studies, so I moved into CL/NLP due to the relatively high amount of jobs. I realize now that I don't really have any genuine interest in NLP, and that a lot of my spare time has gone into reading and thinking about math and occasionally more theoretical CS. I work in a research environment, and I like research work but I wish I had more responsibility, and more opportunities to connect with other people interested in things that I'm interested in, via teaching or collaboration.

For all these reasons I'm considering returning to graduate school for mathematics, with the goal of obtaining a PhD and moving on to teach and do mathematics research.

My question is about the degree of choice in working location. I live in New England and have a wonderful network of family and friends who are very supportive. Keeping as close of a connection with them as possible is a priority for me. If after a PhD and a postdoc I was able to get a position teaching at a small to medium college or university in greater New England, and still do some research, that would be the ideal.

I don't think I would be a competitive candidate for PhD programs like Harvard or MIT, but given my background I think other good math graduate programs in Massachusetts are reasonable possibilities for PhD applications, possibly after getting a masters in math first. When I try to find outcomes for people who have graduated from these programs, a lot of people have the kind of jobs I would hope for but often times outside the area. How often is something like this a choice versus necessity? Are there specific ways (besides good performance in grad school and making connections) to help make this result more likely?

  • Have you looked into the financial aspects of this? As a working data scientest you currently make significantly more than a grad student stipend. Even after finishing a PhD a typical postdoc will pay a lot less than a data scientist in industry.
    – quarague
    Sep 11, 2023 at 9:53
  • The question there is how much would I have to be paid to be willing to do work that I don't enjoy or find meaningful. Assuming its existence, I'm not sure what that amount is, but I can say that my current position does not pay that. Staying in data science just for that reason isn't compelling to me, if I was mostly interested in money I would have chosen a completely different career track or tried jumping over to management. I would of course think about this very differently if I had financial dependents, but I don't anticipate having any in the near future. Sep 11, 2023 at 18:02

1 Answer 1


Well, Greater New England has a lot of colleges with a variety of rankings from the very top few to around #5000 or so (not a joke, but I won't name names). But few people have a lot of "choice" in where they get a job in today's academic market. One goes where one must, not where one would like to for a postdoc or, especially, a tenure-track position. Getting even one offer is a victory. If you get more than one you have a bit of choice, but the market is tight.

And, just as searching for doctoral programs requires casting a wide net, so does looking for an academic job. If you narrow your search in any way, you reduce the possibilities.

Over time, however, you can get more options as your career advances and you keep looking at opportunities in places you'd like to live. This assumes that you do well and build a reputation. Maybe not your first or second position, but, perhaps, eventually you may wind up in some desired geographical location. Or... you might decide that where you are is good and has its own advantages.

One complicating factor that worries me at the moment is that potential students seem less inclined to go to college at all since it means assuming a large financial burden. That will make choice even harder, and even the possibility of any academic career.

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