Exit strategy, please
June 12, 2012 8:01 PM   Subscribe

I'm a math PhD student with two years left. I'm not sure I want a job in academia (but maybe I do). What should I be doing to maximise chances of success (whatever that means)?

My question last week should have been a hint to me that I was in a weird mood. That weird mood culminated in a panic about not wanting an academic job and having no skills or qualifications to do anything else. The panic subsided, but I did conclude that this was a good time to start thinking about such things. In principle, I have some idea of how one looks for an academic job and how one positions oneself to actually get one. Whether I can do that (or want to) is another question. I have no idea about other jobs, though. But! I have a bunch of questions:
  • I assume someone out there hires people with math PhDs, but who? When this question has been asked in the past, six people jump in to say 'the NSA'. I'm a dual US/UK citizen and, while that may not be an absolute barrier, it's a not insubstantial one. But, hey, EU passport. Useful lots of other places.
  • Do I need to learn to code? If so, what? How do I prove I did? I've got some rusty C++ knowledge left over from AP computer science in high school. I use Sage and know enough Python to bend Sage to my will when needed. I had to use Perl for some computations once. Basically, if you give me the documentation, I can work it out, at least enough to get done what I need. It might be possible for me to take a CS class or two, but I looked at the course offerings and I pretty clearly don't need the first course, but I have no idea how in over my head I would be otherwise.
  • I hear there's this thing called networking. Am I supposed to do it? How?
I'm basically hoping that I can form some sort of plan of attack for this long term finding a job problem so that when I need to actually make decisions I'll not have shot myself in the foot by not doing something now. I have intentions of taking myself to the career center on campus, but that seems very intimidating and I'm not entirely sure what to ask them (despite having written all this).

(And, seemingly like every other person who has asked a variation on this question, I do combinatorics. My research does not have an immediate industrial application.)
posted by hoyland to Work & Money (13 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I assume someone out there hires people with math PhDs, but who?

The financial industry. Google "quant jobs".
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 8:34 PM on June 12, 2012

Start by reading the professor is in blog.
If you can swing it, hire her as a coach.

I think this was one of the best investments I ever made.
posted by k8t at 8:38 PM on June 12, 2012 [3 favorites]

I was in the same boat as you, and software development is the direction I took. Other people I knew from grad school who didn't go into academia work for the NSA or got into the actuary field (through a programming job). Most people got teaching jobs though.

If you want to do programming, I would start learning a marketable language as soon as possible. Write some programs tying in to your research. I tried to steer my research towards computational stuff, and that's definitely helped in interviews, having concrete finished projects to talk about.

Also, I've learned that no one outside of math has ever heard of Sage. My research project is henceforth described as being written in Python.
posted by AlexanderPetros at 8:51 PM on June 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

I made the move into a non-academic job after finishing a Ph.D. in English. I can't answer the math-specific parts of your question, but I recommend the book "So What Are You Going to Do with That?": Finding Careers Outside Academia for a good introduction to networking and other job-finding skills.

Do I need to learn to code? If so, what? How do I prove I did?

I don't know if you "need" to learn to code, but I've discussed the "how do I prove it" part of your question with the developers I work with. When looking at a resume from a student who doesn't have full-time programming work experience yet, they want to see that the person has used their coding skills to work on extracurricular projects; these can be personal projects or some kind of organized volunteer work, software club, internship, etc.

My advice is similar, but more generalized: keep your eyes open for all sorts of non-academic opportunities and say "yes" to as many of them as you can handle while maintaining progress on your academic work. I found my way into my current full-time career (software project management) through a series of part-time jobs that I did while still in grad school. I started off taking whatever job came along that sounded interesting, but after a while, I realized that I was most interested in the computing-related parts of my work, and I started pursuing those experiences in a more deliberate way. Getting non-academic or transferrable work experience (whether paid or unpaid) in grad school helps in two ways: obviously, it helps build your resume, but perhaps more importantly, it helps you figure out what you like and dislike in a job and how you can apply your skills to a variety of non-academic problems.

Are you open to doing a job that doesn't use your mathematical skills as such? (For example, research grants coordinator for a foundation.)

I applaud you for starting to think about these issues. Grad school, for me, got better—and I actually became more productive on my dissertation—after I started "form[ing] some sort of plan of attack for this long term finding a job problem." I think that even if you end up deciding to stay on the academic track, it's good to know what your other options are and know that you're choosing academia not by default (because it's what you chose when you started grad school, or it's what a Ph.D. is supposed to do) but because you've educated yourself about the alternatives and concluded that academia is the best fit for you.
posted by Naiad at 8:52 PM on June 12, 2012

p.s. On second thought, my remarks above about working on "extracurricular" programming projects apply more to undergraduate students and recent graduates with a bachelor's degree; the point is that programming or comp sci classes and class projects don't make your resume stand out from the crowd. If you were to do some programming in support of your own graduate-level research, though, that would be regarded as more like work experience.
posted by Naiad at 8:57 PM on June 12, 2012

I hear there's this thing called networking. Am I supposed to do it? How?

Do you maintain friendships with your classmates from grad school and undergrad who were in your field and now are out in the working world? Keep in touch with them and find out what they're doing.

Talk to various people in conferences who are working on what you're interested in.

The big management consultancies-- McKinsey, BCG, and Bain & Co. will be interested in people with strong quantitative skills.
posted by deanc at 8:59 PM on June 12, 2012

I went through a phase like this kind of early in my Ph.D., panicking because I'd grown up in a college town with professor parents and suddenly realized that I wasn't sure if I was in academia because I wanted to be or because I didn't know of any other options. I went to my university's career center armed only with: "I'm not sure if I want to be a professor but I have *no idea* what people who aren't doctors, lawyers, or professors do for a living. Help?". They acted like this was the most normal thing in the world and told me it was exactly what they were there for. Next thing I knew I was filling out worksheets and taking personality tests and meeting weekly with a career counselor. Seriously, they were awesome. So I don't think you should be intimidated by the career center or think that you need some sort of carefully-constructed question. Just go in and say you're having mixed feelings about an academic career and would like some help exploring other options.
posted by ootandaboot at 9:03 PM on June 12, 2012

Check your memail.
posted by madcaptenor at 10:09 PM on June 12, 2012

I also suggest quantitative investor...except you'll have to take some courses in Finance. I'd look into boutique quant shops that specialize in quantitative investment. If you get good at it, which takes a lot of hard work for several years, you can open your own shop, or work at a really nice offshore places with a great view:) But moving to that industry is difficult.
posted by icollectpurses at 11:56 PM on June 12, 2012

You might find this paper (bit old) interesting if you want to learn more about being a quant. You can also memail me if you think it might be up your street - I work in the industry. Being able to code in something mainstream (I'd suggest C#, Java, or maybe Python) would be a big help if you do want to go in that direction.
posted by crocomancer at 2:20 AM on June 13, 2012

Google R statistics and Hadoop Map Reduce and Big Data Analytics. The future has too much data and too few people who know what to do with it all.
posted by j03 at 4:50 AM on June 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

There are loads of jobs for numerate PhDs - you don't have to do finance. PhDs are a very employable group and a lot of work has gone into soft skills and the like recently which only improves this.

Think about what you do, as a PhD student - you are independently investigating a complex area, you're analysing and synthesising other people's work and you're pushing that forwards. That's just the tech bit. You're also probably writing papers, presenting new work, talking about ideas, supporting the learning of others (either through structured paths, e.g. working as a TA, or unstructured through just helping more junior members of your lab). Don't underestimate what you're getting from the doctoral program - lots of places really appreciate this combination of independence, communication skills, and analytical depth.

Check out Vitae who have quite a lot of resources about this kind of thing. Your university careers service will probably be able to help. There's a blog for PG researchers on the Vitae site here: http://www.vitae.ac.uk/researchers/346441/Whats-up-doc-blog-for-postgraduate-researchers.html

In the short term, I'd say the important thing to do is to make sure you're making the most of the opportunities you're getting within the PhD. Are you on any committees? Research committee, staff-student committee, union activities... they all count and show you're a good academic citizen. Are you involved with national subject organisations? That's similar. Are you doing a bit of teaching? Are you reviewing for the major conferences in your area? etc. etc. Don't let the extra-curricular stuff take over from the research, but if you've got a broad portfolio of work as well as the straight maths stuff you'll be in a better place in 2 years time when you're crafting a CV for a particular job.
posted by handee at 6:21 AM on June 13, 2012

Yeah, you can always become a "quant". Then it's all cash money. If finance isn't your thing a lot of fancy consulting firms hire PhDs.
posted by chunking express at 8:44 PM on June 14, 2012

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