How to become a math professor?

For the discussion of math. Duh.

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Kurushimi
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How to become a math professor?

Postby Kurushimi » Sun May 30, 2010 6:07 pm UTC

I'm not 100% sure what I want to be when I grow up. But a professor of mathematics seems pretty cool to me. Teaching people, researching and solving interesting problems. It just sounds like a good time to me. But, I was wondering, what does one have to do to become a professor? Is it a very competitive field? Something that's difficult to get a job as?

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Re: How to become a math professor?

Postby Cmebeh » Sun May 30, 2010 6:27 pm UTC

Get a Phd. Also, look at what school you want to get your PhD from and see what their requirements are. I suggest starting to learn German and French or Russian now.
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Re: How to become a math professor?

Postby hnooch » Sun May 30, 2010 9:25 pm UTC

Don't learn German or French or Russian. Learn math. Yes, it's very competitive. There are many more aspiring math professors than there are math professor openings.

It is a requirement in many math departments to learn German or French or Russian, but that is on its way out — the program I'm in now just dropped that requirement this year — and it's also not that hard to learn the mathematical versions of those languages on the side.

Think about math. Do math. Constantly, and then you might have a shot at it.

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Re: How to become a math professor?

Postby njperrone » Mon May 31, 2010 6:43 am UTC

Sorry to budge in kurushimi, but it will complement your question well. Besides being a professor, what kind of jobs are available at the university with a Phd in mathematics? Because I am setting the Phd as my goal, and I am just curious what kind of work is out there at universities that do not involve being a professor.
Last edited by njperrone on Mon May 31, 2010 9:30 am UTC, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: How to become a math professor?

Postby Syrin » Mon May 31, 2010 8:44 am UTC

njperrone wrote:Sorry to budge in kurushimi, but it will compliment your question well.


This one threw me for a loop - I was trying to wrap my mind around just how one would go about complimenting a question.

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Re: How to become a math professor?

Postby njperrone » Mon May 31, 2010 9:29 am UTC

Syrin wrote:
njperrone wrote:Sorry to budge in kurushimi, but it will compliment your question well.


This one threw me for a loop - I was trying to wrap my mind around just how one would go about complimenting a question.



Whoops, typo. Thanks for that pickup.

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Re: How to become a math professor?

Postby Syrin » Mon May 31, 2010 10:10 am UTC

I spent about two minutes pondering before I noticed what you actually meant :p

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Re: How to become a math professor?

Postby Skraxt » Mon May 31, 2010 6:15 pm UTC

Learning to obsess can also be highly beneficial. Unless you can figure out some way to concentrate intensely on solving a problem for days that somehow doesn't qualify as obsession.
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Re: How to become a math professor?

Postby Yakk » Mon May 31, 2010 7:15 pm UTC

Get into a decent university for undergraduate mathematics.

Do extremely well as an undergraduate. Excel, at or near the top of your class.

Be involved in research work as an undergraduate, probably with one or more of your professors. Get your name on a serious publication, ideally.

Use the above to get into a top-notch graduate program at a world-renowned school.

Get a PhD from a top-notch graduate program, with a top-notch well respected and connected researcher, ideally in an area of hot and increasing research, producing many publications along the way and putting out a very good thesis.

Get a tenure-track position at a podunk university somewhere. Finish the tenure process at a time when the university is feeling generous and actually hands out a tenure position. Stay there for the rest of your life, teaching nearly mathematically illiterate students.

(Most PhD students who want to become tenured professors don't pull it off, because demographically there are far more PhD students than there are tenured professorship openings. 43% of PhD students either do not finish, or take longer than 10 years to finish, in the USA. Top-notch graduate programs require very high marks, great results on standardized tests, and/or glowing recommendations and research experience from top-notch undergrad schools. Students who excel in mathematics in high school are likely to be middle of the road in an undergraduate university of sufficient quality to generate a non-trivial chance of you getting a professorship.)

Now, things are not actually that grim. Along the path to getting a math professorship, if you fall off the wagon, there are lots of places you can land that will provide for a very soft recovery. And some tiny fraction of a fraction of a fraction do land a really great job, where you have huge amounts of freedom, and great colleagues to spend time with doing something you love (study mathematics), and lots of respect.

But the demographics are against you, unless you get extremely lucky. Many if not most sitting professors got their position during a comparative baby boom. About the only demographic advantage you have is that many of them are starting to retire. If universities choose to actually replace retiring professors with new tenured faculty, then there could be a window in which there will be a higher chance to get the job. Even then, many universities are quite liking the "grad student and nontenured faculty teaching" arragement, as it gives them more instructors for less money.

Oh, and if you are female and want to have children, you have a problem.

Median age of finishing a PhD is 33:
http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/infbrief/nsf06312/
which places post-degree child rearing right in the middle of your run for tenure, or post-tenure with a pregnancy in your late 30s/early 40s.

Here is some source for info on physics PhDs:
http://www.aip.org/statistics/trends/emptrends.html
~1300 PhDs per year. ~15% left the USA. Historically, ~50% end up with a postdoc, 50% with a potentially perm. position of some sort.
While most physics PhDs want a university position:
http://www.aip.org/statistics/trends/hi ... table6.htm
this doesn't actually happen:
in fact the private sector and the government historically employ the majority of physics PhDs.



There are 9150 Full Time Equivalent physics and astronomy positions. Physics PhDs tend to have a younger age than the general population -- call it 30. Of the 1300 PhD graduates, 57% want to work for a university -- call it 741 per year. Suppose professors retire at an average age of 65, and start work at age 35.

Of the 9150 FTE academic physics jobs, 18% are temporary or non-tenure track, leaving us with 7503.

To maintain 7503 jobs with a 30 year career, you'd need 250 new hires per year. So 1 in 3 of the 3/5 of PhD graduates who want an academic career could pull it off, if every tenure-track job ended in a tenured position.

Now for the podunk part. only 5400 FTE positions exist at departments that even offer a PhD program in physics.

So, as a first run estimate, at most 10% of physics PhD graduates in any one year ever get tenure at a school that even has a PhD program in physics. And quite possibly less, as I think I was quite generous with a few assumptions.

I lack similar data for a mathematics degree.

At the same time, the employment situation for Physics PhDs (especially US-born ones) is quite good. It is just that very few of them end up being tenured faculty.

... oops, I think I overestimated the chance of PhD students getting tenure by a factor of 2, as AIP only represents about half of physics PhD grads.

Now this data:
http://www.aip.org/statistics/trends/re ... eerphd.pdf
seems to indicate that my estimate for research positions is approximately correct. (Note that PhD graduates per year is a good 25% higher now than the high point of the above graphs. This may be due to losing PhD graduates from the survey?)

In short: go for the goal, but be aware that it is a challenging goal. Becoming a tenured professor of mathematics at a research university is more likely to occur than becoming a rock star, but the difference isn't that large. The real plus to aiming for being a professor is that the "fall back" positions along the path to professor are way way better than the rock star fallback options!
One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision - BR

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Re: How to become a math professor?

Postby Dason » Mon May 31, 2010 7:23 pm UTC

Yakk wrote:In short: go for the goal, but be aware that it is a challenging goal. Becoming a tenured professor of mathematics at a research university is more likely to occur than becoming a rock star, but the difference isn't that large. The real plus to aiming for being a professor is that the "fall back" positions along the path to professor are way way better than the rock star fallback options!

Plus who would want to be a rock star anyways? I doubt they barely ever get to do interesting math.
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Re: How to become a math professor?

Postby Birk » Mon May 31, 2010 7:24 pm UTC

Of course you could always be like Brian May who was a rock star and then his fallback was an astrophysics phd

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Re: How to become a math professor?

Postby Yakk » Mon May 31, 2010 7:41 pm UTC

Dason wrote:Plus who would want to be a rock star anyways? I doubt they barely ever get to do interesting math.

Good point.
One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision - BR

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Re: How to become a math professor?

Postby BirdKiller » Fri Jun 04, 2010 5:57 am UTC

Other than a math professor, the closest occupation is being a Mathematician (which Math research professors are) in which are employed beyond academic institutions like in private companies and government institutions. The only catch is most employers want you to study within a certain field and expect you to get some results within a deadline or so.

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Re: How to become a math professor?

Postby stephentyrone » Fri Jun 04, 2010 3:18 pm UTC

BirdKiller wrote:The only catch is most employers want you to study within a certain field and expect you to get some results within a deadline or so.


This is not so terribly different in academia. If anything, my friends from grad school who decided to stay in academia have more deadline pressure to produce results (due to tenure, grants, etc...) than I do as a mathematician in industry. The pressure to make tenure will go away for them eventually (hopefully), but they'll always need to deal with grant writing.
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Re: How to become a math professor?

Postby hemb » Fri Jun 04, 2010 9:22 pm UTC

Similar question, next year I'm going to be starting graduate school at a decent college (top 40, not top 20). At this point, what are the odds of landing a job as a professor? As an undergrad, I had some research experience, and wrote a paper that never got published. I took a lot of grad classes, and might be skipping a few intro grad classes (topology, analysis probably) that I already took.

Does anyone who's been through this know the odds, or have any advice?

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Re: How to become a math professor?

Postby Captain Strychnine » Fri Jun 04, 2010 10:01 pm UTC

Dason wrote:Plus who would want to be a rock star anyways? I doubt they barely ever get to do interesting math.

While not exactly a rock star, Dan Snaith, who makes some really great music as Caribou, got his PhD studying analytic number theory, though I don't think he does math anymore.

To the OP: You might take a look at A Mathematician's Survival Guide by Steven Krantz. I found it pretty helpful. He seems to be pretty honest about the realities of the field. If you are an undergraduate and you are seriously considering pursuing academia, you should start planning now. This is especially the case if you are not coming from a very well known school for mathematics. I'll say a little bit about my own experience and the experiences of my fellow graduate students when I get a chance.

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Re: How to become a math professor?

Postby Kurushimi » Fri Jun 04, 2010 10:36 pm UTC

Currently, I'm a Junior in High school, but school is ending next week. I really want to go to Harvey Mudd or Cal Tech, but those are some really tough schools to get into. Does anyone know any other good schools for mathematics on the off chance that I happen to NOT be one of the 20% that gets accepted to these schools?

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Re: How to become a math professor?

Postby skeptical scientist » Sat Jun 05, 2010 2:31 am UTC

Kurushimi wrote:Currently, I'm a Junior in High school, but school is ending next week. I really want to go to Harvey Mudd or Cal Tech, but those are some really tough schools to get into. Does anyone know any other good schools for mathematics on the off chance that I happen to NOT be one of the 20% that gets accepted to these schools?

The University of Chicago is very strong in math and also has a quite high acceptance rate compared to other institutions of similar quality.
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Re: How to become a math professor?

Postby mmmcannibalism » Sat Jun 05, 2010 3:12 am UTC

A little bit of a hijack, but I think I'm still close enough to the topic.

If I was trying to secure a college job teaching, how likely am I to get a job if I stay at one school for undergrad and grad school and try to secure a job there? (assuming I'm a good student and all that type of thing)
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Re: How to become a math professor?

Postby nehpest » Sat Jun 05, 2010 7:36 am UTC

All of the schools I've attended have at least informal "policies" in place discouraging or banning "academic inbreeding." Tulane, for example, explicitly told all of us freshman EE students that we ought to look elsewhere for our graduate schooling, because otherwise we'd never be able to get a job at Tulane.
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Re: How to become a math professor?

Postby stephentyrone » Wed Jun 16, 2010 12:26 am UTC

Not to dash anyone's hopes too severely, but http://www.miller-mccune.com/science/the-real-science-gap-16191/ should be required reading for anyone considering this career path.
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Re: How to become a math professor?

Postby njperrone » Wed Jun 16, 2010 2:13 am UTC

stephentyrone wrote:Not to dash anyone's hopes too severely, but http://www.miller-mccune.com/science/the-real-science-gap-16191/ should be required reading for anyone considering this career path.


This makes me glad that its not money that fuels my goals. But, at the same time its a little disconcerting to find out.

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Re: How to become a math professor?

Postby bestplace » Wed Jun 16, 2010 5:04 am UTC

Cmebeh wrote:Get a Phd. Also, look at what school you want to get your PhD from and see what their requirements are. I suggest starting to learn German and French or Russian now.


Is it true that Phd stands for "Papa has dough"?

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Re: How to become a math professor?

Postby BlackSails » Wed Jun 16, 2010 5:06 am UTC

No, the overwhelming majority of phd programs are fully funded.

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Re: How to become a math professor?

Postby skeptical scientist » Wed Jun 16, 2010 5:41 am UTC

BlackSails wrote:No, the overwhelming majority of phd programs are fully funded.

In math and the sciences, at least. I think this is much less true in the humanities.
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Re: How to become a math professor?

Postby BlackSails » Wed Jun 16, 2010 12:19 pm UTC

skeptical scientist wrote:
BlackSails wrote:No, the overwhelming majority of phd programs are fully funded.

In math and the sciences, at least. I think this is much less true in the humanities.


That might be true, my only experience is with science grad programs.


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