July 1, 2018, marked the day I’d been a university professor for twenty years. My first faculty position was as limited term assistant professor at Mount Allison University in 1998. That was also the year I graduated from my doctorate at the University of Waterloo.
Since then, I’ve had a faculty position at Wilfrid Laurier University, where I was graduate program director. I’m now at Ryerson University in Toronto, where I served as Chair of the Department of Mathematics and Associate Dean in Graduate Studies.
Where it all began
When I was completing my doctoral studies at the University of Waterloo, graduate students were told by professors that academic jobs were scarce and that we should have realistic expectations. I’m very good at not listening to advice. I worked hard at publishing, boosted my teaching portfolio through part-time contracts at next-door Wilfrid Laurier University, and networked with other mathematicians.
The post-doc market in my field was very dry at the time. My teaching evaluations from the courses I taught at Waterloo and Laurier were excellent, so I applied for and received offers from Mount Allison and Acadia University for visiting assistant professor positions. I didn’t know much about either university, but Mount Allison offered me more money, so I went there. These weren’t the coveted tenure-track positions I wanted, but they were a start. I realized that if I could get my foot in the door with the title “assistant professor” then it would be easier to find a permanent position.
After my year at Mount Allison, I took a tenure-track position at Wilfrid Laurier University. The day after I accepted my offer from them, famed graph theorist Brian Alspach offered me a post-doc position, which of course I turned down. I suppose in an alternate universe I would have been his post-doc.
I received tenure at Laurier in 2004 and went on my first sabbatical. That year I moved to Toronto to live with Doug who became my spouse in 2005. Commuting back and forth between Toronto and Waterloo wasn’t ideal, so I considered other options. In 2008, I came to Ryerson University as a tenured Associate Professor. I became a full professor at Ryerson University in 2010, and the rest, as they say, is history.
The more things change
While much has changed in the academic landscape for professors in the last twenty years, much has not changed. There is a greater awareness of diversity, but nevertheless, I don’t see a great deal of inclusion in the mathematics community. To be frank, mathematics is still largely done by white, straight, and cisgendered men. We don’t have enough women mathematicians or racialized mathematicians or mathematicians with disabilities. I don’t see many LGBTQ+ faculty in mathematics. I hope eventually that the dam will burst and our field will be more representative.
Each year, I see dozens of tenure-track positions in mathematics advertised in Canada and many more in the US. This is quite unlike the academic job landscape for mathematicians in the late nineties. However, that doesn’t mean getting an academic job in mathematics is any easier now than it was twenty years ago. It may be harder now, given the increased number of doctoral programs and graduates. I notice that many positions tend to target narrow areas; if you don’t fit in those boxes, then it will be tough to find tenure-track positions.
Industry will always be there
There is a misperception now that doctoral students are more aware of non-academic career paths. In the cohort of doctoral students I graduated with, the majority ended up working outside academia. I don’t think that has changed. We are only now gathering more data on post-doctoral academic employment, and I welcome those otherwise scarce statistics.
My advice to graduating doctoral students thinking of joining the professorial ranks is to be very clear about what you want. Is a tenure-track position your ultimate goal? If so, then devote yourself to publishing and teaching. Make contacts with established professors and network as much as you can at conferences and seminars. I’ve known post-docs who landed a permanent position in a year or two, but others have taken up to ten years to do so. Landing your first professorial job may not be easy, but it is worth it if that is your goal.
Industry will always be there. If your dream is to be a professor, then give it a shot for a few years before taking a job in industry. If you are enjoy coding and the grind of publishing and teaching discourages you, then you should definitely consider a job in industry. I know mathematicians who are incredibly productive and happy in positions in companies or government. You have the potential to make more money outside academia, but you won’t have the job security that tenure brings.
One parting thought to all my present and future professor mathematician colleagues: be compassionate towards your graduate students. Our graduate students work hard for little pay and small hope of eventual employment as a professor. They are stressed about their futures and don’t get much respect from either inside or outside the academy. They deserve our support.