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Keeping Your Research Alive
I received my Ph.D. from Yale in 1983, and came out onto one of the best job markets in mathematics in the past twenty-five years, so it is with some trepidation that I offer advice on how get your own careers going and keep them afloat. Let me offer a few caveats: first, the job market was good when I finished my degree, but it hadn't been so good just a few years before, so mentally I had prepared myself for the worst. Second, although I had a number of job offers to choose from, I somewhat deliberately chose a job situation for myself that offered some of the same challenges that you are facing in your careers right now.
I chose to go to Virginia Tech, a university somewhat off the beaten track, where I would be the only person working in my area of research. As I have always taken a somewhat iconoclastic approach to my life and work, the projects I decided to pursue were somewhat at odds with what was expected of me. For example, as an untenured faculty member I decided to begin work on a book project. In hindsight I am very glad that I did this, but the rewards of this sort of project were not immediately evident. In a profession that puts a premium on timeliness, choosing to do this was definitely a risk that put my career on the line.
I recognized that my mathematical survival depended on making others aware of my work. I attended as many conferences, and volunteered to give as many talks, as I could possibly manage. I applied early and often for NSF grant support, and it was my great good fortune to be successful in landing grants. The result of these efforts is that I was able to communicate on a regular basis with other mathematicians about the long-term project I had undertaken, and I was able to convince a good many people of its significance. The moral of the story: choose your projects with courage, and make every effort to advertise and promote your work.
All that is in my past. As for the present --- yours and mine --- let me say that these are very confusing and tumultuous times for the entire mathematical community. The working environment for *all* mathematicians, young and old, is up for grabs, as the community is in the process of redefining itself. This is a time of trouble, but also of opportunity. Though the mathematical community has historically been rather rigid, this is a time of unprecedented freedom to undertake whatever sort of meaningful scholarly work in mathematics that captures your interest. Your greatest assets are creativity, flexibility, adaptability, and the willingness to take an off-center approach. Whatever you decide to undertake, the most important thing is to avoid professional isolation. Promote your work, seek allies, enlist colleagues, speak in seminars and at conferences, seek out new connections to mathematicians and to professionals in other disciplines.
It is quite unlikely that you will lead the same kind of professional lives that your professors did, but this should not be reason for despair. You need always to remember that you have unusual training and skills. The world --- both inside and outside of mathematics --- is waiting for you, full of problems to be solved.