Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Scientiae carnival: changing career prospects

When you have to make an official speech and have no idea what to say, you can always start with "it's not an end, but a beginning": works at graduation, weddings, but also retirements and even funerals, apparently.

Amazingly, it is also true in my personal life. Ten years ago I wanted to achieve a good solution to the two-body problem, and a family. Five years ago I had achieved that, and was struggling very hard to balance. Now it's getting easier, and I am finding time for further debate.

What kind of advisor do I want to be? How many students can I deal with at one time? How do I choose them? What are my duties towards them during and, possibly more importantly, after the PhD studies? It took me way too long to realize that I can choose the number of my students, just as I choose that of my children (or, more precisely, that of my pregnancies).

Should I, or should I not, go into "sidetracks" like university politics, didactical efforts, and scientific divulgation? I enjoy a bit of this, but do I have the time? On the other hand, can I afford not to be involved in the decisional process?

How do I balance work and family time? As my children grow, I feel I should spend more time (working) at home, so as to be there if they need me. Is this possible? What can I do to facilitate it? It doesn't help that seminars tend to be scheduled in the afternoon, sometimes late in the afternoon, but not in the morning. Maybe I can change that? For next year, I am actually planning to go home midafternoon at least two days per week.

The most important question is, what do I want to do research on now? Gone are the times when I would write and publish anything I could prove; I don't have time for everything anymore, especially if I want to save time to keep learning new things. So I have to make choices, bet on what I think are the most interesting options. At the same time, I feel it's important to follow my own taste, do whatever I think is relevant even if in the short term its impact might be limited.

As a related question, I have to choose which activities (schools, conferences, research institutes) I attend. I can't go everywhere I am invited to. And often a serendipitous choice has proven much more useful than I would have thought (last instances: a school in January, which spawned a research article, and a conference on topic A, not so interesting, which turned out to be packed with hard-to-locate experts in topic B).

Finally, like for everybody in academia, I have to consider in the back of my mind the possibility that I might work better elsewhere. It is not very likely to happen, since it's not so easy to move two full professors working in the same, pathetically small area of mathematics, and not being stars in it either, but it could still happen, and I like to keep my ears and my mind open - keeping in mind what the pluses and minuses would be for the children as well.

So how do I face all these choices? This is something I haven't changed at all, since the day, 20+ years ago, when I discovered that there was such a job as research mathematician and decided to try my best to do it. I get lots of information, both reading (on paper and on screen) and talking to people. I make diagrams and lists for myself, tables with possible plans, and so on.

And after I have removed the impossible and the unreasonably unlikely, I decide with my heart as well as with my brain (indeed, I suspect that in me these two organs have a strange short-circuit). I choose activities I enjoy, students and collaborators I find humanly likeable, participate in events that will make it possible for me to meet again pleasant people who live far away. I choose research problems that appeal to my mathematical taste, and don't worry on where I will publish the outcome.

That's what I have done so far, and it worked very well. It is funny because, although I am not a believer anymore, the idea was originally a religious one: I don't remember the precise words, but it was something like "look for the Kingdom of Heavens, and the rest will be given you as a free extra". Similarly, in my life I have looked for beauty, love and happiness. The rest (a good job in a reasonable university) more or less happened by itself.

I was lucky, but not terribly lucky: it wasn't so hard then. I am sad that I don't see a similarly straight path for the younger people I advise, unless they are willing to leave their country (which I now am, but wasn't at their age). I try to be very honest with them, and I keep hoping that times will change again.

This post is written for , which is organized at A Cat Nap by Flicka Mawa.

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