A Mathematician's Skills Applied to a Nonacademic Career Track

June 23, 1999

What if tenure disappeared, teaching calculus became intolerable, or the bottom fell out of the academic job market? Paul Brown explored career options outside academia, eventually receiving an offer from an entrepreneurial software development company speciaizing in health care information systems.

Paul Brown

In the fall of 1997, as a hedge against the shrinking National Science Foundation grant base and the poor market for tenure-track jobs, I decided to explore the possibility of a nonacademic career. My exploration yielded equal measures of frustration and success. A sample of one, I can offer anecdotal evidence at best, but I imagine that many mathematicians have had or---especially in the case of graduate students considering both academic and nonacademic career tracks---will have similar experiences.

Starting From Zero: Assess Your Strengths
I knew in advance that I faced a difficult task. A pure mathematician by training, a specialist in the geometry of group actions on piecewise constant curvature polyhedral cell complexes, I had neither the skills and accumulated intuition of a traditional applied mathematician, nor the deep functional knowledge of an industrial mathematician.

Nor did I have any relevant experience. I had programming experience, as my dissertation work involved the development and use of computational techniques. However, I had no experience developing software in a collaborative environment, no experience developing applications for use by others, and no experience with common databases or development tools for Windows or commercial UNIX operating systems. And absolutely no experience with business or business applications.

In fact, my last summer job outside the ivied walls of academe had involved heavy lifting and driving a forklift in a warehouse. The interview process at the warehouse had included a primitive sort of case interview---lifting a 75-pound case---on the successful completion of which I was hired.

In seeking nonacademic summer work, my only assets were a willingness to learn and a mathematician's skills in structuring and solving complex problems.

In the hope that my problem-solving skills would qualify me as a generalist, I decided that my first target would be the major management and strategic consulting firms. These firms traditionally offer "summer associate" positions to mid-program MBA students, and I sent in resumes and cover letters on Crane's Thesis Paper left over from my dissertation. In return, I received a uniform response: a form letter addressed to "Mr. Brown" and conveying the assurance that, while the firm almost exclusively considers applicants from a select group of schools, I was welcome to send in a resume again "upon completion of [my] graduate education."

I also sent resumes and cover letters (seeking summer employment) to human resource departments at banks, accounting firms, and financial analysis firms. With the exception of a generous offer of a clerical position, I received not one single response.

I found this state of affairs to be a cause for concern. Academic mathematicians, especially "pure" mathematicians, assume that the academic lifestyle will exist in perpetuity. But what if tenure disappeared, teaching calculus became intolerable, or the bottom fell further out of the academic job market? Would it really be so difficult to find nonacademic employment outside the traditional avenues of IDA/NSA, Wall Street, and software development? What was I doing wrong?

Choosing the Right Target
With the consulting firms, my initial thought had been that a whole PhD should rank at least even with half of an MBA. Tackling the sorts of problems faced by management or strategic consultants, I thought, is arguably within the capabilities of the average math PhD. That perspective, though, is na´ve: The question is not one of capability. For the consulting industry, among others, MBA graduates and students represent known quantities in that they have predictable backgrounds, skill sets, and intellectual culture. Perhaps most importantly, the summer associate programs are essentially test-drives for future employees, and the firms had no reason to think that they had a chance of wooing me away from academe permanently. (Recruiting personnel at several firms have since informed me that summer associate programs are being made friendlier to pre-PhD applicants.)

With the banks and accounting firms, the recruitment of potential permanent employees for specific openings fully occupies most human resource technicians. In hindsight, the probability is next to zero that a rank-and-file human resources technician would either be aware of a potential short-term opportunity for a mathematician or have the necessary time, access, and interest to seek out such opportunities.

I needed someone who would appreciate my technical background, ideally someone technical who had crossed over into business, and I also needed someone with authority. I decided that a small, entrepreneurial business might have a thin enough bureaucratic skin that I could actually get a resume in front of someone with both imagination and authority. I also assumed that entrepreneurs, by nature, would be more willing to take risks.

With the assistance of friends, I made a list of 40 entrepreneurial businesses in the Chicago area in which the focus was on technology or on quantitative analysis. I placed calls and sent out resumes, eliciting three solid nibbles and eventually one offer. The offer came from MasterChart, an entrepreneurial software development company specializing in health care information systems.

Being a Good Widget
I interviewed twice with MasterChart. For the first interview, I put on a suit (for the sixth time in my life), called my father for telephone directions on tying a tie, and drove out to the suburbs for the interview. The upshot of the interview, as I was later told, was "He's obviously a bright guy, but he doesn't know much about health care or programming applications for Windows." (The firm's initial aim had been to integrate me into the development staff for a summer project.) The moral is that being good is not enough-you must be good for something.

Three months later, I put on my suit again for a second interview with MasterChart. This time I was seen as providing a potential fit with the firm's needs for a consulting project, a technology assessment and "business process re-engineering" for a large medical transcription company. Interviewing with some of the MasterChart principals, I honestly admitted my lack of business experience but balanced it with a willingness to learn.

Another two weeks later---time I spent absorbing information about medical records workflow, health care regulations, electronic medical records, and project management techniques---I was in Atlanta, learning about the medical transcription business firsthand, and wearing the same suit yet again. Over the next two months, I talked with transcriptionists and their managers, looked at software, researched competitors, attended an industry conference, and discussed different ideas and strategies with MasterChart principals. In the end, I delivered a detailed 40-page analysis document that received strong praise from the executives who sponsored the project.

The document contained only a small amount of mathematics, but mathematical training enabled me to structure, simplify, and solve a complex problem.

The Moral of the Story
One year after my initial foray into business, my consulting business has grown from a "doing business as" sole proprietorship to a newly formed corporation with full-time employees, investors, and several active clients. My experiences have reinforced several lessons.

First, when seeking work, build relationships, be patient, and keep in touch: A business may have or even find a use for you in the future if you make a strong impression. Business people are---true to their name---busy, and when you make a connection, it is up to you to invest the effort to keep in touch. Proactively set times to follow up---for instance, "I'll check back with you in three weeks"---and then do it. Do not expect all or even most of your calls to be returned. When all is said and done, any given business may or may not be able to put you to productive use, and that is not necessarily a reflection on you; know when to say, "Thanks for your time" and walk away.

Second, no business problem is an island: Understanding context and constraints is the first step toward a useful solution, and communication and learning play central roles. You will always have a lot to learn from your clients or employers, and you should respect their domain knowledge, sense of ownership, and sense of accomplishment in their business. Communicate with businesspeople in the fashion to which they are accustomed. In a consulting context, project management is of fundamental importance. (Project management is the art of breaking a problem and project into coherent pieces for delivery, implementation, and evaluation.) Use business style, e.g., executive summaries and bulleted lists, to create documents intended for rapid consumption. Use software convenient for your employers, i.e., do not expect business-people to have PostScript or DVI viewers.

Third, leverage your academic background and accomplishments: Communicating with businesspeople does not mean forsaking your mathematical roots. Many businesspeople, especially expatriates from technical fields, maintain an active interest in science and mathematics, and your ability to answer their questions coherently will enhance your value. So long as you provide business value, your accomplishments will provide respectability for you and bragging rights for your employer-not all businesspeople have a math professor working with them.

Fourth, it is important to choose your clients. Select an opportunity that offers room for growth and surrounds you with interesting, energetic people. You should be able to answer the following questions for yourself: What do you want to learn? Why? I asked for business experience, and MasterChart provided me with hands-on lessons in consulting practices and business politics ("what not to say and how not to say it").

The idea that "mathematics is all that mathematicians can do" is an illusion. In reality, the careful reasoning, controlled creativity, and discipline required for doctoral work in mathematics is excellent preparation for tackling all sorts of problems in areas both inside and outside traditional applied mathematics. The world is full of opportunities for bright, personable people, so take an open mind and a good attitude, and go explore.

Paul Brown is a research assistant professor of mathematics at the University of Illinois, Chicago. This article is adapted from a talk he gave in October 1998 at the SIAM Midwest Regional Mathematics in Industry Workshop (see SIAM News, January/February 1999).

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