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Section 10 Work-life balance

This section is included at the request of graduate students. It should be viewed more as an editorial piece though it contains many statements of fact.

The phrase “work-life balance” is at best a misnomer in academics. The profession you want to enter demands passion, a passion for your work that can sustain you through the disproportionate requirements of time needed to succeed in this profession. Time demanded of you by your career can often not be predicted nor easily partitioned from the time devoted to things outside your career. Complicating an interpretation of the phrase “work-life” even more are that there are many who equate work and life, or more pointedly, there are many mathematicians for whom doing math is life.

To get down to some specifics, your work-life balance is influenced by your goals and aspirations as well as the requirements of your job. As a professional mathematician, your motivation for a heavy investment in your career may be job security, such as tenure and promotion (even fame, rarely fortune); as a graduate student the motivation is probably to get a degree and a “good” job. But unlike an undergraduate finishing and getting a job which might be their end goal, for you this is simply a first step, but a critical one.

So part of the work-life balance is a matter of choice. For you this balance is also influenced somewhat by your advisor whose job it is to train you to the best of their ability and enable as many opportunities as they can. Styles by which faculty train graduate students vary dramatically, from a virtual hands-off approach (ask me questions if you have them), to those who want weekly progress reports, to those who are even more prescriptive. Students who are supported on research grants or are in research collaboration with their advisor often have additional pressures. Especially grants in applied mathematics are awarded in expectation of deliverables with deadlines. Missing deadlines can result in a loss of funding, which could have obvious effects for graduate student funding. Extra effort is often required to help finish research close to a projected timeline.

Presumably you are aware of your advisor's proclivities before signing on. Perhaps a good conversation is to ask what a prospective advisor's plans are for you as their student? What are your own plans and aspirations? The job market is highly competitive with one measure of the strength of a job applicant given by their productivity. It should also be clear that the quality and strength of the letter of recommendation which your advisor can write is directly related to your success and productivity as a student. Pressure to work hard should come from you; this is your chosen profession.

Let's think about various aspects of the career of a professional mathematician. Here we talk about the work aspects, leaving to you to discern how life fits into this picture.

Success in research is certainly influenced by the amount of time devoted to it, but not determined by it. And in the absence of brilliant insight, you work long, hard hours to catch a glimpse of possible approaches to a problem. And let's not forget that grants are important to everyone's career. Most applied mathematicians are expected to generate revenue in terms of grant dollars, and research universities expect faculty to obtain grants as evidence of the value of their research. And of course writing grants takes time, but more importantly you are writing a grant which makes promises on which you need to deliver if you expect to get future grants.

For many, perhaps most, of you there will be a teaching side to your career. Components include lecture writing, creation and grading of homework and exams, perhaps overseeing a research group, mentoring undergraduates and graduate students outside of classroom courses, and committee work.

Depending upon the type of department you are in, different weights are assigned to each of the research-teaching tasks, but taken all together, these tasks require a huge amount of time.

The bottom line is that the life of a professional mathematician can be an incomparably wonderful experience, but you should be well aware of the costs as manifested in a work-life balance. In particular, doing (at least most of) the jobs that comprise your career should be a passion; without such a passion, devoting huge amounts of time to your career will not prove satisfying.