As the semester begins to wind down, I come to the end of teaching a semester of Calculus II. This is the semester of Calculus that sometimes gives the subject a bad name. Included in it are such things as revolving a function around a line that may or may not be the x or y axis, substituting in for trigonometric functions using special trigonometric identities, and a technique known as “integration by parts,” in which a difficult integral is decomposed into an equation including an integral that is much easier to solve. As we plod through these topics, I often find myself giving my students advice on how they might go about the often “creative” process of making the required substitutions. As one student told me “I see what you are doing, but I don’t know if I would think to do that myself.” I found myself thinking of this coaching when I read an essay in TIME this past week about advice that is given to young women just starting their careers.
When I decided to pursue a Ph.D. in Economics in the mid- 1980s, I was advised by several professors to go right after college, not to wait to do this. Their thinking was that if I got a taste of life with a job with a steady income, I would probably never be willing to give it up to go back to graduate school. None of them specifically told me that my fertility would be at risk if I spent my 20s making money and then expected to spend my 30s in graduate school. I did those calculations on my own, and realized that if I ever wanted a family, getting my degree and then getting a (preferably) tenure track job as soon as possible was the best path towards the future I longed for.
As it was, fertility was nowhere near the most important issue. I did not realize that a race towards a job with health insurance was, as I managed to obtain health insurance only four days before I was diagnosed with a large brain tumor. Thanks to that insurance, I was able to be treated and recovered enough that I have been able to realize most of the plans I had made for my life. No one could have known the variables that were secretly affecting the outcomes of the decisions I was making in my 20s, and I am thankful that the advice I was given turned out to be advice that led to the best outcome, given the twisted road my life eventually took.
As I read the article in TIME this past week, I reflected on the advice I was given as a young twenty-something women, and wondered; what advice are people giving young women in my position these days, and do my readers think this is good advice? I know that many people writing into Inside Higher Ed think that we should not be encouraging young people to pursue doctorates, as the labor market for these degrees is so tight and the probability of finding an appropriate and stable job so slim.
To be honest, I don’t know what I would have done, if I had faced the current labor market, and I realize that I am very lucky to have gotten through graduate school when I did. And so I ask my readers; what advice did you receive, and what advice do you now give to those thinking of pursuing an academic career?