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Math Geek Mom: The Demon Degree
April 23, 2009 - 8:59pm

When I was in graduate school, it seemed that everyone’s dissertation was more interesting than my own. Of course, this was probably because I did not have to wrestle with the details of them, but could just enjoy hearing the large picture of what they were doing. I was interested in everyone’s dissertation, not just those in economics, my own field. Of particular interest to me were dissertations in fields of philosophy and theology, where questions of ultimate importance were tackled.

Although I have always been interested in these fields, I quickly learned that I had no future making a career out of studying such disciplines, for several reasons. First, to study such disciplines required a working knowledge of ancient languages, and I had difficulty just fulfilling my minimum language requirement in college, which I did by earning a C+ in Intermediate Spanish. Latin and Greek were, well, Greek to me, except for the Greek letters that are common as mathematical notation, which I know well. Second, I am a Catholic woman, and would find myself confronting the “stained glass ceiling” had I earned degrees in such fields. While I know of other Catholic women who have successfully navigated these fields, I knew that it would be too much work, I knew that it would be very difficult and painful for me to try to do so. And finally, I did not pursue advanced study in these fields because I ultimately believe an idea that was first proposed by some of the earliest economists, back in the late 1700s, that one should pursue what they are best at. I call upon this theory when I (often) stop off to pick up take-out on the way home; I am not a terribly good cook (ok, so I am a terrible cook), and I am just trading income earned by doing what I am good at for something that I could have made myself, but only with much angst. Instead, I should do what I am good at, and for me, that is math and economics.

The idea presented by Adam Smith and his colleagues is called “comparative advantage”, and is the reason for the title of his famous book The Wealth of Nations. He proposed that a county’s wealth is not found in gold and other goods, but in the ability to produce things that others want. The idea says simply that one should do what one does best, and then trade for other things, which, in my case, is often dinner. So, since I am best at math and economics, that what I should put my energy into doing. While I enjoy studying philosophy and theology, that is not what I do best, and therefore not what I should spend my time doing.

Except when I work with my students from the local seminary. The Catholic seminary in the area offers a degree called a “D.Min.”, the doctoral level answer to the professional ministry degree, the “M.Div.” Students pursuing this degree are often priests of ministers of some type who undertake a ministry project as the topic of their dissertation. They are then asked to analyze their project and to write about it formally. In the outline of the dissertation, Chapter Four is supposed to be a statistical analysis of what they have done, and is the chapter that causes even the most intelligent students to shudder with fear. I suspect that many Chapter Fours are the reason that many students have been inspired to start calling their program, as I have heard them do, the “demon degree.”

I am privileged to help calm some of these fears, as these students come to me armed with laptops loaded with a statistical package and their data, knowing what hypothesis they want to test but now knowing how to do so. I help them sort through their data, asking what assumptions we need to make to perform various tests, until we find a way to correctly test their hypothesis. Along the way, I get to meet some amazing people who are working on important and inspiring projects. I met one priest from Africa who worked helping members of minority populations make end of life decisions, despite being suspicious of our health care system run by Caucasians. I met a priest who worked with Catholics to teach them of the Jewish roots of their religion and to encourage them to leave any lingering prejudices behind. And, most recently, I met two amazing women who were doing their own part to break the stained glass ceiling, one of whom spent spare time working with homeless populations, and the other who works with people in the most difficult days of their lives, as they separate from their spouses. As I worked with them to help them assemble the final pieces to their dissertation, I realized that, some day, should my daughter decide that she, too, enjoys studying theology or philosophy, such options will be more accessible to her, thanks to the path that these women were paving as they crunched their data. That is, if she can learn to speak Latin and Greek.


 

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