Outside the Ivory Tower

I’ve been outside the Ivory Tower for about a year and a half.  In that time, I have radically changed the way I view the world. MathGuyI’m now asking relatives about their ROI of their time when researching reduced hotel rates instead of asking if they just saved money (b/c time matters!). I have new businessy words for things I would never have thought of previously. I have scoping meetings to prepare for alignment meetings which are preparation for some even greater alignment meeting. I even have new structures for how to solve problems because sometimes explaining my work within the context of DMAIC [ref] is easier to understand than whatever PhD language I learned previously. Sometimes, when I’m doing predictive modeling with a huge parameter space, I feel like my PhD was necessary. Certainly, my breadth and depth of knowledge are useful. But what if I am working on something outside the content of what I learned in graduate school? For these situations, I am still not clear on precisely how having a PhD is helpful in this new world.

Let’s step back in time to when I was a graduate student. In the same way that we say, “youth is wasted on the young”, I clearly didn’t understand how wonderful it was to research in academics.  I didn’t know what I had! In academics, you can be blissfully unconcerned with whether or not your work is intrinsically valuable. What a glorious wonderful haven of intellectual thought! But now I think, “What value is there in creating wonderful research if there is no way to do anything with it?”

In 2009, I wrote about throwing papers over the academic wall and hoping someone picks them up (see left). academic-great-wall-cartoonAt that point, I vaguely understood that there was something interesting about doing useful research. In 2010, I started thinking about how mathematicians were useful in society. Why is it important to have mathematicians outside the Ivory Tower? In 2013, I was thinking about how it was actually better to be outside the Ivory Tower. And in 2014, I learned about why mathematicians (+ data) might be the next big thing in commerce. Then, all of a sudden, I graduated and was working in “the Industry.” (Because that’s what you call everything that isn’t academics.) I went into my new world excited to apply my knowledge to real problems…and I was armed with a PhD in Applied Math.

And I was horrified!  I was so excited to use my math for new applications, but what I found were people who were changing the definition of variance because they didn’t like the result of the model they built with the real definition. I struggled with Industry’s need to bin and bucket different mathematical techniques. I was surprised to learn that I should occasionally not discuss all my project problems because if I discussed them when no one else was, then I looked like the lady who was producing bad results instead of being the only person who was acknowledging a weakness in the inputs. But, within all this cray-cray, I realized my horror for sloppy analytics must be a symptom of something valuable that I learned in my PhD.  But what was it?

Here’s the beginnings of my theory; I spent years beating my head against the side of that Ivory Tower and during those frustrating years I was building stamina and intuition. Every step I took up the ladder was careful and measured. The core of my mathematical faith rests on those building blocks of real analysis, probability theory and dynamical systems. And when someone points at one of those building blocks and says, “That’s not important, I’m going to build it differently because it suits my needs better,” then I get really mad. I am emotionally invested in those ideals. It’s not okay to ignore the building blocks of my field. I’m like a tiny, intellectual paladin ready to solve problems and defeat evil!…umm, what? IvoryTower3

In summary, I poetically claim that every PhD learned how to be an analytical paladin while they were in graduate school. And I’m not sure how it’s a useful skill in Industry, but it has to be part of the PhD toolkit because I’m pretty sure every STEM PhD has that emotional response to bad math. Maybe that is why companies hire us. We get sucked into Industry because of our desire to do something useful. But the reason Industry lets us stay is so they can have their own round table of analytical evangelists? So, while I’m still not sure about all the reasons companies hire PhDs, I believe that our stubbornly held rigorous belief system must be on the list.


About Samantha from SocialMath

Applied Mathematician and writer of socialmathematics.net.
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3 Responses to Outside the Ivory Tower

  1. Stephanie says:

    On a much smaller scale, I’ve seen this as a college student interning at a large corporation. I’m consistently amazed at how easy it is for the “Industry” to ignore good practices in stats and analytics, when they spend all day researching “best practices” for the task at hand. I’ve seen great presentations fall flat because the presenter assumed it was best to show all the details, good, bad, and uncertain. It’s a bit discouraging, but I like to consider myself a paladin for the benefits of academia. 🙂

    • Samantha says:

      Yes, I think this is an excellent point! And, of course, academia needs paladins too. I agree that there is a disconnect in industry between the desire for good practices and understanding those what those good practices are (in math particularly). I’ve also seen the results of presentations get over-looked or criticized because the presenter included more technical details than the audience could ingest. But when I think about this today (many months after I originally thought about this post), I think this is one the hurdles that must be overcome if mathematicians want to influence non-mathematicians. The business decisions will get made with or without the analytics, so I try to make the math as easy to swallow as I can; in hopes of directing the business towards the best possible decision. But who knows what I’ll think in another few months! What do you think?

  2. Pingback: Leaving Academics | Social Mathematics

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