I was wondering, as I am most likely progressing towards such life, what the daily life is like as a math professor? I know there will be differences, but if you could add your experiences I would appreciate it. How much time is spent at a university? How much time is spent mentoring? Lecturing? Doing research? What are your goals for the day, the month, maybe even the year? (Getting an article published, finishing a book(?) etc.)

Also, what 'competition' is there as a math professor? I know it may not be classified as a competition as is, but, I could imagine e.g. getting an article published could be viewed as such. Getting a particular position at the university? Maybe more.


closed as off-topic by Najib Idrissi, Lord_Farin, quid, Dirk, 6005 Sep 25 '15 at 20:03

This question appears to be off-topic. The users who voted to close gave this specific reason:

  • "This question is not about mathematics, within the scope defined in the help center." – Lord_Farin, quid
If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

  • $\begingroup$ i use math as an addiction $\endgroup$ – janmarqz Jan 23 '14 at 20:26
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    $\begingroup$ @janmarqz. Is that math with an "a" or the other m_th :)) $\endgroup$ – imranfat Jan 23 '14 at 20:33
  • $\begingroup$ For Erdos, weren't they the same thing? $\endgroup$ – Nick D. Jan 23 '14 at 20:40
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    $\begingroup$ If you already get to be a mathematics prof. is because you're a math freak, so dealing all the time with mathematics is, usually, a bliss and you get paid for it! Of course, sometimes (very few, as far as I can say) it can be a little too much and time off is important. Teaching burden is usually light (in decent universities, I mean): rarely more than 10-14 hours a week for some undergraduate course and perhaps some other advanced short one, plus 2-4 hours at office for students wanting to ask stuff. And about checking weekly exercise sheets, exams: hey, what're graduate students for!? $\endgroup$ – DonAntonio Jan 23 '14 at 20:41
  • $\begingroup$ @Don: 10-14 hours a week plus "some other short one" would mean teaching four to five courses per semester. There are professors who teach that much...but they generally have no other responsibilities. Calling that amount of teaching "light" would get you hissed at in any of the departments I have ever had dealings with. (Also: many universities frown on having student TA's grade exams. In some cases it is against the rules. Professors should expect to do most or all of the exam grading in their undergraduate courses.) $\endgroup$ – Pete L. Clark Jan 23 '14 at 20:49

This is a good question, but it will have at least as many correct answers as there are math professors. I think you would do well to find a math professor that you feel would be willing to give you a decently full, honest answer and be responsive to any followup questions you may have. I think this is a perfectly appropriate question for any student to ask me at any time: after all, by teaching mathematics at the university level I am implicitly promoting that profession, but my promotion of that is not absolute and unqualified: some students should seek this as a career and others should probably not.

Short answer from me: the amount of time I spend teaching undergraduates, teaching graduates, mentoring graduate students and doing my own research* varies tremendously from week to week and semester to semester, for instance because the number of courses that I need to teach in a given academic year is not a whole number. Also having a PhD student (and to a lesser but still certainly nontrivial extent, a master's student) is a fair amount of work on average, but there are times when it becomes a tremendous amount of work: e.g. for both the master's student and the PhD student whose theses I successfully directed, there was about one semester where the amount of time I was giving to them was in excess of any one of the classes I was teaching. And I think that the amount of time I devote to my students is probably average to slightly below average (I tend to encourage independent work in students rather than weekly reassurance), so when I see colleagues who are supervising four students and meeting with each of them every week, I feel deep admiration and wonder how they manage to get anything else done.

My research goal is to submit roughly three papers per year: less if they are long and substantial, more if they are short and light. Generally I spend more time doing research over the summer than during the academic year. Sometimes I have spent entire semesters doing only "caretaking" of my research program: i.e., performing routine revisions on papers, and so forth. More recently I have tried to do at least some mathematical research every week...although it may not be the research that I am "supposed" to be doing.

I would classify being a professor as a highly competitive occupation. It is competitive in different ways at different points in your career -- there are times when it is so competitive that one thinks twice about staying in the profession but rides it out in expectation of future, better times -- but I would say that for a professor at a research university the competitive aspect is always there. For instance we compete for higher academic ranks, for raises, for status within one's department and in one's profession, for both internal and external grants, and so forth. Much of this competition is negative competition that must be dealt with, I would say. (It would be nice if I didn't have to show myself as being good enough to get a job offer at a different university in order to get a decent raise, but that seems increasingly to be the reality as time goes on.) On the other hand mathematics is also inherently competitive in a more positive way: we always try to push the boundary of what is known, to improve on past results, and even more basically to improve one's own knowledge, technique and skills. This kind of competition is much of what keeps brilliant people doing mathematics over the course of their long life, when by every external measure they have achieved essentially maximal career success.

*: This is not an exhaustive list of my professional responsibilities. But I don't want to get into more detail than this right now.

  • $\begingroup$ It’s very reassuring to read that even the higher ranks are competitive. I always felt ashamed for competing for status/recognition and always wondered how you guys handled this, thinking that you probably aren’t competitive at all. $\endgroup$ – k.stm Jan 23 '14 at 21:07
  • $\begingroup$ @K. Stm.: In my opinion the profession is more competitive at more highly ranked places, although at really top places there is a veneer of gentility. As a PhD student at Harvard nothing was explicitly asked of me -- in a semester without teaching (which I had, half the time!) I often wondered how long it would take the department to notice or react to my total absence. I thought it would be around one month. Nevertheless the attitude there was implicitly very competitive, at least in the sense of looking around at your peers and deciding that you need to work that much harder. $\endgroup$ – Pete L. Clark Jan 23 '14 at 21:12
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    $\begingroup$ Also, in my last semester there I realized how directly I was competing with my peers for scarce resources -- namely, academic jobs -- despite the fact that we had been entirely supportive of each other and had in many cases developed close friendships. The extent to which you see the competition is highly variable, but one must not forget that it's there even when you don't see it! $\endgroup$ – Pete L. Clark Jan 23 '14 at 21:14
  • $\begingroup$ The below average amount of time dedicated to students refers only to advising theses? There is a lot of really hiqh quality course material on your website. $\endgroup$ – Michael Greinecker Jan 23 '14 at 21:46
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    $\begingroup$ @Michael: Yes. By this I just mean that many advisors meet with each of their students every week for years, like clockwork. I tend to want to meet with my students when we have something to discuss or when I want to give them an occasional extra push. $\endgroup$ – Pete L. Clark Jan 23 '14 at 21:53

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