Benjamin Shulz (received in Ph.D. in Math in 1998)
article appeared in Science's Next
Wave in Spring, 1998
Mentoring Programs: "Preparing Future Faculty"
Participant: Benjamin Shults
I began graduate school in the mathematics department of the University of Texas, Austin (UT Austin), in the fall of 1990. At that time, neither the department nor the graduate school had a program to prepare graduate students for the kinds of tasks they might be expected to perform upon graduation. The exception, of course, was that the department prepared the students to do research. There was no organized training on teaching, applying for grants, serving on committees, submitting to journals, or refereeing papers--skills that you need to survive as a researcher.Some graduate students were fortunate. They had thesis supervisors who looked after them and made sure they were learning what they needed to know. Other students formed relationships with faculty members besides their supervisors and, through these informal relationships, learned what they needed to know. However, not all students could do this, and not all students knew that having a mentor could be helpful--and even essential--to their careers.
When I heard about the daylong visits to undergraduate campuses sponsored by the PFF program, I was keenly interested. Through the program, students are taken to the campuses of nearby colleges and universities to meet faculty, staff, and students. We heard about the missions of the various institutions and got a realistic idea about what faculty life was really like.The PFF program also began to host mock job interviews and other events on the campus of UT Austin to which they invited faculty and administrators from these nearby institutions. At these events, graduate students were able to witness the mock interviews and discuss the process. Many questions about what an interviewer seeks during the job-application process were asked and answered.These experiences helped to solidify my goals and inclinations. With the information I picked up, I was able to judge with more knowledge what kind of academic job--research, teaching, or a mixture of both--best suited my personality. At the time, my thesis research was in a field called "automated theorem proving." I worked on systematizations of some kinds of reasoning used by mathematicians to prove theorems.
During my last year of graduate school, I took part in a new initiative within the PFF program. About a dozen students were each assigned to a faculty mentor at a nearby institution. I was assigned to Laura Baker, a professor of computer science at St. Edward's University, a small, private, 4-year liberal arts college in Austin with connections to the Roman Catholic Church. Because my research is interdisciplinary between mathematics and theoretical computer science, this was a fortunate assignment. I spent several hours every week at St. Edward's talking to Baker, attending her classes, and helping her students in the lab. On a day when she had to be out of town, I was in charge of her class, and I once attended a faculty senate meeting with her.Through my relationship with Baker, I got close to an inside view of faculty life at a school unlike the large research institution I was attending. Baker enjoyed her work and did an excellent job at it. Her attitudes toward students were exemplary. She also provided a model for how senior academics can relate to novices such as myself. It would have been impossible for me to learn the things I learned from her without the formal structure provided by the PFF program.
In 1997, when the market in mathematics was (and still is) very tight, I applied for more than 80 jobs at all kinds of institutions (large research institutions, small liberal arts colleges, and many levels in between). In the end, I had three interviews, and the job I accepted was my dream job. I now hold a 2-year position teaching mathematics and computer science at Kenyon College, a very small and exclusive liberal arts college in Gambier, a tiny town in Ohio. Another position I was also courted for during my job hunt was a permanent staff research position in an artificial intelligence lab at Stanford University. The third interview, where I was not offered a position, was at another small, exclusive, liberal arts college in Ohio. I believe that my experiences with Baker made the difference in getting all three interviews. Our relationship gave me more formal and documented experience in the computer science classroom, which was a great help at the small liberal arts colleges.The greatest benefits I took from these experiences are less tangible. I believe I am a better teacher, researcher, mentor to my students, and colleague to my peers on account of the PFF program and the mentoring I received.