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CSE21 Session Addresses Early Careers in Academia, National Laboratories, and Industry

By Jillian Kunze

During the 2021 SIAM Conference on Computational Science and Engineering (CSE21), which took place virtually this March, an early career panel explored several possible occupational directions for recent graduates in applied mathematics. Kevin Carlberg (Facebook) and Victoria Howle (Texas Tech University) led the discussion, which addressed the advantages and challenges of various career paths. Panelists spoke in three distinct groups: academia, national laboratories, and industry. Attendees—the majority of whom were graduate students—had the opportunity to converse with the participants and glean their advice on early careers in these three areas.

Careers in Academia

Malena I. Espanol (Arizona State University), Stefan J. Kollet (Agrosphere Institute), and Miriam Mehl (University of Stuttgart) shared their respective paths through academia, beginning with impactful decisions that they made early in their careers. Mehl was glad to have joined a research consortium that helped her learn about different fields and meet her peers. “Networking should not be underestimated,” she said. Espanol also emphasized the importance of broad experiences. “If you get the chance, take very diverse classes,” she advised. Summer internships in a different area of study—possibly in industry or at a national laboratory—can also widen one’s horizons. In fact, Kollet chose to travel to a new country for his Ph.D. and postdoctoral research, which exposed him to an entirely different system of academia.

Panelists urged attendees who were about to enter graduate school to seek out advisors who share their priorities. To do so, students should investigate a prospective advisor’s productivity, look into the achievements of their former students, and chat with group members. “There are no good or bad environments, with a few exceptions” Mehl said. “It just has to be a fit between the students and the supervisors.”

There are both advantages and disadvantages to postdoctoral research positions versus tenure-track posts after graduate school. Postdoctoral positions provide relevant experience but do not work with everyone’s personal situations. However, the many duties of a tenure-track position can constitute an abrupt change from being a student. “A faculty position is more than just research,” Espanol said. “It consists of teaching, supervising students, and applying for grants; it is a lot of work that takes away from research time.” When interviewing for a tenure-track job in academia, one should negotiate for additional considerations beyond salary, such as money for students and postdocs, a publishing budget, and multiple rooms. “This kind of negotiation is really important, as it is one of the few chances you will get to do so,” Kollet said. “You should take this chance and take it very seriously.”

Postdoctoral researchers often wonder whether they should focus on projects that are closely related to their Ph.D., or extend their skills and expertise. Because applied mathematicians frequently work with a wide variety of applications, it is generally beneficial to extend one’s capabilities. “You need to have good knowledge of a few fields so that you can talk to other people and supervise Ph.D. students who want to go in different directions,” Kollet said. “In academia, you have to broaden your perspective.” To accomplish this, postdocs can look for fields in which knowledge and methods from their Ph.D. are still applicable.

A panel at the 2021 SIAM Conference on Computational Science and Engineering (CSE21), which took place virtually in March, addressed early career paths for mathematicians in academia, national laboratories, and industry. Top row, left to right: Malena Espanol (Arizona State University), Stefan Kollet (Agrosphere Institute), and Miriam Mehl (University of Stuttgart). Middle row, left to right: Jacob Schroder (University of New Mexico), Heidi Thornquist (Sandia National Laboratories), and Juliane Mueller (Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory). Bottom row, left to right: Julia Ling (Citrine Informatics), Maxim Naumov (Facebook), and Jeff Hammond (NVIDIA).

Careers in National Laboratories

Jacob B. Schroder (University of New Mexico), Heidi K. Thornquist (Sandia National Laboratories), and Juliane Mueller (Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory) discussed their past and present experiences with national laboratories. Mueller enjoys working with many domain scientists from different research areas, while Thornquist appreciates the diversity of her colleagues’ backgrounds and the broad selection of challenging applications. “I feel inspired to come to work because you learn something new every day,” she said. Schroder, who has spent most of his career in national laboratories, likes contributing to projects with far-reaching impact and collaborating with experts to apply their specific knowledge base to real-world problems.

Graduate students can focus on developing several skill sets in preparation for potential careers at a national lab. Because laboratory staff frequently utilize large machines, employers value good parallel computing skills and software professionalism. To avoid feeling overwhelmed when interacting with the many domain scientists at national laboratories, students should listen to other types of lectures during graduate school and attend seminar series outside of their departments. “Be able to admit that there are things you do not know, and be open-minded to learning from other people,” Mueller said. 

For researchers at national labs with a continuing passion for education, teaching opportunities are still available — though they often take a different form than in academia. “There are a lot of opportunities to work with students over the summer, get involved in their Ph.D.s, and serve on their committees,” Schroder said.

Unique funding considerations exist for junior researchers who are establishing themselves at national laboratories. Many labs have early-career funds that are specifically meant for people to begin building their careers, though demand for these funds admittedly outstrips supply. When Mueller began working at Lawrence Berkeley, she discovered research opportunities by reaching out to colleagues who would benefit from her expertise in optimization. Since optimization is useful in a multitude of applications, she was able to connect with scientists during calls for funding opportunities and get involved with multiple projects. “Once you get the ball rolling, it is a lot easier,” Mueller said. “People now reach out to me to do optimization on their projects.”

Junior researchers might sometimes worry about becoming pigeonholed early in their careers. However, many areas of applied mathematics are valuable in numerous fields and are thus less niche. “Look for areas where your expertise is useful,” Thornquist said. “This will guide you onto a path that keeps you from being pigeonholed.” Asking for conversations and making connections can also lead to one’s involvement in a variety of fields. “Reach out into a couple different areas,” Schroder added. “Groups are very excited for people to sit in at their meetings.”

Careers in Industry

Julia Ling (Citrine Informatics), Maxim Naumov (Facebook), and Jeff Hammond (NVIDIA) explained that teamwork, the ability to receive feedback, and an aptitude for collaborative code development are all necessary skills for industry careers. Applied mathematicians in the industry sector must also be able to converse with a wide range of people in various business roles. “Sometimes you have to convince people that they need to understand a topic,” Hammond said. “You will have to be able to justify the money that you spend.”

 Some industry jobs are available to individuals without graduate degrees. Ling, who works at a start-up company, noted that graduate school is not essential for many roles due to the current start-up culture. But Naumov’s group at Facebook strongly prefers employees to have a Ph.D. The panelists indicated that if the name of an organization or branch contains “labs” or “research,” it likely has a culture that values Ph.D.s. Some companies even offer postdoctoral research positions that tend to pay better than similar postings in academia. “These positions can be very valuable and help guide your research towards practical, applied problems,” Naumov said.

Though it might be challenging, it is possible to transition from industry to academia or a national laboratory. “The most important thing is just to be excellent,” Ling said. “If you are excellent at your job, you will be recognized, and other people will want you to work for them.” Maintaining strong connections with colleagues who can vouch for the quality of one’s work is especially important when undergoing a large career shift, such as from industry to academia. Managers are taking a chance if they hire someone who is making this move, so they will value references very highly.

The panelists concluded by describing parts of their early careers that they particularly appreciate. Hammond has enjoyed the many interesting possibilities that his industry career enabled him to explore, while Naumov is glad that he ventured out of his comfort zone and learned new techniques from different areas and adjacent fields. Ling noted that she had not intended to conduct postdoctoral research, but seized the chance when it arose. She reminded attendees to be flexible. “It’s okay to take an opportunity that is not a part of your plan,” she said.

The 2021 SIAM Conference on Computational Science and Engineering, which took place virtually in March 2021, included a panel discussion that addressed early careers in applied mathematics.

CSE21 attendees can access a recording of this panel and other conference presentations by logging in to the virtual platform. Recordings are available until June 5th. If you weren’t able to attend the meeting, SIAM has reopened registration at a discounted rate for on-demand viewing of all talks. Learn more and register online.

  Jillian Kunze is the associate editor of SIAM News