SIAM News Blog

Alumni Panel Series Offers a Glimpse into Life as an Early-Career Mathematician

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill SIAM Student Chapter Organizes Inaugural Career Event

By Katherine Slyman

On the fourth floor of Phillips Hall at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill, mathematics graduate students have various iterations of the same conversation within their respective cohorts. Where will my degree take me in life? What am I going to do with my doctorate in mathematics? What kind of career should I pursue? These types of questions are constantly present in the minds of all Ph.D. students, regardless of year or subject. Most early-stage mathematicians have broad ideas about their career paths when they start their programs, but they tend to develop more interests—as well as some doubts—as the programs proceed.

In short, students generally crave insight into a prospective career before actually committing to that path. For example, they might wonder how their academic degrees will earn them jobs in business, industry, or government. Suddenly, they find that they are finishing their dissertations and still do not know what comes next. We sought to break this cycle and provide mathematics graduate students with firsthand accounts of different career possibilities.

During the University of North Carolina (UNC) Math Alumni Career Panel Series—hosted by the UNC Chapel Hill SIAM Student Chapter—a diverse group of successful graduates in teaching positions, postdoctoral appointments, and industry jobs described their experiences and career-related decisions during graduate school. Figure courtesy of Katherine Daftari.
To do so, the UNC Chapel Hill SIAM Student Chapter began hosting the UNC Math Alumni Career Panel Series. Katherine Slyman and Katherine Daftari—the chapter’s co-presidents—organized the first-ever panel, which was inspired by the aforementioned questions and general graduate student interest in utilizing the knowledge and stories of previous students who had recently entered postdoctoral life (much more recently than some of the faculty with whom they work). The three-day event, which took place in November 2021, offered all mathematics graduate students the opportunity to learn from the experiences of a diverse group of successful graduates in teaching positions, postdoctoral appointments, and industry jobs. It also accorded networking and mentoring relationships that could manifest into future job openings; this aspect was especially helpful because an academic setting is not always conducive for fostering the connections and skills that are necessary in nonacademic careers.

The Panelists

To identify our pool of speakers, we utilized departmental records to view the first jobs of alumni who had completed their Ph.D.s between two and seven years ago. We then contacted these candidates, explained the goals of our panel, and offered key information about their prospective presentations. We broke the panel categories into teaching, postdoctoral, and industry positions. The teaching section consisted of graduates who received tenure-track offers after completing their Ph.D.s. The postdoctoral category encompassed government positions, academic postdoctoral positions, and even a National Science Foundation postdoctoral award winner. Finally, the industry group comprised alumni who currently hold nonacademic appointments. Some of the participants included an associate professor and chair of mathematics at Agnes Scott College, a postdoctoral fellow at Johns Hopkins University, an Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education Fellow at the Environmental Protection Agency, and a machine learning technical trainer at Google.

The Panel Series

Over the course of three days, the invited speakers—separated by position type—delivered short presentations (no longer than 30 minutes each) that described the experiences and career-related decisions at UNC that led to their current positions. We encouraged them to share relevant details, such as how they prepared for employment while in graduate school, how they found their current jobs, what the application process was like, and what their current day-to-day work entails. Through the targeted presentations and Q&A sessions that followed, we created a friendly and informal environment wherein graduate students could openly converse with successful UNC alumni without faculty oversight. Our speakers provided early-career graduate students with valuable exposure to various types of available career opportunities; we hope that their presentations will motivate our students to think carefully about their futures and maximize their remaining time in the UNC program.

Due to COVID-19 and travel restrictions, we gathered all interested graduate students together in one classroom and conducted Zoom sessions with the alumni participants. We also had a few local speakers who attended in person and interacted with students face to face. Dinner was provided to everyone, and each night ended with a survey that gauged the most helpful aspects of the event.


This panel series received an overwhelmingly positive response from all of the involved students. Alumni speakers shared advice about navigating career prospects as a graduate mathematics student and provided helpful tips to ensure success as a job applicant. Because the event was planned by and intended for graduate students, attendees were free to ask whatever questions they had without fear of judgment from faculty or advisors. This openness fostered an inclusive and comfortable environment for everyone that added to the series’ success. We intend to hold this event again in the future to expose more graduate students to the variety of career possibilities that are available upon graduation.

Katherine Slyman is an applied mathematics doctoral candidate at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill. She studies dynamical systems with applications to climate science and currently serves as co-president of the UNC Chapel Hill SIAM Student Chapter.

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