SIAM News Blog

Mid-Career Panel at CSE19 Guides Attendees through Academic and Industrial Crossroads

By Lina Sorg

A professional’s career path follows various stages throughout the course of employment, each of which presents novel challenges and opportunities for further growth. Although occupation-related guidance often emphasizes early-career decision-making, a mathematician’s mid-career is an equally exciting time wrought with choices that define future direction and shape community involvement. During an inaugural panel discussion at the 2019 SIAM Conference on Computational Science and Engineering (CSE19), which took place earlier this year in Spokane, Wash., Misha E. Kilmer (Tufts University), Sven Leyffer (Argonne National Laboratory), and Lois Curfman McInnes (Argonne National Laboratory) spoke candidly about personal and professional difficulties and successes that emerge at the midpoint of one’s career.

“Moving to your mid-career is an exciting time because you can define your research agenda and set and solve your own puzzles,” Leyffer said. Upon joining Argonne’s Mathematics and Computer Science Division in 2002, he began working on problems with mentees and postdoctoral students. This both yielded new perspective and emphasized the value and necessity of teamwork. “You need people to work for you,” Leyffer continued, adding that he is currently writing a nonlinear optimization solver with a postdoctoral researcher simply because he did not have time to tackle it alone.

As one advances on his/her career trajectory, time management becomes increasingly crucial. Offers for volunteer work, involvement in conference committees, and editorial positions increase exponentially at the mid-career level and can quickly become overwhelming, especially when balanced with mentoring obligations. All three panelists encouraged attendees to reevaluate and define their time management tactics, and stressed the importance of saying “no” to unrealistic requests or service-related ventures that might ultimately affect one’s career goals — say, for example, full professorship in academia. Kilmer once refused a flattering offer to sit on a prestigious journal board because she was struggling to juggle her existing tasks. Leyffer also declined a position on a new journal because he knew he would not do it justice.

Pressures within one’s immediate institution are often just as demanding. Kilmer admitted that she was lucky to walk right into an assistant professorship at Tufts, given her minimal teaching experience at the time. After being promoted directly to full professor, she agreed to temporarily serve as chair of the Department of Mathematics during a colleague’s year-long leave of absence — and unexpectedly held the post for six years. The appointment came with additional responsibilities and persistent recruitment by headhunters seeking to fill open dean positions at numerous other schools, which was not in line with her goals. As her stint as chair comes to a close, Kilmer is looking forward to taking a break from administration and focusing on other projects. “One of the things I really missed was teaching more, mentoring more, and spending more time with students,” she said. “It really fragmented my time.”

A mid-career panel discussion at the 2019 SIAM Conference on Computational Science and Engineering, which took place earlier this year in Spokane, Wash., addressed pressures and opportunities that manifest at the midpoint of one’s career. From left: panel moderator Katherine J. Evans (Oak Ridge National Laboratory), Lois Curfman McInnes (Argonne National Laboratory), Misha E. Kilmer (Tufts University), and Sven Leyffer (Argonne National Laboratory). SIAM photo.

Of course, some level of increased commitment is necessary for professional growth, and transition to the mid-career level yields opportunities for balanced participation in new activities, collaborations, and societies. Such actions could include serving on a SIAM committee or volunteering with an activity group, and McInnes recalled the thrill of organizing her first minisymposium at a SIAM conference. “CSE is inherently very collaborative,” she said. “You have to figure out what brings you passion and enjoyment.” For example, McInnes found that she really enjoys collaborative projects. While she has been with Argonne since she was a postdoctoral student, her role has expanded to include ample collaboration across teams and organizations as well as escalating leadership roles in projects, institutes, and the broader community. Yet every duty comes with a tradeoff; in focusing on project-oriented tasks, McInnes has deliberately minimized her involvement in technical assignments.

Kilmer noted that the mid-career stage correlates well with transition to a new institution. “The period before you become senior is a good time to think about doing something like that,” she said. However, she clarified that switching institutes is not an inconsequential decision, and conceded that an offer would have to be compelling for her to think seriously about moving — especially because a move would also uproot her husband, two children, and dog. “The grass is always greener on the other side,” Kilmer said. “You need to think about what you want to accomplish in the next five to 10 years, and whether a new position would get you there faster than where you are.”

There are certainly other incentives to move. While Leyffer thoroughly enjoys working at a national laboratory, he misses teaching and looks for supplemental teaching opportunities to fill that void. “I really love teaching,” he said. “I teach summer schools whenever I can. Interacting with students—not just telling people what to do but learning how to explain things well—is so rewarding.” He would thus consider switching institutions for a promising teaching opportunity. “For me, moving is something I would do if I feel that there’s something I could really be excited about,” he added.

Multiple panel attendees voiced concerns about maintaining work-life balance beyond the early-career level. McInnes confessed that she sometimes struggles with balancing professional and familial commitments. “At different points in life I’ve had a better or worse handling on this balance,” she said, revealing that she has turned down auspicious work travel prospects in favor of time with her two daughters. Leyffer suggested that researchers take no more than one trip per month to maintain a semblance of stability in their lives. And Kilmer never schedules early meetings; she has a lengthy commute to work but does not want to put her kids in early-morning daycare.

Sometimes balance means sacrifice. When an audience member questioned whether the panelists regretted passing up any specific endeavors, they concurred that any sense of disappointment or second-guessing nearly always fades with time. “I try to think that opportunities keep coming around,” Leyffer said. “If you turn down an opportunity to be an editor on a journal, that’s OK because somebody will ask you again later. And if they don’t, that’s OK too.” Kilmer echoed this sentiment and stated that while she’s excited to relinquish her position as chair, she certainly does not regret accepting the post.

Panelists underscored the importance of maintaining strong networks with friends from conferences and other circles for support and consultation. Kilmer values the friendships she established at the junior level with colleagues who act as her current sounding boards. “I would encourage you to keep building your network as you go forward,” she said. “Take advantage of people who are willing to give free and hopefully-useful nuggets of wisdom.” She added that she has never lacked mentorship in the Department of Mathematics at Tufts, regularly consults her predecessors, and has fellow coworkers review sensitive emails before she sends them.

McInnes specifically acknowledged the guidance of both peers and senior colleagues who have recommended her for multiple opportunities over the years. As a result, she makes it a point to pay that kindness forward. Kilmer reiterated this mindset and reminded researchers moving towards senior positions to seek out opportunities to promote junior colleagues.

Ultimately, the panelists encouraged attendees to regularly assess both their short- and long-term goals and aspirations, as the mid-career level is a good point at which to make significant professional changes and take on added responsibilities. “The challenge I try to seek for myself at each phase of my career is to think deeply about what matters to me,” McInnes said. “I believe that it’s essential to periodically reevaluate your own goals. Each of us has many more opportunities coming our way than time in a day. I’m not saying I always succeed with this, but I try.”

 Lina Sorg is the associate editor of SIAM News.
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