Associate Professor of Mathematics,
Wimberly and Betty Royster Research Professor
University of Kentucky
Bachelor’s degree in Mathematics and English in 2001
PhD in Mathematics from Washington University in St. Louis in 2007
I began my senior year of high school intending to double-major in political science and history. My AP calculus teacher bothered me every day about changing one of those to be a math major, and finally I agreed that I would take Calc II and if I liked it, I would switch to a math major. Luckily I had an excellent Calc II experience, and in the Spring of my first year I declared a math major (by then I had also decided to pursue a double-major in English). My intention originally was to be a high school English teacher, but in my English courses I could always do what was asked of me — read the book, write an essay, do it well enough to get an A. On the other hand, math was incredibly tough. In my first two years of college, my grades in math courses were B, C, A, B, B. I worked hard and enjoyed the challenge, but I wasn’t always successful, and this was part of what attracted me to mathematics, the fact that I was faced with an authentic challenge and threat of failure. I liked that. Eventually I became interested enough in math that I decided to pursue a PhD (I also considered graduate work in Philosophy and English, but Mathematics won out).
I am an Associate Professor of Mathematics, University of Kentucky. I received a tenure-stream position as an Assistant Professor immediately following graduation. (This is unusual, most people at research institutions complete one or two postdoctoral positions before gaining a tenure-stream job, but a series of fortunate events led to me receiving an offer.)
How I use math in my job:
I teach mathematics to undergrads and graduate students, I conduct mathematics research and mentor undergraduate and graduate research assistants, and I lead mathematics outreach programs for K-12 students in the community.
Advice for students getting ready to hit the job market or apply to graduate school:
Seek excellence, not perfection. The world is a crazy place, and no job or school or situation is perfect. It is important to find something you are interested in doing and then find a position where you can pursue that interest as much as possible. However, it is also important to accept that you will never find yourself in a situation without flaws (all human systems are inherently flawed), so you have to be willing to choose where to invest your energy and choose where to accept the flaws. On a related note, don’t be afraid of failure. Big successes only result from the knowledge gained through failures. If you try out a job you think is going to be awesome and it ends up being terrible, be willing to learn from that and switch jobs. If you think that grad school in some field is your passion and then you find that it isn’t a good fit at all, then be willing to change things up. Similarly, if you think that you will be awesome at something and you end up struggling, but you remain interested and passionate about it, then you should be persistent. During my entire first year of graduate school I repeatedly told my wife “I’m the dumbest person in this program” (which was both completely untrue and unnecessary), but I kept at it and it worked out. It helped me that I’d taken a year off and worked at a “real” job that I hated before I started graduate school — my worst days in graduate school were still better than my worst days at that job.