Tall, Dark, and Mysterious


Overschooled and underemployed

File under: When We Were Young, No More Pencils, No More Books, Know Thyself. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 7:30 am.

Reflecting on my life thus far and my career options, I realized that I am a) an intellectual fraud, b) under-employed. Both at the same time, which at first stuck me as pathetic, but which, upon reflection, seems perfectly natural. With regards to a), I implore those who know me personally to hold the “oh, you are NOT” comments, as a) is not a comment about my perception of my intelligence, but about my credentials.

Six months after the fact, I have forgotten most of the material that earned me my Master’s degree, if I ever really knew it to begin with. Since the second year of my graduate degree, I haven’t really done any math, except for a bit here and there during the summers: I have read math, I have synthesized math, I have organized math, and I have taught math, but all of these are different matters entirely, activities that all but bypass the cognitive functions activated when I actually work on solving a math problem. My Master’s thesis was in many ways the serendipitous culmination of three years of near-paralyzing apathy on my part for the academic path I had chosen for myself: a Maple program that may have the worst runtime of any program ever written (O(4^n*n^8n) - it crashed at n=5), thirty-five pages of painstakingly-formatted LaTeX, and a competent but tepid distillation of a subject that fully twenty people in the world give half a crap about. I left school amidst warnings that I’d never be able to do anything with my life with just a Master’s degree, and from there I promptly secured the first job I applied for, which paid me a hell of a lot more than what my detractors were making as graduate students. And, quite possibly, more than they were going to be making when they tried to break into the academic job market n years hence.

Nevertheless, that degree is what got me a job making more money than I have any particular need for, teaching and writing about material that I have could have taught or written about nearly a decade ago. My temporary position at the college ends this spring, and the department head has hinted a number of times that if I had - or even if I were working on - a Ph.D. in computational geometry or symbolic logic or combinatorial topology, then I’d be a shoo-in for a permanent position teaching innumerate eighteen-year-olds that (x+y)^2 is not equal to x^2+y^2, fields of characteristic two notwithstanding. Right now the temps just teach the first-year courses - can’t trust us with anything heavier - though I have plenty of experience at an academic summer program teaching fourth-year-level material to students who have kept me on my toes far more than any university undergraduate non-math majors would.

This experience is scarcely unique to me; the Western world is awash with intellectual frauds, the necessary byproduct of a system that places, well, innumerate eighteen-year-olds in university classrooms and all but promises them degrees. The “underemployed” end of things is merely the right-hand side of that equation: churn people through an academic setting that is not governed by the same capricious and unforgiving market forces that determine job availability, and you’re bound to have a surplus of degreed - if not necessarily educated - floating around claiming that they deserve better.

And while part of me whines but I’m DIFFERENT, I know that half the reason I quit before getting the Ph.D. was because I wasn’t intellectually stimulated enough. Challenged, yes; compelled to learn more, no. And nor do I think there’s any job that can sustain my curiosity and short attention span for years on end. I might return to school at some point for another degree; I might take a year or so to hone my pottery skills and see if I can make a go at that; and then there are the books I want to write: the Uncalculus Text and the projective geometry one, and hell, it’s been awhile since I’ve written fiction, maybe it’s time again.

When I was six years old, I told my mother what I wanted to be when I grew up: I wanted to be an astronaut. And a doctor. And a teacher, and a vet, and an author. Oh, and a painter. And then, as an afterthought, I asked: I can do all of those things, right? I don’t have to pick one, do I?

And my mother said what all mothers of six-year-olds should say: Of course, honey, you can be all of those things when you grow up.

My own interests diverged from my six-year-old self’s some time ago, but the spirit is still there: I’m going to get awfully bored, just doing one thing when I grow up.


  1. If you didn’t mind living in Montreal (or Quebec), you could teach at a CEGEP; they only ask for a master’s. That gives you Cal 1-3 (differentiation, integration, multi var), linear algebra, remedial precal and functions (high school algebra and geometry), and at some schools, diffeq. Half the 30 teachers in the math department at my CEGEP have <5 years seniority and half have >25. And CEGEPs care more about teaching than they care about researching (and therefore teaching experience is an asset); however, they still give you 22 weeks a year to work on your own thing (or just relax).

    - Nicholas — 12/21/2004 @ 12:19 am

  2. Yes, but bear in mind that those half aren’t going anywhere, so (in math & sciences) it’s all but impossible to move to the top half of the seniority ladder. (I know someone who had 15 years and was still in the bottom half.)

    - wolfangel — 12/21/2004 @ 10:32 am

  3. Tall, Dark, and Mysterious can go teach in Highschool, no need for CEGEP.

    But that’s the thing with teaching. It is awfully monotonous. It is designed to be monotonous in fact… because it has been engineered by lazy people for lazy people. Always the same courses, year after year after year… The system is even geared to make sure students don’t have too much work.

    Now, not all teaching is like this. Try giving industry training for example… (but industry rarely wants you to teach calculus though)

    The only way to escape boredom in teaching is to manage not to teach the same thing again and again. However, this implies working long hours because you can’t simply rehash what you did last time. You have to stand on your toes.

    - Daniel Lemire — 12/21/2004 @ 12:58 pm

  4. Eh, that’s why I don’t revolve my life around my job. I’m always reading, thinking of different things.

    Speaking of pottery, I found a neat book for you. I won’t be able to ship it til begin of next year - please email me where I should send it.

    I’ll try to be on AIM tonight.

    - meep — 12/22/2004 @ 11:25 am

  5. Of course not everybody gets to be an astronaut when they grow up.


    - Q — 12/23/2004 @ 5:42 pm

  6. I’ve considered the CEGEP / private high school route, but I’d really rather work with grownups than with teenagers. Well, I’d also rather deal with grownups than with teenagers and their parents.

    Daniel Lemire hit upon what it is about teaching that’ll bore me eventually: I don’t want to teach the same thing over and over. I want to stretch myself, and I want to infuse some creativity into my work. Hard to do as a temp.

    - Moebius Stripper — 12/27/2004 @ 7:12 pm

  7. This post struck an interesting chord with me. To some degree, I’m in a very similar position. I’m actually pretty sure I want to finish my PhD; so far I’m enjoying myself a lot. Afterwards, however… I might find that I love doing research, and I might not. If I don’t, then I want to keep doing lots of things, getting involved with programs all over the place, etc. I wonder if it’s possible.

    Regardless, there’s nothing wrong with moving around a lot: it keeps you fresh and energized.

    - Dan — 12/29/2004 @ 1:59 am

  8. Well, moving around an awful lot entails packing an awful lot. If that’s the sort of thing that keeps you energized, you’re welcome to help me put all of my stuff in boxes (again…) this spring ;)

    - Moebius Stripper — 12/29/2004 @ 7:09 am

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