I walked into Kerry Hall and pressed the Up button for the elevator. As I waited for the door to open, I noticed a flyer for the event I was going to on a bulletin board. I walked over and read the flyer, even though I already knew the time and place of the event; we had discussed this upcoming event in detail at this month’s Math Club meeting.
MATHEMATICS CAREER FAIR
Presented by the University of Jeromeville Math Club
January 23 – 3-5pm – 450 Kerry
Kerry Hall, home to the offices of the mathematics and statistics departments, was easy to navigate; each of its six floors consisted of one straight hallway about two hundred feet long. Room 450 would be at the low-numbered end of the fourth floor. The first digit of the room number was the floor, but for some reason the numbering on each floor started in the 50s at the end close to the elevators and ended in the 90s at the other end. I wondered if this was because each floor of adjacent Wellington Hall only had room numbers ending between 01 and 30, so that way the two buildings would not repeat room numbers. I also wondered if I was the only person on the Jeromeville campus who actually thought about such things.
I got off on the fourth floor and turned left, where I expected room 450 to be. A sign next to an open door said 450 – GRADUATE STUDENT STUDY ROOM. I did not know that this room existed, probably because I was not a graduate student. On the other side of the door, a sign that said MATHEMATICS CAREER FAIR had been taped to the wall. I cautiously walked inside.
I recognized several students I knew from Math Club. Sarah Winters was picking up brochures from a table; she looked up and saw me in the doorway. “Greg!” she said, waving. Although Sarah was also a mathematics major, and one of my best friends, we had never had a math class together. I knew her because she had lived downstairs from me in the dorm freshman year, and I also knew her from Jeromeville Christian Fellowship and from my church.
“Hey,” I said to Sarah. “How are you? What table is this?”
“School of Education,” she replied. “I don’t know yet if I’m going to stay in Jeromeville for my teacher certification program. I’m thinking I’ll probably move back home, but I may as well look into all the options.”
“Are you still not interested in being a teacher?”
“Probably not,” I replied.
“You’re still working as a tutor, right? Why aren’t you interested in teaching if you like tutoring?”
“I like helping people learn math, but I don’t want to get involved in all the politics involved in public education.”
“Yeah, that’s one thing I’m not looking forward to. What about private school?”
“Don’t private school teachers make less money?”
“Yeah, but if you really love what you do, money shouldn’t be an object. Would you want to teach at a community college, or a university, or something like that?”
“If I stay in college forever, I’ll probably end up being a professor and having to teach.”
“That’s true. Is that what you want to do?”
“I always kind of thought so, but I’m starting to realize I need to explore my options.”
“Well, you came to the right place.” Sarah gestured across the room. The UJ School of Education table where we were now was the first in a row of four manned exhibits. At the far end of the room, the rest of the furniture that was usually in this room appeared to have been pushed to the side, to give fair attendees room to mingle. I was not sure exactly how many exhibitors I expected at a career fair, but the answer was definitely more than four. This was disappointing.
“I need to go,” Sarah said. “Enjoy the rest of the fair!”
“Thanks,” I replied. “I’ll see you around.”
After Sarah left, I walked to the next table. “Are you interested in being an actuary?” a man in a business suit asked me from behind the table.
“I don’t know,” I replied. “I’m kind of just gathering information right now. I hear a lot about actuaries when people talk about math careers, but I’m not sure exactly what you do.”
“Basically, we predict the future,” he explained. “We use mathematical modeling to make predictions, which are used by insurance companies to determine rates and risk assessment figures.”
“I represent the Casualty Actuarial Society. We give the exams that actuaries have to pass.”
“Do you go to grad school to get a degree to be an actuary?”
“Usually not. You get hired first for an entry-level position, and your job training includes prep for the exams. Then you get promoted after you pass the exams.”
“I see,” I said. “I’ll think about that.” I took his brochure and put it in my backpack, although from his description, being an actuary sounded incredibly boring and unfulfilling.
I next went to the table for Sun Microsystems, a computer company big enough for me to have heard of it. “Hi,” the woman at the table said. “We’re looking for applied math majors with computer programming or computer engineering experience. Is that you?”
“Not really,” I said. “But can I have a brochure, in case I change my emphasis?”
I took the Sun brochure and put it with the others. I had chosen not to major in computer science, because I did not want a hobby to turn into work. I also knew that most of my technology skills were vastly out of date. I had grown up with only my childhood Commodore 64 until I got my current computer as a high school graduation present, years after the Commodore had been discontinued. I had taken two computer science classes sophomore year and learned to code in Pascal and C. Computer Science 110, Data Structures, counted in place of an upper-division mathematics class toward my major; I had registered for the class this quarter and got put on the wait list, but I did not get in.
The fourth and final table was for Graduate Studies in the UJ Department of Mathematics. I took their brochure as well to learn about the different programs offered, although much of that information I already knew from the course catalog. This career fair felt like a giant disappointment.
An older student named Brandon, whom I knew from Math Club, asked me as I was leaving, “So what did you think?”
“It was a little disappointing. Nothing really stood out to me. I still don’t know what I want to do.”
“Don’t forget, the Engineering Career Fair is coming up on Tuesday. You should look at that one too, if you’re looking for what you can do with a math degree.”
At that moment, a familiar woman’s voice said from behind me, “Greg? I just overheard what you were saying; can I talk to you for a minute in my office? I have something you might be interested in.”
“Dr. Thomas,” I said, turning around. “I didn’t see you here.” I had taken Combinatorics from Dr. Thomas sophomore year, and she was my favorite mathematics professor so far. She explained things clearly, in non-broken English, and she made an effort to get to know students more than most of my professors had. She also attended Math Club meetings sometimes.
“Sure,” I said. I followed Dr. Thomas upstairs to her office on the far end of the fifth floor.
“Are you familiar with REU programs? Research Experiences for Undergraduates?”
“No,” I said.
“The National Science Foundation has programs that you can apply to and do research in your field. Some of them, you can get credits for, or you get paid a stipend. I’m trying to start an REU here at Jeromeville, but there are programs like this at schools all around the country.”
“A colleague whom I’ve worked with runs the program at Williams College in Massachusetts. And three are others much closer if you don’t want to travel that far. It’s a good way to get a sense of what graduate school is like. Being that you’re an excellent math student, wondering about your future, I think it would be good for you to apply to REUs.”
“Sure,” I said. “What do I have to do?”
“Here’s the brochure from the NSF,” Dr. Thomas said, handing me a paper. “They have a website with links to different schools’ programs, and you can find all the instructions on how to apply there.”
“I will look into that,” I said. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome. And whatever happens, with how well you do in math, I know you’ll figure out what you want to do.”
The Engineering Career Fair was much larger than the Mathematics Career Fair; I expected it to be, since it was being held on the floor of the Pavilion, where the UJ Colts basketball teams played. Engineering was also a much more popular major, and one more directly connected to industry. A sea of tables, probably close to a hundred of them, covered the floor. The region around San Tomas, Sunnyglen, and Willow Grove, a little over a hundred miles to the south, was a hub of technology companies; I expected that many of them had representatives here looking for people with computer experience. Surely someone here would have a career option for pure mathematics majors.
I had not brought résumés to the career fair. Next year, when I would be close to graduation, it would be more important to do so, but today was still mostly about gathering information. Of course, if I found an internship for this summer that I wanted to apply to, I would still need to make a résumé and send it in. We had discussed making résumés at this month’s Math Club meeting, and I mostly just felt frustrated and unaccomplished. “I don’t know what to put on my résumé,” I said to Brandon at one point. “I don’t have any work experience, or skills.”
“Sure you do,” Brandon replied. “Just put what you can do. On my résumé, I put ‘problem solver.’ Because when you give me a problem, I’ll solve it.”
“Hmm,” I said. I was not a problem solver like Brandon. I had tons of unsolved problems in my life, and padding my résumé with vague embellishments that I could not back up with action or experience would not help solve any of them.
I walked to the first table in the row closest to me. A pile of mechanical pencils lay on one end of the table. “May I have one?” I asked.
“Sure,” the woman behind the table said. I read the pencil: NNC DATA SOLUTIONS, INC., SAN TOMAS. “What’s your major?” she asked.
“We’re looking for computer science majors with experience in coding. I don’t think we have any positions or internships for pure math. Sorry!”
I continued up and down each row of tables, picking up lots of free pens, pencils, notepads, and foam balls to squeeze for stress relief purposes, each with companies’ names and contact information printed on them. And I got the same story from each one of them: they were looking for computer science or engineering majors, not me.
At one point, I walked to a table I had not visited yet, for a company in Sunnyglen called West Coast Technologies. I grabbed their free pencil and notepad. “Do you have a résumé?” the woman behind the table asked.
“No,” I said.
“You need a résumé to apply for a job,” the woman replied, in a condescending tone.
“I’m just gathering information this year,” I explained, trying to hide my shame and frustration.
“What’s your major?”
“We’re looking for computer science majors. But, hey, maybe ten years from now, when you’re wondering why you chose math for your major, you’ll go back to school for computer science, and we might have something for you!” She made an amused chuckle.
I walked away without saying another word to the West Coast Technologies lady. Who does she think she is? How exactly does mocking an applicant to his face help your company recruit employees? If I did go back to school in ten years, I thought, I certainly would not apply to work for West Coast Technologies. Hopefully they would be out of business by then.
I continued past the next table. I had only three tables left to visit, and I could tell from the names of the companies represented that they were looking specifically for engineers. I turned toward the exit, not watching where I was going, and almost bumped into someone who was facing away from me. As I looked up at this guy, who was about an inch taller than me, I realized that I recognized this tall guy with curly dark blond hair, and I became even more embarrassed.
“Sorry, Todd,” I said as he turned around. “I wasn’t watching where I was going.”
“Hey, Greg,” Todd Chevallier replied. “No problem. What are you up to?”
“Looking to see if there are any options for math majors here. There aren’t.” I told him about the condescending lady from West Coast Technologies, as well as the unsuccessful Mathematics Career Fair from the previous week.
“Well, what do you want to do with your math degree?”
“I’m not sure. I always assumed I would just stay in school forever and become a professor, but now I don’t know anymore. And I’m starting to stress about it.”
“Have you thought about going into teaching? It seems like a lot of people with math degrees do that.”
“I don’t want to be a teacher,” I explained. “I don’t want to deal with the politics involved in education.”
“Yeah, I get that. Don’t stress, though. You have time to figure things out. You’re only a sophomore.”
“I’m a junior.”
“What?” Todd exclaimed, with a puzzled look on his face.
“I’m a junior.”
“But I thought you and I were both new at JCF last year. Freshman year.”
“We were. But it was my sophomore year. I didn’t go to JCF freshman year.”
“Really. Wow. It’s weird that I never knew that. I guess you do need to start thinking about your future.”
“Good luck. Pray about it. I’ll see you Friday?”
I rode my bike home more slowly than usual, feeling disappointed and discouraged. I pulled a random CD from the shelf; it was New Adventures In Hi-Fi, the recently released album from R.E.M. More disappointment; I did not like this album as well as their previous ones, although it did have a few good songs. I played it anyway.
I looked through the brochure that Dr. Thomas gave me. I connected the computer to the dial-up Internet and went to the main website for the Research Experiences for Undergraduates program. I found the list of schools offering REUs for mathematics; there were quite a few, but none were nearby. If I ended up doing this for the summer, I would have to travel, but that was not necessarily a bad thing.
School was what I was good at, so I always assumed I would stay in academia forever. However, even that felt uncertain now. And unless I changed my mind about being a teacher or an actuary, I had no other career options. The good news was that, with my future so wide open, I could try different things and see what I did and did not like. But this would require some work, and I always felt anxious about possibly making the wrong decision. I got out my homework for tomorrow’s Advanced Calculus class and worked on that, putting aside my career uncertainty for now. I knew that God had a plan, and I felt encouraged that Dr. Thomas believed in me, but all of this still felt overwhelming. It was time to start thinking about the future, but none of this was imminently urgent, so planning my future career could wait.
Readers: Have you ever been told anything unusually cruel when being turned down for a position, or for something else?
Disclaimer: None of the corporations or organizations mentioned in this story were involved in its writing or production, and this is not a sponsored post. Some of the corporations and organizations are fictional.