Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Face-Lift 907

Guess the Plot

Trials of a Mathe- matician

1. Liza Hewson is blessed -- or plagued -- by a genius for math. She has done the calculations, and concluded that she will be happier living single. But she didn't factor in artist Guy D'Amboise, the "variable" who spoils her formula for a life of blissful spinsterhood.

2. When Earth’s computer overlords prohibit humans from practicing mathematics, few mourn the loss of the arcane discipline. Then one brave teacher starts a clandestine math club. Armed with ancient slide rules, pencils, and graph paper, Martin Streck and his misfit students fight to reclaim numbers for humankind, one equation at a time.

3. The story of probability theory, as discovered by Octavius Aesop, whose brilliant dice trials revealed that some little ivory cubes produce random results, while, strangely, others do not. Plus, his wife's discovery of a wee garden elf who can be persuaded to influence falling coins and dice.

4. Herkimer B. Wallaby isn't any great shakes as a defense attorney. His clients keep getting sentenced to death. Fortunately they always win their appeals when they point out that their court-appointed attorney was incompetent. Herk doesn't care. His main worry is that someone will find out that he never actually went to law school, although he does have a Ph.D. in Pure Mathematics.

5. Exponentially. That’s how mathematician Candace Burke’s troubles have increased since she discovered that her landlord is the King of Faerie…and infatuated with her. It turns out that fairies crave logic as much as humans crave magic. But who’d have guessed King Aurun’s appetite for mathematical proof could be so voracious?

6. A math teacher finds her chosen career unsatisfying, and goes looking for a new start as an epidemiologist. But does she have the language skills to compose a cover letter that will get her into a top public health school? Also a cholera outbreak.

Original Version

Some of you may have noticed this request among the comments recently:

I am currently preparing a statement of purpose for admission to a graduate program. It's sort of stunning how much this feels like writing a query letter. So, do you think people might be interested in reviewing it since we're a touch low on submissions at the moment? I could make up a title for the GTP part... :)

As it happens, we have zero queries and zero openings (hint, hint) waiting in the queues, so here's the "query letter."

Dear Evil Editor & Minions:

In reviewing my materials, I am sure it did not escape your notice that I have a Ph.D. in Mathematics. [However, even though I am, as I said, sure that my
Ph.D. in Mathematics did not escape your notice, allow me to emphasize the fact that I have a Ph.D. in Mathematics, just in case it escaped your notice.] I love math for its complexity and challenge. Nothing compares to sifting through information that seems only loosely related and finally finding the common thread. Unfortunately, math itself does not fill me with burning questions that I am compelled to answer. So, by the time I finished my degree, I knew that a career as an academic mathematician was not for me. [Thus I am seeking another field in which I can sift through information that seems only loosely related and finally find the common thread.] The natural alternative was to focus on teaching, and I did so for some time. But after a few years, it became clear that teaching math does not share the same kind of challenges that math itself does. I began to search for a career that would exercise my analytical skills, ignite my curiosity, and have some real practical value. [Thus, please accept my application for the position of literary agent.]

First, I defined some of my interests (e.g. AIDS research and intervention) [You defined them?] [I can't tell if that means AIDS research and AIDS intervention, or if intervention is a field all by itself. Whether it's AIDS intervention or just intervention, in what way do you intervene?] and then I interviewed people in those fields about their work and how someone with my experiences and education would fit in. [Mathematicians never fit in anywhere. Sad but true.] Public health and epidemiology came up repeatedly. I didn’t know much about either, but the more I learned, the more enthusiastic I became. Not only are the problems being solved important, but the solutions themselves are often amazing. For example, I read about John Snow determining in the 1850’s that an outbreak of Cholera originated from a single public pump and I thought “I want to be able to do that!” [That's nothing compared to the problems Charlie has solved on Numb3rs.] I also want to know more about how the methods of epidemiology might be applied to things that are not actual diseases: the spread of drugs and violence, the proliferation of computer viruses, and well, who doesn’t want to know how those youtube videos go viral? [I don't.] [Also, your desire to learn how they go viral probably isn't a selling point.]

I find the program at UNTHSC particularly appealing because of the emphasis on methods. After attending a preview day and speaking with some of the faculty, I feel confident that, once I complete my degree, I will have the tools needed to handle all kinds of problems in epidemiology, no matter my ultimate focus. [At which point I will finally realize that epidemiology is not the field for me and become a celebrity chef.]

I am looking forward to applying my experience and education in starting a new and exciting career. Thank you for your time and consideration,


I know nothing about statements of purpose, but perhaps some of the minions have experience with them. Off hand, I'd say you could shorten this to something like:

I'm the kind of person who is capable of spending eight years going after a math PhD only to realize math just doesn't do it for me, so now I'd like to fill one of the highly sought-after spots in your degree program for a few years because it can't be any more life-sapping than teaching high school math.

If it's common for mathematicians to go into epidemiology, then I see no reason to devote so much of this to your math degree. Everyone who applies will have a reasonable math background, whether they studied chemistry or statistics or biology.

If it's not so common, then I still don't think I'd open with the math stuff, as it seems to me that your enthusiasm for epidemiology is more important to stress than your lack of enthusiasm for the career you've just abandoned.


Anonymous said...

I think spending all the time talking about your math degree makes you sound unfocused. Try rewriting your letter without mentioning the math degree at all. Just talk about your interest and how interested in it you are.

(Maybe leave out the John Snow story, which is so proverbial in the public health field as to be a cliche.)

After you've written about your *new* interest, go back and decide how much attention to give to your old interest. My suggestion is one sentence absolute max, and be sure not to sound as if you're making excuses.


Anonymous said...

This is all wrong. Do not squander a single word on the deficits of mathematics or your life as a mathematician. It just makes you sound like a grumbler. Also, a bit pompous. Going on to say you're clueless about epidemiology does nothing to redeem you. Especially because you say you don't want to work on academic mathematics any more but then express excitement about analyzing the spread of videos, etc. Which sure sounds like the jabbering of an academic mathematician to someone with a public health background.

Epidemiology isn't about math, it's about the life and death of actual people. John Snow's achievement with cholera involved a lot of field work listening to people to find out about their behavior, plus the mapping of water sources and households with ill people. Difficult calculations were not needed.

Get more info. You need to be very clear about the ways medical research types and pharmaceutical companies currently use mathematicians. And decide if you still want to be the math guy, or if you want to work with people and develop new expertise that may involve stepping away from the computer. Then start over.

Zella said...

I agree with AlaskaRC and Anonymous that your focus should be on epidemiology, not mathematics.

However, your degree and teaching experience do set you apart from other applicants, so use this to your advantage. A PhD demonstrates that you have the initiative and persistence to see a large project through from proposal to completion. Teaching requires thorough planning, strong communication skills, and flexibility.

Present your PhD and teaching experience as strengths, not liabilities. For examples of how to do this, I'd recommend reading _"So What Are You Going to Do with That?": Finding Careers Outside Academia_, by Susan Basalla and Maggie Debelius.

Ryoryo said...

Great advice everyone. I felt that I needed to somehow address my math degree because I'm sure it is quite unusual for a PhD in meth to end up pursuing a degree in public health. Sounds like I've taken the wrong tack on that, so I'll definitely have to rethink.

I didn't realize that the John Snow story was so proverbial -- I had not heard it before and just happened across it and found it to be very inspiring, whether it involved complicated mathematical computations or not.

It sound like I am definitely giving th wrong impression with this, so I'm glad I had y'all look at it.

Thanks for being willing to do something a little different, EE!


pacatrue said...

I just wrote a 7 paragraph response and lost it.

Short version: Focus on going forward. Be positive. Talk about how you will use your math skills to advance epidemiology in specific ways. Mention concrete ideas. Talk about who specifically you want to work with in their department. (If it's just close to home, hide that fact.) Specific, specific, positive, positive, research, research. If you don't want to use your math skills in epidemilogy, mention it on one sentence and move on. They only care about your life if it excites them about your chances of doing great epidemiology.

If you'd like to discuss more, you can email me at my name at yahoo.

Anonymous said...

Picture yourself at the receiving end of this communique. What you really want to know is how well the student is going to fit into the program, and how likely s/he is to go on to contribute to the field.


Min Yin said...

If what you are really excited about is discovering and applying ever-better mathematical models, there are a lot of possible fields in addition to epidemiology -- finance, artificial intelligence, astronomy, actuarial science, and meteorology spring to mind (at least from my layperson's perspective). You may want to consider which aspects of your modeling expertise are especially relevant to epidemiology and how you could potentially make a difference in that field, thus eventually bringing glory to your chosen university. Good luck.

Xenith said...

Other than the last paragraph, it seems a little too chatty. Also that you'd rather be working in IT or marketing. People change fields all the time--I did science (maths/IT) first time around, now its humanities (history)--so there's no need to apologise for it (which it sounds like you're doing)

EE: you've had all my openings, even the one that wasn't finished; guess I'll have to go and write some ore

Adele said...

I get this: "I've got this degree that I don't quite know what to do with because I tried this and it didn't work out and so I couldn't think of anything else to do except teach and that's a bust so now I figure I might as well try your program." Might be true, but won't get your foot in the door.

My suggestion: Anthropomorphize this program into a desired member of the opposite sex, and then try to get it to date you.

Would you drone on about your past dating problems? I hope not. Would you dispiritedly say something along the lines of "I don't really know where I'm going or what my future is going to be like or why I want to date you, but there it is." I hope not.

Focus on the positive. Focus on what's special about this institution, this program. Focus on why you're excited about the possibilities that will open up before you as a result of this relationship. Focus on the special attributes (ie, your math Ph.D.) that will make you an ideal student in their program.

Point out that the groundwork you've put in - the interviews, the career day, speaking with the profs.

Don't mention failures, indecision, or any other negatives. If you get an interview they'll ask you, and that's when you focus on the positives again "Teaching gave me so many great opportunities to pass on the love of mathematics, but now I need something more..."

ril said...

I felt that I needed to somehow address my math degree because I'm sure it is quite unusual for a PhD in meth to end up pursuing a degree in public health.

I'm sure it is quite unusual for a Phd in meth. But, uh, congratulations on pursuing your interests...

BuffySquirrel said...

I think someone with a PhD in meth would have difficulty pursuing anything....

Ryoryo said...

More great comments. I can see that my focus was way off. I just got the impression from reading other statements of purpose that background was the place to start. Also, I'm more interested in epidemiology than apparently this "query" makes it sound.

And come now, if I really had a degree in meth, I'm sure I'd be somewhere entirely different today.

I may very well e-mail you pacatrue.

Thanks again everyone. Now, what hidden typo should I leave for you to find in THIS comment?


Wilkins MacQueen said...

A degree in math should be an asset in epidemiology. a little hazy, not sharp and focused.

I googled S of P: A statement of purpose, or personal statement, is a brief and focused essay about one's career or research goals, and is frequently required for applicants to universities, graduate schools, and professional schools.

Hope brief and focused caught your eye. Direct with some passion would get my support. I'd love to see you revision. I bet Phoenix would love to have crack at it. As I would.

Good luck!

Phoenix Sullivan said...

Ryoryo: Take Pacatrue up on his generous offer. He's in the biz (not epidemiology but universology). You'll get a wealth of solid info from him.

Sylvia said...

Would you drone on about your past dating problems? I hope not. Would you dispiritedly say something along the lines of "I don't really know where I'm going or what my future is going to be like or why I want to date you, but there it is." I hope not.

I've dated that guy.