Life during and after the Degree

By Ariel Leslie, PhD, Senior Metrics & Data Analyst, Lockheed Martin

Congratulations! You should celebrate yourself. No matter which stage you’re in, you have accomplished something, so celebrate the positive! Graduating college is such an achievement and should not be overlooked.

If you have made the decision to go on to graduate school, then you should know that you will learn more about life than ever before. Knowing how to navigate new territory, learning to rely on yourself as a more established adult (whatever that means), realizing that there is an entire universe of information that you haven’t even begun to tap into, expanding your knowledge and just merely surviving are a few aspects of life that I myself encountered. Then, there is math! Well, it is beautiful and eccentric, but it is also quite difficult at times. There is beauty in challenging yourself to learn more, but it doesn’t always feel that way.

No matter the time frame of your collegiate career or graduate school tenure, you must find ways to effectively execute something new by revamping skills used for past achievements. Below are a few intentional actions I took as a graduate student to ensure that I achieved my goal.

These included:

  1. Studying/doing homework during the most productive time of day. Yes, you must know the time of day that works best for you.
  2. Study groups. They are good for you…and your health – physical health, emotional health, and mental health. Work hard on studying well and completing as much homework beforehand. Then, come to the study session with your best thoughts. If they are right – awesome! You get to teach others. If they are wrong – awesome! You get to fix it before turning in your work and learn something in the process. All the while, you’re making friendships/relationships that are lifelong-  your first professional network. 
  3. Not isolating myself. Ask for help from other students, professors, mentors and advisors. Speak with your family members and friends. They are all there to help you. If you do not have this kind of support system within the department, you may need to get involved in student organizations within the university. Please know that there are PLENTY of other PhD granting institutions so there is no need to remain in a toxic environment.
  4. Having an outlet. Go work out, go for a walk, go to the movies, listen to music, cook dinner, have a party (virtual if necessary), take an art class, take a dance class, go on a road trip if budget allows, etc. You must step away from math for a period of time during the day so you don’t burn out.
  5. Setting a schedule. Schedule for breaks and food time. Schedule time for studying, homework, test prep, teaching, and grading if this applies to you. Stick to it!

If you are close to graduating and pursuing either industry or academia, apply apply apply! Be sure to mark down all the projects you have completed, papers you have written, summer projects you participated in, classes you taught, and even the coding courses you took. All of this information helps to tell your story when you are out on interviews. Volunteer much? Write it down! Spoke at a conference? Write it down! Your story is unique. That next job is waiting to hear all about it!

When I graduated in December of 2019 with my PhD in Mathematics, I knew applying for a position in academia was not optimal due to timing. School starts in August, which means I had an 8-month gap. Knowing this would be my path, I began to apply for industry positions in September/October. Lockheed Martin was not exactly on my radar, but it was a company that many people spoke very highly of and it was located in an area that suited my life post-graduation. After a couple days of research, I began to apply. Bulk apply, that is. Then came No after No after another NO! Almost 3 months full of rejections later, a colleague informed me of a specific role. I applied, and two weeks later landed an interview. Two weeks after graduation, I landed the job! Another week passed and I was finally able to start my first career job. It was not a smooth road, but it taught me to persevere. “NO” just means new opportunity. I merely had to find the right one.

Tips for landing that industry position:

  1. Use the STAR method for all interview questions (Situation, Task, Action, Result).
  2. Prepare by knowing the job description well and use that same terminology when telling your story.
  3. Research the organization. Watch YouTube videos and read through the website.
  4. Look up the company and company representatives on LinkedIn.
  5. Prepare a set of questions. Ask about the company culture/team environment and any other topic that interests you or that was mentioned during the interview.
  6. Know you worth. Be mindful of the theory you know, recall the applications that you have learned, and know that your skill set deserves market value. Mathematics is a subject full of critical thinking and that strength can be applied to all subjects, including business, industry, and government issues. Employers need team players who can problem solve – that is you!  

The programming skills (R, Matlab, Mathematica, and Python) that I learned in graduate school and during Math–to–Industry Boot camp (at the IMA in Minnesota), helped me to not only apply the theory I learned but when to use that theory while programming. Critical thinking skills cannot be overlooked. Every day consists of thinking through a problem, developing a system, organizing data, initiating simple algorithms, analyzing the results, trying something new, and repeat. Teamwork and written/verbal communication skills are a top priority. Not every team member has a similar technical background – one must learn to communicate with everyone, even the business executive. 

A major skill that I have to continuously work through is thinking ahead. Clear communication and making sure to ask questions are key to assessing next steps. It is natural for me to internalize frustrations and not speak up, which means I must make a mental note to ask questions, write down any ideas or questions, and be attentive. This is not easy, but it is doable.  

Remember to never discount your abilities, and know that your story is meant to be heard. So go out and conquer!

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