It’s been a little while since classes ended and I’ve been taking it pretty easy. I figure I deserve it. I was so tired by the end of the term.
It’s not like I’ve been doing nothing at all. A couple of weeks ago, I went to see my supervisor and we talked in generalities about what kind of research I should be doing and then he sent me away so he could talk to some of his contacts and figure out more specifics of what I should be doing. I went to see him again last week and he gave me some papers to read. Now he’s gone for a month so there’s no rush.
I spent several days cleaning my apartment.
Anyway, in that conversation about generalities a couple weeks ago, we agreed on a general direction for my research project. I think I’m happy with that direction, but at the same time it’s a little scary and during the course of our conversation, it became clear that neither of us really knows where that direction will take me.
You know, of course, that I am a mathematician. My supervisor is really excited about some interdisciplinary work that he’s been doing with some people in another department. I have been feeling a little bit like my work is all useless and wanting to do something more applied, so I am happy to work with my supervisor and his collaborators in the other department on applied things that could be actually useful to actual real live people.
But we don’t know what kind of math will come up.
In fact, there’s a possibility that not a lot of really interesting math will come up at all and I’ll end up painting myself out of mathematical research.
My supervisor assures me that there will probably be some interesting math, and even if there isn’t there are pleanty of opportunities for smart people who know some math and can successfully communicate with people from the Other Department. There are also opportunities outside of academia in this direction and given the nasty two body problem looming in my future, having as many options as possible is a Good Thing.
And really, it’s been a while since I could seriously envision myself as an academic research mathematican.
It feels really odd not knowing where I’m going though.
I’ve set off without a direction before and arrived at perfectly good places I have to keep reminding myself of that.
Let me tell you a story.
The timeline is a little fuzzy here, but when I was 18 or so I went on some kind of a religious retreat with my church youth group. It was still my youth group back then. I remember distinctly a piece conversation that I had with one of our adult chaperones. He was a trucker and the beginning of the conversation was pretty boring. We were talking about what I planned to do after highschool.
Of course, the follow-up question is always “What will you do with that?”
I replied “I don’t know, I guess I’ll find out when I get there.”
This response triggered a lecture on planning for the future containing the following metaphor, “If I filled my truck up with gas and set out on the road without knowing where I was going, everyone would think that was pretty dumb.”
I don’t remember if I actually managed to respond to that, or if I only thought of the response later. (Isn’t memory funny?) In any case my response was, “But I’m not driving.”
At the time, I was very conscious of my life being somehow directed by a higher power. It felt like my choice to study mathematics was as much a vocation as anything else.