8 am. Tick tock! First coffee. Check voicemails. Job applications. Lunch. Coffee pot again. Job applications again. More coffee (always). Email follow ups. 5 pm.
This was how I spent almost every day my first summer after graduating university. It was not an experience relatable to other mathematicians in my graduating cohort. Many of my friends had left for Master’s programs at other universities, or applied for after degrees; a BSc is often not the terminal degree for a mathematician. But I chose to do something new, for two reasons: the tremendous price tag for another degree, and a longstanding stereotype about academics like myself.
I’d spent 16 years of my life in formal education. Throughout this time I had occasionally heard two common themes. The first was that school doesn’t prepare anyone for the “real world”, but it felt like no one described what this “real world” actually was. The lessons I had learned and the knowledge I felt I could trust and worked so hard to obtain could seemed instantaneously nullified and invalidated. The second was that educational institutions embraced a pie-in-the-sky theoretical framework toward all issues, that, when applied in “real life”, “just wouldn’t work”. So much for years of learning and applying theory!
These themes worked together to produce a harsh view of one of the defining institutions of my life. As a self-proclaimed empiricist, with no “real world” experience, I needed to decide whether these stereotypes were true by leaving the academic arena in which I was so enmeshed. I wanted to see this “real world” for all its glory; full time work, early mornings, late evenings, bills, taxes, taxes and more taxes were about to become the cornerstones of my new life.
After several months of looking, using every avenue and connection available to me, I landed a position with Motive Financial, the online division of Canadian Western Bank. Early one Tuesday morning in September 2019, it was my first day. Putting on my work outfit – a freshly pressed shirt and pants – for the first time, I was scared beyond compare. But through hard work, some self-trust, and many, many early morning coffees (have I mentioned I like coffee?), I’ve gained the trust of my peers and management who extended a welcome hand to me and supported my development and growth. Though it was often difficult to manage the new challenge of full-time work alongside a number of increasingly demanding projects in my personal life, I was up for the challenge every day. Motivating my new-found energy was simple things like taking a trip to the store to buy weekly groceries, and being able to pay for them with money I felt I had earned instead of student loans. I was finally “adulting.”
It’s now just over one year since I started at CWB. Though my career path has just begun, my resolve has strengthened more than ever and I have become more optimistic about the future. I have an answer to whether those earlier stereotypes were true, and like most contentious arguments, the answer is a bit of yes and no. Theoretical academic pursuits may not immediately solve society’s most pressing problems, but this age of disruption is owned by those who dare to dream. Academia and industry are not in contention; they are most powerful when lessons learned from each work together.
My career path has not completely changed, just because I am working in a sector I didn’t formally train for. The skills – organization, perseverance, a strong work ethic, team building, triaging priorities – that come with being a mathematician matter to me as much as the mathematical arts themselves, and they certainly matter in banking too. I feel no shame in not following the same path as my peers. My education and experience led me to the happiness I have today, and will support my future endeavours too. Most importantly, I am not a “fresher” who is scared of big corporate towers anymore. Moments of strain and doubt have become ephemeral, but when they come – and they do – I have strategies to help myself. I learned never to doubt myself and trust my gut, even if it means doing something new.