One of the weirder things that happened yesterday was that I noticed there was a long thread in a discussion group about my academic qualifications. You can find this at
My academic career has been a bit unusual, and the current position I have at Columbia is kind of confusing, so for those who want to carefully examine my qualifications before deciding whether to take anything I write seriously, here’s a short outline:
1979: B.A. and M.A. in physics, Harvard University. As an undergraduate spent one summer working on a particle physics experiment at SLAC.
1984: Ph. D. in theoretical physics, Princeton University, advisor Curtis Callan, thesis title “Topological Charge in Lattice Gauge Theory”.
In my thesis I developed a workable way of calculating the topological charge of lattice gauge fields and did Monte-Carlo calculations using it. This led to joint work with collaborators including N. Seiberg at the Institute in Princeton and about seven published papers on the subject in the mid to late-eighties.
1984-87 Postdoc at the Stony Brook ITP
Got interested in spinor geometry,TQFT and representation theory, started talking to a lot of the mathematicians at Stony Brook
In 1987 it became clear to me that someone who didn’t believe in string theory but wanted to apply mathematics to QFT didn’t have much of a future in physics depts in the US. I spent 1987-88 as an unpaid visitor at the Harvard physics dept., earning a living teaching calculus in the Tufts math department.
1988-89 Postdoctoral fellowship at MSRI in Berkeley. Published a couple papers on spinor geometry and the standard model, TQFT and representation theory.
1989-1993 Assistant professor, math department, Columbia.
This wasn’t a tenure-track position, so at this point I needed to find a new one and my current job became available in the math department. It is an unusual, “off-ladder” untenured but permanent position with the title “Director of Instruction”. Its responsibilities include administering the dept computer system, teaching a course each semester, and participating in research activities of the department. I’ve held this position for ten years.
It should be made perfectly clear that I’m not a regular, tenured professor at Columbia and have never claimed to be. On the other hand, I’ve spent a lot of time learning mathematics, often by teaching it. I’ve taught many of our undergraduate courses and some of our graduate courses, including Representation theory and QFT for mathematicians.
So that’s my weird academic background and status. make of it what you will.
Personally I feel rather lucky at how this has turned out. It all started with having relatively well-off parents who could afford to send me to Harvard, I then enjoyed about the best education in particle theory possible, and now I have a permanent job surrounded by very talented people that I like, one that gives me a fair amount of time to think about what I choose. Anyone who thinks I’m an embittered soul doesn’t know me very well. While I’ve seen a lot of talented people be badly treated by universities and by the atrociously bad job situation in many fields, I don’t have anything to complain about.
One problem with this is I don’t know what career advice to give young people interested in particle theory. They’d be fools to do what I did, but if they follow the standard path they’ll probably get screwed. It seems to me that a very big question the particle theory community needs to be addressing is how to provide a career path for really smart students that gives them encouragement to strike out in new directions, with a viable chance at making a permanent career of it. Right now many of the young people in the field I talk to are very discouraged, feeling that their choice is to either try and make a name for themselves by working on a not very promising but trendy string theory topic, or to commit academic suicide by trying something different that probably won’t work out. This situation is extremely unhealthy.