Where can a graduate degree from the University of Illinois take you? In this monthly series, we catch up with one recent Graduate College alum and ask the question: "Where are they now?".
Michael Santana was the recipient of a Ford Predoctoral Fellowship from 2013 - 2016. Through its Fellowship Programs, the Ford Foundation seeks to increase the diversity of the nation’s college and university faculties by increasing their ethnic and racial diversity, to maximize the educational benefits of diversity, and to increase the number of professors who can and will use diversity as a resource for enriching the education of all students. Michael graduated from Illinois in 2016 with a PhD in Mathematics. Now, he is an Assistant Professor (tenure-track) in the Department of Mathematics at Grand Valley State University, which is located in Allendale, MI. In this capacity, he is a teacher, mentor, and advisor to the students at the university and an active member of his department, college, university, and the mathematics community.
What was the transition from graduate school to a career as a professor like for you? What surprised you about it? What was challenging?
That’s a good question, because I was originally going to say “not much”, but then the more I thought about it, the more I realized how much I learned in my first year. One of the major challenges is prepping for classes you’ve never taught before, but that’s totally expected. Something that surprised me was how I felt like a bit of an outsider at the start. That is not to say that I didn’t feel welcome, because I did and I was. It’s just that things start fast during the fall semester, and there were lots of acronyms/names that I didn’t know, faces I didn’t remember/recognize (we have 30+ tenure-track faculty here), policies that I never heard of, etc. So at times I felt like I didn’t belong. However, with the help of a great first-year faculty group, two great department mentors, encouraging colleagues and more, I realized that I was needlessly beating myself up for not being a seasoned, tenured professor that knows everything in my first year. So now, while I still don’t know all the ropes, I definitely feel like I belong and am appreciated in this department, college, and university.
What is the most interesting or rewarding aspect of your job?
Hands down, it’s being involved with the students. I especially love having students in office hours. It’s where I really get to work with students one-on-one, challenge them individually, make them learn from one another (I’ve had 8 students in my office at one time, with groups working on a giant whiteboard), and even explain to them how the things we’re doing fit in the larger context of math as a whole. I go for more than just the “aha” moment, I go for the “mind-blown” moment when students start to ask “why in the world is that true?” That to me is what being a mathematician (but it certainly applies to other fields) is all about, and I feel so blessed to be able to share this with my students.
What has been the most valuable skill you gained from graduate school?
The most valuable skill I learned was more of a lesson than a skill. It was knowing that research/scholarship has ebbs and flows to it. Sometimes things are great, and you don’t have enough time to write up all the results you’ve gotten. Other times you spend hours, days, weeks, months, (maybe years?) working on something that ultimately hits a dead end. You even come back to the problem later, make a little more progress, but hit another wall. I’ll never forget what my advisor (Alexandr Kostochka) told me when I apologized to him after trying several different problems over several months to no avail. He said “Don’t worry. This is my life. I try, and I fail.” I’ve carried this saying with me, and it was only a few months later when a completely different problem came around and I got the last result for my dissertation. So even now while my own research program is going well, and I don’t have time to work on all the ideas I have, I know that it won’t always be like this, and I know that when that time comes I just need to keep trying and keep failing to get through it.
Why did you decide to apply for the Ford Fellowship? How did the Ford Fellowship affect your experiences as a graduate student? And how has the Ford Fellowship impacted your career path since you graduated?
I entered grad school with a wife and two kids, and then I left grad school with a wife (the same one thankfully! She’s the one who really deserves the credit for all this!) and four kids. Being able to have a fellowship where I didn’t need to be constantly teaching and earn some more money was absolutely crucial to my family life. Rather than spending time at home prepping for classes/grading, studying, and doing research, I could go home and just study and do research! It doesn’t sound like much, but it was huge for us. My wife even made the comment that as time went on, they saw more and more of me. As for after graduation, it’s been nice to have a community that I can always go back to and ask for help/advice.
What do you wish you had known when you started out in your current position?
You don’t have to do everything, and you’re not expected to! While I said no to a couple of things, I still said yes to too many. There is definitely a benefit to being part of a larger, active department where people actually volunteer to do things and there’s almost always someone who wants to do the things you don’t want to do. I get to do the things that I enjoy and be a part of the things that I want to. I’m sure that at some point in time I’ll be on some committee that I don’t really enjoy, but it’s temporary, and if that’s the worst that my job gets, I should consider myself lucky.
What is one piece of advice you would give to graduate students at Illinois?
Learn time management! Plan things out in advance! Make a calendar! Make a To-Do List! It won’t always work, but in general, it will save you so much stress and trouble in the end. 99% of the time when I’m home, I’m not working anymore; my work and grading is done in the office at school. If that means I get up at 5 AM every morning to be in the office at 6, it’s totally worth it, because then I can come home at 2 PM, take the kids to the zoo, get ice cream, and help with dinner. Learning to manage your time will make your overall life, health, and well-being so much better!
This interview is part of the monthly Grad Life series called "Where Are They Now?" which chronicles the career paths of recent Univeristy of Illinois Graduate College alumni. This interview was conducted by Derek Attig. Derek is Assistant Director for Student Outreach in Graduate College Career Development. After earning a PhD in History here at Illinois, Derek worked in nonprofit communications and instructional development before joining the Career Development team. A devotee of libraries and all things peculiar, Derek is currently writing a book about bookmobiles.