The Job I Dreamed About in High School Turned Out to Be My Mathematica Career

Jan 29, 2019

One of my favorite things about working at Mathematica for the last 30 years has been the variety of experiences and backgrounds that our staff bring to the table. It makes Mathematica a more interesting place to work, builds our strength as a company, and enables us to deliver better insights to our partners. As Mathematica has grown and our staff become more geographically dispersed, we realized it was getting harder to have these kind of informal conversations in person, but we didn’t want to lose out on knowing our colleagues’ background stories, understanding what drives them, and hearing what concerns them and what Mathematica means to them.

Paul with his maternal grandfather (circa late 1960s).

Taking a page from the popular Humans of New York Instagram account, we created a similar feed on our intranet that allows us to share enlightening, interesting profiles—the kinds of stories that can only come about from one-on-one conversations. They’re a constant reminder that engaging with our fellow staff members can enrich and expand our points of view and, ultimately, help inform our work.

I had the chance to participate recently, and though Humans of Mathematica was intended to be limited to Mathematica employees, I thought there was value in sharing some of those same thoughts more broadly.

I grew up in Jacksonville, Illinois, a small town in the middle of the state. I come from a long line of educators. All four of my grandparents were high school teachers in small town schools in the Midwest. My grandmothers taught history, political science, and math. My maternal grandfather, in addition to teaching, was a football, basketball, and track coach. My parents were educators as well—my father was a college professor, and my mom was a high school social studies teacher. Growing up, everything revolved around school.

As you can imagine, my family placed great emphasis on education and excelling in the classroom. They believed that education was essential to making a meaningful contribution to the world. In particular, given the subjects they taught, my mom and my grandmother spent a lot of time discussing politics and public policy. A lot of family dinner conversations revolved around political issues of the day in the 1960s and 1970s. But they wanted more than just discussion—our parents really wanted my brother and me to offer opinions that were well thought out and well argued. It was great training for my future career!

Although I was surrounded by educators, I knew early on that I had little interest in teaching. From what I saw of my dad’s work as a college professor, academic research seemed too detached from the “real world.” I really wanted to engage in research that would make an impact.

During my senior year of high school, I took an economics class that combined the best of mathematics, public policy, and practical application. Looking back, it was a prelude to public policy research, but I didn’t realize at the time that something like public policy research existed. Taking that class stimulated my thinking about potential careers. When I went on to college and graduate school, I decided to be an economist largely because of that high school class. But it was a struggle convincing my parents that training as an economist would translate into a job down the road. After graduating with a Ph.D., I was intent on getting a nonacademic job. I interviewed at public policy organizations, including Mathematica, and universities, the latter mostly to placate my advisors.

When I visited Mathematica, I was impressed by the caliber of the researchers. They were on par with, and in some cases exceeded, the best academic policy researchers. But it was also their passion that struck me. I could sense the staff’s commitment to the company’s mission. They had such a strong allegiance to that mission and to each other. Of all the companies I interviewed with, Mathematica was the only place I saw such a strong connection. As it turns out, the job I dreamed about in high school turned out to be my Mathematica career.

Because I grew up in a small town in the rural Midwest, public schools were the only option. My high school served the whole town of Jacksonville and much of the surrounding county, so different races, ethnic backgrounds, and socioeconomic levels were represented in our student body. For example, some of my classmates were the descendants of Portuguese Protestant exiles from the island of Madeira who settled in an area of town called Portuguese Hill in the late 1800s. Other classmates were cousins of Ken Norton, the famous heavyweight boxer who attended Jacksonville High School in the 1960s.

Paul with his maternal grandparents (circa 1980).
Paul with his maternal grandparents (circa 1980).
The community had a history that included instances of at least implicit racial separation similar to any other town in the area, but when I was in school in the 1960s and 1970s, most of us (following the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and others) were eager to put that history behind us and enthusiastically expand our community of friends. The teachers at my high school were determined to provide equal educational opportunities for all students, and I think they largely succeeded. Given my personal experience, I really believed in the dream of the American public school and that it could be successful.

 

At Mathematica, I was gratified to see that the U.S. Department of Education was interested in using evidence to maintain that dream. I was particularly drawn to evaluating teacher preparation, because this intersected with my interest in workforce issues as well.

Mathematica’s founders created an environment that was stimulating, inspirational, and supportive. They offered staff a chance to make an impact. Many of us who are veterans of Mathematica came here and stayed because it was our dream job. It was and remains our ideal place to work. But I think we have work to do to make sure that everyone feels that way about Mathematica. Promoting diversity and inclusion is important because it recognizes that not all staff experience this same sense of inclusion or support. As we’ve seen from the Humans of Mathematica stories and our ongoing Diversity and Inclusion Initiative, many of our staff have different life experiences and points of view. That’s why it’s important for us to create, as an organization, the sense of belonging that I and so many other long-time staff members of the company felt—for everyone.

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Author:
Paul Decker

Paul Decker

President and Chief Executive Officer