Making an Impact, not an Impact Factor

August 25, 2015

By Richard Hoshino

This is the first blog post in our new series exploring alternative careers for scientists and researchers. If you are a scientist with a non-traditional career or you want to share a story about how your scientific background or research applied to a real-world situation contact us or tweet us using: #PhDForTheWin

Many universities want their faculty to have a high Impact Factor, a highly-debated metric that measures the frequency with which a professor’s article has been cited in major journals. On the other hand, not enough university administrators focus on their faculty actually having an impact, through the lives they touch through research, teaching, mentoring, service, and outreach.

During graduate school, I became cynical of academia, because of the emphasis on publications over everything else. My colleagues and mentors had actively discouraged me from pursuing my passion for teaching and high school outreach, saying that it took time away from the “important” work of completing my thesis. One recently-hired professor in the Computer Science department even took me aside to offer sage advice: “Richard, I know you like teaching, but you’re never going to get a job if you care more about teaching than research. Here’s what you should do: get yourself tenure, and then if you like teaching, focus on that. Until then, you’ve got to play the game.”

This game, known as Publish-or-Perish, was a game I realized I couldn’t play. Given that I was in my mid-20s at the time, tenure was at least ten years away, even if I were hired into an assistant professorship right out of graduate school. And I knew that I couldn’t wait that long to start living my life.

Thankfully, I have no regrets on that decision. As a graduate student in Nova Scotia, I taught several undergraduate courses, coached the university’s math contest team, and founded two outreach programs for high school students in the province, both of which continue to this day, and involve thousands of students each year. I became actively involved in my community in Halifax through a local ministry that served the homeless, and continued my volunteerism when I moved to Ottawa after completing my Ph.D. I had the privilege of engaging in, and doing, the activities that gave me life: teaching, mentoring, service, and outreach.

Ironically, my decision to pursue the initiatives that filled my life with the most passion allowed me to also make an impact through my research! I got a job at the Canada Border Services Agency, becoming the first mathematician hired by this federal department employing over thirteen thousand people. During my four years there, our research in data mining led to a new risk-scoring algorithm that created a sharp increase in the agency’s success at catching heroin and cocaine smugglers; we also developed a scheduling algorithm to reduce wait times at Canadian airports by matching employee shifts with the peak times when high-passenger flights were arriving.  

After my wife landed her dream job in Japan, we moved to Tokyo. During my time in Japan, I served as the math consultant for three Canadian TV game shows (Qubit, Splatalot, Spin-Off), and assisted the professional baseball league in Japan to reduce their travel costs by optimizing the order in which each team played their regular-season games. Through these research opportunities, I discovered that my research could indeed be impactful!

Now I teach at Quest University Canada, a small liberal-arts university in Squamish, BC – ironically, the only post-secondary institution in North America where tenure doesn’t exist. Instead, I am evaluated by a committee of peers every two or three years, and am offered a contract extension depending on my job performance. I find this results-focused high-accountability structure welcoming (rather than limiting), which has allowed me to take risks inside and beyond the classroom.  

Fortunately, I am supported by an impartial and rigorous Faculty Performance Review Committee, a group of colleagues that take into account all facets of “university scholarship” when evaluating my job performance, including my research publications, teaching record, administrative service, mentorship of undergraduates, and community outreach. In other words, I work for a university that measures impact, not impact factor, and they offer their professors renewable contracts based on their impact.

But of course, one can have an impact in other ways beyond the university.

While I was in Japan, I felt inspired to write and publish a math novel. My goals for this book were to challenge the common stereotype that mathematics can only be done by boys, nerds, and Asians (i.e., people like myself), and demonstrate that with inspired mentorship, anyone can succeed in mathematics and develop the confidence, creativity, and critical-thinking skills so essential in life.

After three years of writing and two years of editing (while holding full-time jobs that kept me busy!), I published “The Math Olympian”, the story of an insecure small-town teenager who commits herself to pursuing the crazy and unrealistic goal of representing her country at the International Mathematical Olympiad, and thanks to the support of innovative mentors combined with her own relentless perseverance, discovers meaning, purpose, and joy.

I am thrilled that the book has been received well, and am delighted with the reviews I have received thus far on Amazon and Goodreads. My hope is that through this novel, young people from coast to coast will discover how math can be taught creatively, that math applies to everything in this world, and studying math develops problem-solving skills, daring, critical-thinking and imagination – the types of skills Canadians require if we’re going to be at the forefront of innovation in the 21st century. In other words, I’m hopeful that this novel will make an impact in reaching students of mathematics!


Richard Hoshino teaches mathematics at Quest University Canada in Squamish, British Columbia. His debut novel, "The Math Olympian", was published in January 2015 by FriesenPress.


Filed Under: Alt-Ac

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