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Success Stories: People Who've "Made It"

Source: Planning Job Sources: 1996

Richard Tapia Degree: B.A. (1961) and M.A. (1966) in mathematics, University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA); Ph.D. in mathematics, UCLA, 1967.

First Job: Instructor in mathematics, UCLA. When I graduated from UCLA, I got out in the middle of the year, so my first job was to fill out the academic year. [My first real job] was at the University of Wisconsin at the Army Mathematics Research Center. I went from a Ph.D. to a research environment-a post doc-the best thing I ever did. It established a research direction for me. I did not have to do committee work or teaching. It was a critical time for me to establish a direction and I was working with some of the best people in my field. What was most important was, I had the opportunity to be associated with leaders in the field, work with them, listen to them. I always recommend new graduates try to associate with the very best research activity and make sacrifices to do so. Even if only for a year or two. The contacts they make, the networking they do, will last the rest of their lives. I can say this now because I can go back and look at what I did-not because I knew what I was doing then. It happened that other people, the department chair at UCLA, said, "Here's what would be good for you." I was ready to go off and take the first job I saw that made good money. [The research job] was, by far, not the best paying job, but it was great for my career.

Present Job: Noah Harding Professor of Computational and Applied Mathematics at Rice University; Associate Director of Minority Affairs, Office of Graduate Studies, Rice University; Associate Director of Education and Human Resources at the Center for Research on Parallel Computation. (At CRPC, my research interests are primarily in the area of mathematical optimization theory and iterative methods for nonlinear problems. My current research is in the area of algorithms for constrained optimization problems and interior methods for linear and nonlinear programming. I have also helped CRPC implement programs such as the Spend a Summer With a Scientist program for minority science undergraduates and graduates; a summer university work program for minority high school students; and Computational Sciences Awareness Workshop for mathematics and science teachers, counselors, and principals from K-12 schools with significant minority enrollment.)

My Success Comes From: I have always been a survivor. It doesn't matter what I do. If I am going to do auto mechanics, sales, whatever, my work habits don't allow me to give up. I finish each task that I start. A lot of people find a task gets too painful or boring or not exciting, so they quit. You have to follow through. I am tenacious. Every task that I'm assigned, I view it as a positive challenge. Today's youth will say, "I don't like to do this," or "This is boring," or "I'm not making enough money, can I do something else?" They need to finish what's been assigned and then go on to bigger and better things. Learn from it. If you put me on a desert island, I'd find something interesting to do even if it was studying the trees. My success comes from finishing a task that I commit myself to do and working so that I find challenging aspects.

My Advice for New Graduates: [You should] develop a passion for what you want to do. It's difficult to accomplish something good without passion and without a strong commitment to good work habits. What your mother said when you were young is true: Success is more determined by your work habits than your talents.

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