While having a celebratory dinner with some math department friends on Saturday night, someone asked the following question:
At what point do you call yourself a mathematician?
Our discussion skirted several criteria: Were you doing work that involved math? Did you have a degree in math? If you had done those things but were several years removed, did they still count? Did you have to like math? Be good at math? etc. It felt especially relevant to me, because in November, I’ll be starting a job where, for the first time in my academic/employed life, mathematics is not part of the job description. Yet I would still consider myself a mathematician.
I think the best way to explain myself is by analogy to religion: what makes a person say, Christian (or Muslim, or Buddhist, or…)? Is it pedigree? Baptism? Attending church/temple? While those are external criteria (like academic degrees and job titles), hopefully most people would agree that true people of faith are identified by a certain character and way of being in the world, the result of allowing belief to permeate their daily lives. They practice what they believe to be true. In the same way, I consider myself a mathematician because I “practice” mathematics. Going beyond mere symbol manipulation, it has impacted the way I think and perceive ideas.
That’s a pretty philosophical criterion for the title of mathematician. More broadly, I think a mathematician is someone whose daily life is shaped by mathematics (in work or study or just general interest) and, more importantly, who embraces that aspect of their life as something worthwhile.