Chinese mathematician Yitang Zhang could not get an academic job upon graduating, having to work as an accountant and a delivery worker for a New York City restaurant. He later went on to solve a math problem that had been unsolved for 150 years and won a MacArthur Genius Grant
Yitang “Tom” Zhang is a Chinese-born American mathematician working in the area of number theory. While working for the University of New Hampshire as a lecturer, Zhang submitted an article to the Annals of Mathematics in 2013 that established the first finite bound on gaps between prime numbers, leading to a 2014 MacArthur award and his appointment as a professor
Zhang’s Ph.D. work was on the Jacobian conjecture. After graduation, Zhang had a hard time finding an academic position. In an interview with Nautilus magazine, Zhang said he did not get a job after graduation because “during that period it was difficult to find a job in academics… Also, my advisor did not write me letters of recommendation.” However, Tzuong-Tsieng Moh, his Ph.D. advisor at Purdue, claimed that Zhang never came back to him requesting recommendation letters. In a detailed profile published in The New Yorker magazine in February 2015, Alec Wilkinson wrote Zhang “parted unhappily” with Moh, “left Purdue without Moh’s support, and, having published no papers, was unable to find an academic job”. After some years, Zhang managed to find a position as a lecturer at the University of New Hampshire, where he was hired by Kenneth Appel in 1999. Prior to getting back to academia, he worked for several years as an accountant and a delivery worker for a New York City restaurant. He also worked in a motel in Kentucky and in a Subway sandwich shop. He served as a lecturer at UNH from 1999 until around January 2014, when UNH appointed him to a full professorship. In Fall 2015 Yitang Zhang accepted an offer of full professorship at the University of California, Santa Barbara.