He is currently a professor at Cornell University. Previously he was at UC Davis, from 1996 to 2003, along with his wife who was enrolled as a veterinary student there. In the interim, he has taught both at Berkeley and Princeton and advised such accomplished geometers as David Gabai, Yair Minsky, Robert Meyerhoff, and Oded Schramm.

In 1982, he was awarded the Fields medal for the depth and originality of his contributions to mathematics. His stunning insights have linked many apparently disparate fields to 3-manifolds. Thurston's Geometrization Conjecture (and all it entails) revolutionized 3-manifold theory, reviving hyperbolic geometry. His early work was mainly in foliation theory, where he proved, among other things, that any n-manifold with zero Euler characteristic has a codimension one foliation.

Thurston has turned his attention in recent years to mathematical education and bringing mathematics to the general public. He has served as mathematics editor for Quantum magazine, a youth science magazine, and as head of the University of Minnesota Geometry Center.