I apply to graduate school? What is a good strategy? We asked Erika
T. Camacho, Stephen A. Wirkus, Dagan Karp and Dr.
Robin Wilson to offer their advice.
EK & SW: While graduate school is a very
enriching experience, it is also a very intensive learning environment where
your life might seem to be at a halt. To persevere and succeed in
graduate school you have to have an internal drive powerful enough to not
allow anything to distract you or turn you away from your educational goals.
It is also important to recognize the times in graduate school when you
should spend nearly 100% of the time studying and how to beat times of
stress. Therefore, in deciding whether to apply to graduate school you really
need to think about a few questions.
- What do you hope to accomplish by
going to school for approximately 5-7 more years? Can you accomplish this through
another venue other than graduate school, and if so, why not follow that path?
- How deeply do you want to obtain a
graduate degree in the given field/area of study?
- Are you ready to commit and give
100% to this goal?
- Are you passionate about learning
and ready to devote (at a more intensive level than what you did in
undergraduate) 5-7 more years of your life to fully embed yourself in a very
intensive learning environment?
- What are your long-term goals in
life (this includes personal, career, and professional goals)? Think in terms
of our entire life as many careers define our life style, what we do every
day (including on breaks and summer), and who we are.
answering these questions if you are still not sure about it, talk with
faculty advisors and mentors (both in your institution and in other
institutions), graduate students that you might know, and others.
have decided to pursue a graduate degree, there are a few things you should
do to make an informed decision and have the best chance of successfully
completing a graduate program that is right for you and in line with your
long-term goals. Selecting a graduate program is not just about what specific
areas/fields/disciplines they offer or how recognized the program/institution
is (i.e., where it ranks in comparison to other programs/institutions) but it
is mainly about whether it is the right fit for you. The ultimate goal is to attend
a program that you can see yourself successfully graduating from and getting
the most of your graduate education.
your list of graduate schools
- Application deadlines. The deadlines
are rarely flexible and may be as early as Dec 1 (or earlier) or as late as
Feb 15. Submit your application
by the deadline that will allow your application to be considered for
financial aid from the departments/school.
- What is the structure of the
program that best fits you? Some programs
are very structured, while others are very flexible. Know yourself and the type of program
from which you would benefit the most.
- Check with your department first
when getting basic information about different graduate programs/schools. Schools
will often send recruitment information to your department. Check for postings and information
outside your department office.
- Are there more than just one faculty
member with research interests that appeal to you? What happens if you want to switch
departments? There are numerous instances of
students “knowing” what they want to do when they enter graduate school but changing
their minds within the first few years either because of conflicts with an
advisor or change of interests.
There should be enough diversity in the research interests of the
faculty (both in the department and in related fields) and, ideally, enough
flexibility to switch departments if you should find it necessary. Ask your current faculty for their
opinions and advice because they might/probably know something about the
department and schools that you are considering.
- Can you picture yourself living
there for the next several years? If you are accepted into a Ph.D. program, it will likely
take 5-7 years to complete the program. It’s important that you feel
comfortable living there during those years. Some universities are in big cities,
while others are in small towns.
opportunities are listed in https://sites.google.com/site/mathmentoringnetwork/home/resources.
- Where do the graduates of the
program work – industry or academia? How large is the department and what is
the success rate of the students in the program? All of these are very important questions to ask
and you should do your best to find the answers before committing to any
program or before accepting any offer!
- Apply to at least three schools. You should be realistic in your
choices of schools but you should have at least one “long-shot”, one
“safety”, and one “probably at the right level.” Probably having an additional two to
three “at the right level” schools is a good bet because you never know when budget
cuts or other unfortunate situations that are out of your control might make
a “sure thing” a complete disaster for your application. If you are serious
about attending graduate school, it is good to apply to five, six, or seven
- National fellowships. A graduate fellowship is a grant
that is awarded to you that you don’t have to repay. Fellowships typically cover your
tuition, medical insurance, and give you an annual stipend of $12,000-$30,000
to cover your books, academic and living expenses. There are numerous
fellowships available and an online search will often help with this
process. The National Science
Foundation, National Physical Science Consortium, Hertz Foundation, and
National Institutes of Health have fellowships for students.
The application process
- One to three page statement of
purpose. Many departments will not meet the
student face-to-face before deciding whether to accept them. The statement of purpose is where you
show them who you are and it should focus on the academic side of you! Why do you want to go to graduate
school? Why their program? What research have you done? If you haven’t done research yet, what
makes you think you want to do it?
What do you intend to do with your degree? Briefly explain setbacks that you’ve
had and how these have helped you grow academically and personally. Try to highlight the positive aspects
of your academic record and instances that have shown your mathematical
maturity. You should rewrite your
statement at least 3 times before asking an English professor/lecturer to
read it and critique it. You
should also have at least one faculty member in your department critique
- Importance of recommendation
letters. Make sure to ask the faculty if
he/she can write you a strong letter of recommendation. Also be sure to ask well in advance of
any deadline, give them a copy of your statement of purpose, a resume, and a
list of relevant courses taken and grades received in these courses. Schools typically require three
letters of recommendation and you should request at least two of these
letters from math/science/engineering faculty who can comment on your
academic potential and capabilities in the field/discipline to which you are
applying. Give each recommender a
list of all the places where they need to send letters along with the
corresponding deadlines. Also,
send them reminders 7 days prior to every deadline. Your recommenders should be your
biggest supporters—remember to thank them after all the deadlines have
passed and to keep them informed of your decisions and progress.
- Application fees. Expect to pay between $50 and $100 for each
application. If this is a
hardship, contact the individual department and request a fee waiver.
- Graduate Record Examinations (GRE)
general and subject tests. Although
countless statistics show almost no correlation between test scores and
success in graduate school, almost all schools still require the GRE and many
want you to perform well on this test. If you are required to take the
test, make sure you do so in time for scores to arrive at the school before
their application deadline. It is
worthwhile to prepare for the GRE by obtaining the general test and relevant
subject test books and studying diligently from them.
- Applications. Most applications are available online. Be sure to
submit everything that is requested because incomplete applications will not
be considered. E-mail the
relevant departmental contact (often the administrative assistant of the
department/program) to make sure your application has been received and is
complete. Be aware of the
Choosing between schools
that have accepted you
- Financial Considerations. Most students in Ph.D. programs in mathematics,
science, and engineering do not have to pay for their education. Financial support in the form of teaching
assistantships, research assistantships, and graduate fellowships (or
scholarships) allow many students to focus on their studies by providing a
tuition waiver and a stipend for living expenses. Any type of support should be promised
in writing and will likely be contingent upon “satisfactory progress”
in the given program. Make sure
that the funding isn’t for just one year after which time you will be left to
fend for yourself. Graduate
school is hard work and you will need to focus your energy on it and not on
where the money will be coming from to finance your graduate studies.
- Visit the school. Some
schools will require an interview and you should do your homework
beforehand! If there is no
interview, you should still try to visit the school, if at all possible. Plan in advance with the department so
that you can meet some faculty and graduate students in the department. Sometimes departments have funds to
help offset the costs of your visit but you should ask ahead of time.
Prepare a list of questions that you want to ask. For starters, ask
some of the questions that helped you narrow down your list. How large is the department? How many students are in the incoming
class? Are the course
requirements rigid or flexible?
Are there “qualifying exams” and, if so, what is the success
rate? Can you take an upper
division undergraduate course before taking the graduate course, if you feel
you need the preparation? If so,
will any of these courses count toward your degree?
Find out who you are meeting with beforehand
and get some information on each individual (especially about their research
interests) from the web. If you
are visiting a faculty in a particular lab with whom you may be working, ask
questions that you think will help you figure out if it is a good match for
Meet with some graduate students in the department. This is the time when you can ask
questions from students who are currently experiencing the program—they
can often give you the inside story of the department and how smoothly and
friendly things are. The graduate students in your department will likely be
your friends for the next several years and will offer support during your
Take 15-30 minutes at the end of the day to write down some notes on
your visit. Include both
objective information (such as students take three courses each semester for
the first two years) and subjective information (such as the grad students
really seemed friendly and not as stressed as I expected). This will help in comparing
schools when it comes time to make a decision.
- Get input from your faculty.
Do not let
anyone push you in a direction you don’t want to go, but getting advice is
important and faculty (especially those that wrote you letters of
recommendation) are often very willing to talk with you about the schools to
which you’ve been accepted. They
collectively have a wealth of experience and want to help you make the best
decision for you. Sometimes you
may get conflicting advice but just remember that everyone is viewing your
situation from their own perspective—you are
the one that knows you best.
DK: Entering a graduate program in mathematics is an adventure like no other.
Some of the best times of my life were during my graduate years. And like
anything extremely rewarding, math grad school is extremely challenging. Once
you earn a graduate degree, no one can ever take it away from you. And a
graduate degree in mathematics opens many doors both in industry and
Applying to graduate
school is expensive and time consuming, and I recommend applying to as many
schools as you can afford (in time and money). Applying to 15 schools is a
reasonable target. I would apply to five dream schools, five solid schools,
and five schools to which you think you have a high chance of being admitted
(but never apply to a school that you are not interested in). Here are some other concrete
Semester Junior Year
- Consult with professors and develop your list of graduate schools
during the spring semester of your Junior year. Make
a spreadsheet containing the names of each school, their application
deadline, and other pertinent information.
- Also, take the GRE during the spring semester of your Junior year.
- Write a draft of your personal essay during the summer between Junior
and Senior years. Remember to be as specific as
possible in your essay. Everyone applying loves mathematics and finds it
beautiful. Why are you personally applying? Are there particular results you
find interesting and would like to learn more about?
Semester Senior Year
- Ask professors for letters of
recommendation at the *beginning* of your senior year. For each professor,
give them a copy of your unofficial transcripts, your draft personal essay,
and a complete list of institutions with deadlines and specific letter
instructions. An email works best for the latter, with links to electronic
submission sites. If any schools require paper letters of recommendation,
give pre-addressed and stamped envelopes to all your recommenders.
- If you can, get at least one
letter of recommendation from a professor *outside* of your home institution.
- Retake the GRE if you would need
to improve your score.
- Remember to apply to the NSF
and/or all other scholarships and fellowships you may be eligible for.
- Send reminder emails to your letter writers in advance of their
RW: The decision to go on to
graduate school in mathematics can be a difficult one. For some, it’s a chance to fulfill a
lifelong dream of becoming a professional scientist working in industry,
government or academia. For
others it is an opportunity to pursue something that we are passionate about,
but may not be sure of what the career path afterwards will hold. Whatever the case, before you make the
decision to pursue a graduate degree in mathematics, make sure that the
subject is one that you are very passionate about. If you don’t enjoy what you’re
studying in graduate school, and I mean really
enjoy it, then it will be harder for you to make it through when times
get tough during coursework, preliminary and qualifying exams, and writing
your dissertation. If you are
sure that pursuing a graduate degree in mathematics is right for you, then
you should start doing some research on what type of program you would like
to attend. The answer to this
question can depend on a lot of factors.
While you’re doing your research, here are some things to keep in
Questions to ask
about choosing the right grad school for you:
- Do you want to be in a large
school or a small school? What is
the student to faculty ratio?
- Who are the faculty? Who are the
potential thesis advisors in an area you like? (very important!!!)
- What is the community of graduate
students like in the department?
Do they like the program?
Do they work together?
What level of students are they?
- What is the breadth and depth of
the program? What areas is the
program strong in and what is the range of areas of expertise of the faculty?
- What are the research interests of
the faculty? What are some of
their recent publications?
- What are the graduation rates of
the department? Do most of the
graduate students they admit graduate with PhD’s? Masters degrees? What do they go on to
do after they graduate?
- What is the qualifying
exam/preliminary exam process?
What subjects are the exams in, how many chances? What happens if you don’t pass? Can you still leave with a Masters
degree? (Ask for copies of old
exams. You can also find these
What are the requirements for a
Masters Degree? Can you earn a
Masters degree on your way to a PhD?
- What kind of financial support do
they provide? Teaching
Assistantships? Research Assistantships? Fellowship? How many years of support is
guaranteed? Are all of the
students guaranteed support upon admission?
- What is the teaching load for
graduate students? Are there
opportunities to teach their own classes? What training is provided for graduate
student teachers and teaching assistants?
- How long do students take at this
university to graduate with their PhD?
What organizations are active in
the department and on campus that support graduate students?
- Prowl the web!!! Look at
universities websites and find the math department home page.
- Visit: sit in classes, check out
housing, meet grad students, meet faculty, meet staff, check
out the town.
- Send out at least 6-8
applications, and make sure to ask about fee waivers. (You can also get fee waivers for a
lot of schools by visiting their booths at graduate fairs, such as the one at
the upcoming SACNAS conference).
- Talk to the graduate
students. Are they happy? What are their favorite classes? Who are their favorite faculty
members? Is the first-year
graduate student culture a collaborative one or is it more independent?
- If you are not sure if you are
prepared for a four-year PhD program, or if a PhD program in mathematics is
right for you, then you can also consider enrolling in a terminal Masters
degree program as well. (But
remember, it’s more likely to get your education fully funded as a PhD
a successful second year in graduate school. Ivelisse Rubio and
Ricardo Cortez offer the following suggestions.
IR: I was
once told that the one who succeeds in graduate school is not necessarily the
most intelligent person; it is the one that has the discipline and
perseverance to overcome different types of “obstacles”: courses, qualifying
exams, research and writing the thesis.
Although the structure of each graduate program is
different, most of them require students to pass or at least attempt
qualifying exams by the end of their second year. Passing these exams should
be a priority. This means that while you are taking courses, you should be
preparing for the exams. It is important to not isolate yourself, other
students will be also preparing for the exams and you can form study groups where
you share examples of old exams and discuss problems.
During the second year, you can also start to explore
possible areas for your future thesis research. If possible, take courses
that can give you a better understanding of the areas that are of interest to
you. Talk to faculty that work in those areas.
Attend departmental seminars where you can learn about current research
topics and talk to other graduate students that are already working on thesis
research. Ask questions about possible advisors like: How many students has he/she graduated in the last five years? How
much time does she/he dedicate to their students? Does she/he advice students
about grants and job opportunities?
But, again, your priority is passing your qualifying
exams! Then, after passing your exams, you will have the enthusiasm and
energy to continue to the next step! You cannot get tired! It is a long
distance obstacle race! And you will get to the finish line!
RC: Typically, the first year in graduate school is a transition
time for most students. Students have to get used to a new university, new
set of colleagues, and an entirely new way of studying mathematics that
requires a new way of managing time. By the end of the first year and partly
into the second year, students usually organize their Ph.D. exam schedule and
other events that can make a successful second year in the graduate
program. The goal for the second
year should be to finish all Ph.D. exams and all coursework associated with
the program. Sometimes students
get overwhelmed by looking ahead at all the requirements to finish the Ph.D.,
including written and oral exams, courses, teaching, finding an advisor, and
writing a dissertation.
It is more manageable to
set goals for the second year and focus on those, rather than looking ahead
at all the upcoming years together.
If the student has passed all written exams and essentially completed
all course requirements by the end of the second year, this would qualify as
a successful second year. This
will place the student in a position to choose an advisor and begin
dissertation research during the third year of graduate school and be on
schedule to complete the Ph.D. in 4-5 years.
my last postdoc year! Job seeking strategies. By Dagan Karp and Ricardo Cortez
This is the time of
the year when Postdoctoral researchers in their last year of their
appointment begin to look for a permanent position as a faculty member or as
a researcher or at a teaching college.
Given that the job market has been tough in recent years, it is
crucial to do an excellent job on the things you control (and not stress over
the things you cannot control).
These include: networking and preparing your application materials.
The application will generally include a cover letter, a CV, and written
material consisting of a research statement, copies of articles, and a
teaching dossier (statement of philosophy, evaluations and samples).
Make sure the
application is put together in a professional manner and looks
organized. Every part of it should
be easy to read and to follow.
Imagine you are the one having to read 200 applications and can only
spend a few minutes reading each one.
To stand out, your application must show that your research is
original and significant, and that your teaching is effective and thoughtful.
It should be apparent that you will be a good
A good cover letter is
personalized to each institution, mentions in the first paragraph what
position you are applying for and how you learned about it. The second paragraph should discuss
your background and qualifications (and how they match the ad you responded
to). Finally, offer to submit additional information and let them know how to
get in touch with you (if you will be at a major conference or in the area, etc.).
Your research statement should be about 5 pages long.
Longer versions are likely to be ignored! Start with a bird’s eye view of
where your research fits within the larger picture; then give a medium-scale description of the
projects you have worked on (to be understood by a mathematician who is not
in your area of research). Then
you can get more specific by listing your previous research and your current
projects (be clear about what is old and what is new). End the statement with a research plan
that indicates how to extend the projects you are working on and how your
work leads to new projects. This
has to be exciting and have potential for success while being credible.
If you are interested
in teaching at a liberal arts college, perhaps the most important document in
your application is your teaching dossier. If you don't have a dossier,
create one. It should contain your teaching experience (descriptions of all
courses you've ever taught), a description of your evaluations (a summary in
the body, and copies attached in an appendix), your teaching philosophy,
descriptions of any outreach you've done, and a list of your teaching awards,
Many of us would like
to think that our work speaks for itself, but the reality is that jobs often
come about from contacts that you or your advisors have. For this reason, network as much as
possible. Tell everyone you know
that you are looking for a job (specifying the type of position you want). When you meet people and discuss
possible jobs, follow up with an email. If you say you will send material to
somebody, do it immediately. Ask your advisor to make phone calls. Make sure your complete applications
were received. Use Mathjobs and other sites.
A good resource is http://www.vpul.upenn.edu/careerservices/gradstud/resources/PhD_sme_academic/, from the University of
Pennsylvania Career Services office.
things to do before my tenure review! By Herbert Medina
leading up to the application for tenure and promotion to associate professor
can be stressful and anxious for many. Aside from working very hard on your
research and in the classroom, the keys to reducing this anxiety and stress
and also maximizing your chances for a successful tenure application are 1. clarity and 2. preparation.
first year of your tenure-track position, you should have conversations with
your department chair, dean and departmental colleagues to get as much
clarity as possible about the expectations for tenure and promotion at your
institution. It is possible that department chairs and deans will not be so
forthcoming with this information, because tenure and promotion requirements
are not merely checkboxes, but be proactive with your questions to get a
sense as to whether, for example, it is expected that you have x or x + 2 publications at
the time you apply. Also get a sense of the quality-of-teaching expectations
that your institution has. Departmental colleagues may be more forthcoming so
conversations with them should also prove very fruitful. After all, your
departmental colleagues will vote on your promotion and tenure so having a
sense from them as to what their expectations are for junior faculty is very
feel that you have a sense of the expectations, write them down and share
them informally with your colleagues and department chair. That way, they can
tell you whether your interpretation of what was communicated to you meshes
with the real expectations. Again, it’ll be hard to “pin down” anyone to get
them to tell you that exactly x publications
in journals ranked y or higher in
your field will be enough for promotion and tenure, but if you share with
them something that is way off, they’ll be able to steer you back to a more
realistic set of expectations.
you have some clarity, let’s address the preparation of material for your
application for tenure. This also should start during your first year in a
tenure-track position. At first, this entails simply keeping your CV up to
date (with publications, conference presentations, workshop participations,
etc.); keeping a file (electronic and paper) of all the syllabi for your
courses, sample exams, etc.; keeping data on your teaching evaluations;
keeping letters from peers who have reviewed your teaching; keeping a list of
all the university committees on which you have served; etc. In summary, you
always want to have an up-to-date summary of your work as a faculty member.
to the evaluation of your teaching, it is important that you have (at least)
yearly peer reviews of it. This may already be the culture/requirement at
your institution, but if it is not, ask at least one colleague to visit one
of your classes at least once per year. (It should be different colleagues in
different years.) They should write evaluative letters that should go to you
and your chair and that you will become part of your tenure/promotion
application. Without peer-reviews of teaching, the rank and tenure committee
will have only student teaching evaluations as the evaluative instrument to
help it assess your teaching, and this may be inadequate (especially if your
teaching evaluations are below average). There is lots of information on
effective peer review (for example, http://uwf.edu/CAS/partners/documents/Peer_Review_Protocol_ASEE04.pdf is a good resource for peer
review) but there is likely already faculty/resources at your institution to
help you with effective peer reviews.
So now it’s
time to prepare your tenure and promotion application. What should you do?
Finally, the five things that you should do (in no particular order).
1. Take a look at the application of the last member of
your department who successfully applied for tenure/promotion and use his/her
application as a guide for the preparation of yours. This should
especially be the case with the narrative portion of the application. Your
narrative will of course be very different than his/hers, but that last
successful application will give you a sense of the topics covered, emphasis,
what not to include, etc.
2. Get clarity from your institution’s rank and tenure
committee as to the format of your application, and explicitly follow that
format. A promotion and tenure application is not the place to
“get creative” or “artsy.” Assemble an application that adheres to the
prescribed format as much as possible.
3. The application process will almost certainly involve
the solicitation of external letters from people in your field who can speak
to the quality/relevance of your research. These
individuals are usually chosen by your department chair after s/he has
consulted with you. Make a list of at least five people whom
you could suggest to your department chair to act as external reviewers at
the time of your application.
4. Applications for promotion and tenure usually are due
in the middle of the fall semester. That means that you should spend part of
the previous summer working on the narrative portion of your application and
on assembling the supporting material for it. Schedule in your calendar at
least two weeks of time to exclusively work on these tasks.
5. Stay positive as you prepare your application. Take
the point of view that applying for tenure and promotion is your opportunity
to “tell your story.” It is your chance to inform colleagues in your
department and institution as well as your chair and dean about the wonderful
things you have been doing as a faculty member. Take the opportunity to tell
a compelling, good and interesting story. If you have the attitude that, “Why
the heck are the making me do this,” then that will come through in your
narrative and application, and you may end up producing an application that
comes off as standoffish and defensive.
Promotion and tenure
review are part of the “trade” for faculty (and whether we like it or not,
it’s not likely to change anytime soon) so be ready
to navigate this aspect of the trade by being informed and prepared. If you
have done good work (both teaching and scholarship) in the years leading up
to the time of application for tenure and promotion, and you have clarity
about the process and have prepared for it, then it won’t be long before you
can write “Associate Professor” after your name!
Network in the Mathematical Sciences is designed to address relevant
questions that students, postdoctoral researchers and junior faculty may have
regarding their own advancement in mathematics. Its goal is to reach as many readers
as possible, especially those who may not have sufficient mentoring at their
current institution. We publish
mentors’ opinions as provided in order to stimulate discussion. We hope you
will be active in this process.
addressed in this publication are kept relevant by requesting suggestions
from readers. Please send
mentoring topics to firstname.lastname@example.org and look for responses in future
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Next Issue: January 2012