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Here is some useful advice about doctoral programs in mathematics from speaking with grad students and professors at Howard University when we visited their department on April 30th, 2010. 

What exams do I need to take for grad school?

GRE (General) – Almost all gradudate programs require the General GRE (Graduate Record Examination). This is like the SAT for grad school. Take the exam your junior year if possible. Just like the SAT, the study books, practice exams and prep courses will really make a difference on your score.

GRE (Subject) – Some graduate programs require the Math Subject GRE, which tests undergraduate math knowledge. Mostly calculus, but also linear algebra, abstract algebra, advanced calculus and a smattering of probability, topology and complex analysis. Just because it’s multiple choice doesn’t mean it’s not a serious test. It is!

These exams cost money, but you may be eligible for a fee reduction. For more information see the financial aid office on campus.

What else can I do to prepare for grad school?

REU – If possible, do an REU (Research Experience for Undergrads) during one of your summers. It it will give you a good idea about what mathematics research is about and it looks great on your CV. These programs are fully funded and somewhat competitive. LSAMP also supports undergrad research.

“Students should know about grad school at least two years before graduating,” Professor Adeniran Adeboye says.


What do you do in a PhD program? How does it work?

Coursework – made up of mandatory and/or elective courses

Qualifying exams (“Quals”) – written examinations on basic graduate math courses

Oral exams (“Orals”) – in-depth exam of one or two topics chosen by student

Choose an advisor – based on experience in coursework and exams, you find someone to work with. Grad school is in many ways like an apprenticeship.

Dissertation (thesis) research – the math research process is different than in other fields. Typically, your advisor sets you an “open problem” to work on. You study one or two books and the “literature”; that is, research papers.

Defense – When you’ve obtained a result (a theorem) and written it up, you and your advisor organize a defense committee. After presenting your work to the committee (in person), the defense committee votes on the dissertation. They will accept it, accept it with revisions, or reject it.


How much does it cost to get a Phd in math?

Most math PhD programs are fully funded. Tuition and modest living expenses are covered, but award packages can vary significantly. Most grad students will be expected to teach or TA (work as a teaching assistant) for a portion of their time.

There are lots of different scholarships and grant programs available for graduate students in math (and science).

·      LSAMP “Bridge to the Doctorate”

·      NSF Graduate Fellowship

·      NSF GK12

·      McNair Scholarships , Project 1000

·    Department’s often have their own teaching assistantships and scholarships. Ask!


Will I survive? What advice can you give about actually getting a PhD?

“Have your goals in place when you go to grad school.” – Howard grad student

Before choosing your grad program, find out what you can about their track record of graduating minority students. Going to an HBCU (Historically Black College or University) may be very helpful.

Be prepared to work hard and to work continuously.  “Mathematics is a jealous lover – there is no substitute for intimacy” – Adeboye

Be prepared to face challenges, “You will get slammed in grad school. Everyone does” – Howard grad student. Try not to take it personally when it happens.

Find an advisor whose work interests you and whose style of mentoring works for you.

Some universities have an office of retention and mentoring where you can find help.


What kind of jobs can you get with a Math PhD?

Academic jobs – teaching university or a research university

Government jobs – the largest employer of mathematicians is the NSA (Nat’l Security Assoc.)

Industry jobs – “At any major company you’ll find a mathematician at work” – Howard grad student.


Where can I find out more?

A Mathematician's Survival Guide: Graduate School and Early Career Development
by Steven G. Krantz, 2003

Speak with your faculty advisor. If you don't know who your advisor is, talk to Ms. Brown or Dr. Ording.

If you are interested in the PhD program at Howard, contact Dr. Toka Diagana, Director of Graduate Studies at tdiagana@howard.edu

Many thanks to Howard's Dr. Toka Diagana, Dir. of Graduate Studies for hosting us. Thanks to all the students, staff and faculty of Howard for their welcome. Funding for the trip was provided by the DOE through a PBI grant. Thanks to Porsha Childs for her assistance. Student participants: Joy Adams, Ruth Adams, Andre Braddy, Dacia Carter, Ricky Gibson, Kamesha Martin, Lennise Noralez, Oge Nwabuoku, Roger Palomino, Grace Price, Shaun Shewmangal, Danielle Sneed, Sean Wynter, Chaimae Zainabi.

Howard University, Washington DC

Text and photos by Philip Ording