So you’re starting grad school (in pure math)

I have some friends starting grad school this week and, because I’m old and wise now (and also to counter academic survivorship bias) I want to offer some dubious advice to them and other new grad students.

  1. Focus on mathematics and (if this is part of your goal) teaching. This might sound weird, but trust me: your department is going to try to get you to do all sorts of other things, especially if you’re a woman or underrepresented minority. Departmental or school service may seem tempting if you are pursuing an academic career, but I’m highly skeptical of the utility of grad students sitting on department committees or similar types of service, both to the grad student and to the school. If it’s important to you to give back to your school, or, more likely, to force your school to treat future students better, get involved in organizing at the graduate student level (unions, senate, etc.) I say this primarily because you will likely be more effective at that level, but also because you’ll have better opportunities for building community and developing your own leadership/organizational skills.
  2. Build collaborations with other grad students. This is something I mostly failed at, but even if you don’t get papers out of it, working with other grad students will teach you a lot more about collaboration than working with your advisor or other established mathematicians.
  3. Students will like you and buy into your teaching style if you just explain it to them — provided, of course, you’ve got good reasons for teaching the way you do (this is advice for some advanced professors as well….) Learning starts with metacognition, and in order to metacognify (it’s a word) well, your students need you to be transparent in your pedagogical choices.
  4. Don’t trust anyone’s self-estimation of the time they spend working — including your own. Grad students are prone to wild inflation of these numbers — “I was at the office for 12 hours today” usually does not translate, in my experience, to “I worked 12 hours today.” So don’t be intimidated by the dudebro (and it is  often a dudebro) loudly talking about his hundred-hour weeks. Hike your own trail. Be honest with yourself about how much time you spend working and how much time you need to work.
  5. Get off campus. Do other things. You need a break. Yes, you. Yes, right now. Put down the chalk, let your brain mull it over on its own, and climb a fucking mountain or something. Go to a knitting circle. Paint a damn frog.
  6. Learn to give really good talks. It’s easy to skate by in math, where most talks are actively horrible, but people will remember you for giving good talks and, if you get a reputation for it, invite you to give more. It’s like magic!
  7. A lot of mathematicians are very vocal these days about diversity and inclusion. This does not automatically mean you can trust them to have your back. I don’t mean this in a negative way. I’m just saying that a lot of relatively privileged mathematicians are at the point where they are aware of and care about diversity and inclusion but not yet at the point where they really understand just how bad the picture is, and the ways in which they themselves contribute. Be cautious, is all.
  8. Find out what the on-campus therapy is like. Now you have to be careful about this, because at some schools you don’t want to go near campus therapists with a 10 foot pole (you can google the horror stories.) But if they’re good and free, establish care early on. Grad school is notoriously bad for mental health. I joke with my therapist that leaving grad school cured my mental illness. It didn’t, of course, but the difference really is night and day. Even if you don’t have any mental health problems (now…), you’re going to need support. So if there’s good, free, professional support available…..take advantage.
  9. On that note, alcohol is a depressant.
  10. Pick a non-academic career option and start developing it now. Like, don’t invest a ton of time in it, just get started. Make a long-term plan for how you’ll get there. Certain math professors will tell you that it is easy to get an industry job (they never specify an industry) with a PhD in pure math. They are wrong.
  11. The library is a great place to work and study — probably more effective than the usually crowded and distracting graduate offices.
  12. If you want to teach, your school probably has pedagogy seminars or teaching circles or something. Your math professors likely don’t know about them (burn), but they are probably there. Go forth! Learn from areas that invest more time in pedagogical training than ours typically does!
  13. You’ve got this! You’re going to prove something amazing! And spend a lot of time not understanding other people’s mathematics! That’s okay!

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