You are here

Choosing Graduate School

How to Choose a Graduate School

Have you considered graduate school? You really should (even if you decide it is not for you). You should ask your teachers for their advice on schools that will fit your interests and abilities. You can talk to family, friends, and fellow students, but unless your school has a graduate program it is difficult to find graduate students to talk to. We decided to ask four mathematics graduate students about how they chose their graduate schools and what advice they have for you.


University of Illinois

I grew up in Carbondale, Illinois and attended the relatively small public high school there. I did my undergraduate work at the University of Michigan, and majored in mathematics largely due to the fact that the faculty there encouraged me to do so. During the summer between my junior and senior years, I attended a National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology. I decided to go to graduate school based on my experience that summer.

The hardest part of choosing a graduate school was deciding where to apply. Since I didn't know which area of math I wanted to study, I wanted a large department so I could keep my options open. Also, I knew that I would probably spend at least 5 years in graduate school, so I wanted to go somewhere I could enjoy living for that long. I also wanted to go to a school where there were women, both at the graduate student and faculty levels. My then significant-other and now-husband and I wanted to go to school together, so we applied to the same schools. Luckily, our qualifications were roughly alike, so once we decided together where to apply, there wasn't much of a problem.

I didn't want to be the best or the worst student in the department. Consequently, if I got a letter saying I had been wait-listed, I ruled that school out. Similarly, there was one school which I felt was recruiting me too heavily, and I withdrew my application to it. When TA offers started coming in, I compared those figures with what I knew about the cost of living in the various towns.

Finally, I narrowed the choices down to three schools, the University of Illinois and two others. I made plans to visit all three, and eventually made my decision on the basis of those visits. I found Illinois to be the friendliest, with the most faculty-student interaction. I am currently in my fourth year here, studying a combination of algebraic number theory, algebraic geometry, and coding theory.


University of Illinois

I graduated from a relatively large public high school in Las Cruces, New Mexico. I attended New Mexico State University (also located in Las Cruces) for my bachelor's degree. I chose mathematics as a major because it was the one subject I had always found interesting throughout my life. Graduate school for me was something I knew early on I wanted to do.

Choosing a graduate school was a confusing task. Different people gave vastly different advice, but a few things became clear. For one, given the relative abundance of funding for hard sciences, never choose a school that does not give you full support. Besides the standard-of-living issue, it's not a good sign if a department doesn't think enough of your abilities to accept you unreservedly.

Choose a school that offers desirable living conditions. Four to seven years is a long time to spend in a place you hate. Related to this is the issue of how a department treats its students. Some departments have been known to drop or curtail funding for students starting with the fourth year of graduate study. This is unacceptable.

Many schools more or less guarantee five years of full support (provided minimal progress is met); this is something to seek out.

Ideally, one would know his or her specific area of interest before entering grad school. For me this was not the case. I thought I wanted to study algebra, but nothing more specific. Therefore, I sought a school which had faculty working in a wide range of areas. For most undergrads, it's difficult to evaluate the quality of research at a given grad school. It's a good idea, therefore, to consult with professors at one's undergraduate institution. (Don't believe the literature the schools send you on their faculty's research-it's often out-of-date and self-promoting.)

Finally, visiting prospective grad schools is money well spent. If you do visit a school, be sure to talk with graduate students in the department as well as faculty, and be sure to ask SPECIFIC questions such as which professors are still active, in which areas do most people work, what the living conditions are like, which professors make good advisors, etc.


Duke University, North Carolina

I grew tip in Birmingham, Alabama. I attended high school at Shades Valley Resource Learning Center, a small public high school (about 160 students) which served as the gifted program for Jefferson County public schools. While in high school, I was active on the math team. I enjoyed the math contests I participated in, but at that time I wasn't really aware that it was possible to have a career in research mathematics, so I never gave it much thought.

I attended college at Duke University. Once there, it didn't take me long to realize that mathematics was in fact a viable career option, and I decided almost immediately that that was what I wanted to do. I found the math department at Duke to be very friendly and supportive, and I very much enjoyed my undergraduate experience.

When it came time to choose a graduate school, there were many factors I considered. I wanted the department to have a friendly, supportive atmosphere among both graduate students and professors. I wanted a fairly small department where I wouldn't get lost in the crowd. My main interest was in geometry, so I wanted a department that was strong in that area. I wanted a department that had a good graduation record and a good record for placing students in jobs after graduation. I applied to a handful of schools that met these criteria and was accepted to all of them. I visited them all before making a decision, and I found that I learned a lot by talking to graduate students about their experiences in their respective departments.

In the end I decided to stay at Duke for graduate school, largely for personal reasons. I had mixed feelings and got lots of mixed advice-about my choice, but ultimately I think it was the right choice for me. I'm also glad I went through the process of looking at other schools; by exploring other options, I was better informed and better prepared to make the choice I made.

UC Berkeley

I grew up in Amherst, Massachusetts, attended the local public high school, and then moved onto Brown University. There I debated whether to major in cognitive science or math; eventually the lasting beauty of group theory and topology won out over seductive but provisional theories about thinking. Going to graduate school seemed like a natural choice for me: not only is there not much "lasting beauty" to be found in industry, but having spent my entire life in college towns, grad school felt like a comfortable option.

Choosing a graduate school was not comfortable. I had the good fortune to be contending with the "two-body" problem-i.e., trying to end up at the same school as my girlfriend, who wanted to study psychology. This was a restrictive constraint. After visiting several schools, we found that only one, Stanford, seemed good in both subjects and had happy students in both departments. That's where we went.

Sadly, Stanford was not the right place for me. Although it had many excellent aspects, the department's small size made me feel a bit claustrophobic (many other students loved it, however) and the general slant of the department's research didn't appeal to me. The following year, I transferred to UC Berkeley, which has a huge department that fits my research interests. My girlfriend and I live halfway between Stanford and Berkeley and commute to school. My happiness at finding a school that's right for me is worth the daily train rides.

So I have two pieces of advice. First, your choice of grad school isn't irrevocable; if you're not happy, you can transfer without much agony. And second, the two-body problem is worth solving-next week I'm getting married.


To subscribe to Math Horizons contact:

MAA Service Center
Telephone: 800-331-1622
Outside the US (301) 617-7800
FAX (301) 206-9789

Copyright 1993 Math Horizons The Mathematical Association of America