When I started graduate school, I found myself in an unexpected minority: I was the only student in my cohort of 12 who had gotten my math major at a small liberal arts college. Everyone else had gone to a university, and many had already taken graduate level courses.
I had never questioned my decision to study math at a liberal arts institution. I loved the fact that my classmates and friends (and professors!) had such varied interests, such as the classics, philosophy, music, and art, and that these subjects were often woven together into interdisciplinary courses. I appreciated my small classes that fostered conversation with classmates and close contact with professors. I didn’t realize what I could have benefited from at a larger school: a deeper pool of math classes (at the undergraduate and graduate levels) from which to choose, as well as graduate students who I could look up to, learn from, and emulate.
When I started comparing myself to my peers, it was easy for me to focus on what I didn’t get out of my liberal arts degree. It was easy to believe that the “best” preparation for math graduate school would have been taking lots of high-level math courses as an undergraduate. It took effort for me to find the value that my liberal arts degree afforded me as a graduate student. But there is value there, and it’s worth it to remind myself of the ways in which my undergraduate experience did prepare me well for graduate school.
I’ve received a lot of advice from older graduate students and professors about making the transition to graduate school, and I learned quite a bit in my own first semester. Based on this advice and my own experiences I’ve compiled a few suggestions about how you can make a successful transition from a liberal arts college to graduate school. (This advice can apply more broadly to anyone starting graduate school, not just liberal arts students – everyone faces struggles in making this transition.)
It’s okay to feel behind, but that doesn’t mean you’re less ready. In my first semester of graduate school it seemed like so many of my classmates were already familiar with many of the topics in our graduate courses. It was almost all new to me. I worried from day one that I was already behind and I wouldn’t be able to catch up. Those fears weren’t completely unfounded: I did know less about certain subjects than my classmates, and I did have to spend more time than them puzzling over some homework assignments. But in my first semester of graduate school I took courses that were at the right level for me, and I was able to learn and understand the material despite starting from “behind.” As a liberal arts student, it can take some time to catch up to others in terms of sheer knowledge base, but after a few years everyone will be diving into their own research, and it won’t matter who started “ahead.”
Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Office hours were seen as an essential part of my undergraduate courses, and liberal arts colleges in general tend to have lots of close student-faculty interaction. I practically lived outside my professors’ offices as an undergrad, and I continued my frequent office hour attendance when I started graduate school. I think I go to my professors’ office hours more than any of my fellow graduate students, but I’ve gained so much understanding and cleared up so many misconceptions during those office hours. Whether you’re talking to a professor, a TA, or a classmate, take advantage of the wealth of knowledge around you. I promise you’re not the only one who has questions.
Let your communication skills shine. Almost all of my undergraduate math classes had one or more writing projects, as well as plentiful opportunities to present proofs and other work in front of the class. Each paper and each presentation honed my ability to express mathematical ideas in words, organize my thoughts in a logical way, and motivate the importance of the topic at hand. Liberal arts courses teach students to communicate effectively, a skill which is necessary in every discipline. Even the most brilliant mathematical insight would lose value if it couldn’t be explained to other mathematicians. The ability to communicate well is not only useful for writing papers, but also for writing clear homework and test solutions, TAing, giving talks, and writing applications for fellowships, conferences, and so on.
I want to leave you with one more thought. If you are in a graduate program and feeling like you aren’t ready, remember that you were not admitted by mistake. You were recommended by your undergraduate professors, and you were chosen by a graduate program to pursue a degree. Talk to an advisor or professor about finding the right courses for you, and trust that with a lot of hard work and help from classmates, TAs, and professors, you’ll make it through. It can be a jarring experience for anyone entering graduate school to suddenly find themselves surrounded by the best and brightest students. Take the time to identify your own personal strengths, and let those guide you toward a more confident outlook.