Advice for Applying to REU Programs (From Recent Participants!)

By Alvaro Carbonero, Brittany Gelb, Amaury Miniño, Vanessa Sun, and Lee Trent

Introduction

What is an REU? REU stands for “Research Experience for Undergraduates.” REU’s are typically 6-10 week long summer programs hosted at colleges or universities. To be officially considered an REU, the program generally has funding from the National Science Foundation or the National Security Agency, but there are other research programs that are very similar which are supported through other funding sources. REU’s invite undergraduate students to apply to their program to spend the summer at their college or university (although the pandemic has changed this) and work on an individual or group research project advised by mathematicians with research and mentoring experience Undergraduates are paid to participate in these programs, and are typically housed on campus or nearby (with the costs often covered by the program directly). The faculty members will have carefully selected and curated problems that they believe are accessible to undergraduates and they provide the necessary background. If an REU would be your first research experience, not to worry, that’s what they’re designed to be and your REU advisor will know how to support and mentor you!

The authors of this blog post have successfully applied to REU programs in the recent past and some of us have been involved in multiple REU’s or other similar summer programs. In fact, we recently organized the Online Undergraduate Resource Fair for the Advancement in Academia of Marginalized Mathematicians (OURFA2M2) to bring together faculty representatives of undergraduate career-advancement opportunities, students who have recently participated in such programs, mathematicians whose career trajectories were impacted by such programs, and others within the mathematics community to discuss and share resources related to these opportunities. Given our experiences along with the information we learned from our conference participants, we now share some advice with those applying to an REU.

First piece of advice: You should NOT rule yourself out from applying to REUs.

We truly believe that the only failure is the failure to try. There are a myriad of reasons that we or people we know considered not applying to REU programs. These include:

  • You never participated or succeeded in a math competition.
  • You have only completed a few math classes or have not taken many (or any) upper-division mathematics classes.
  • You have never done research before or don’t know what the research process in mathematics entails.
  • You don’t know anybody from your school who has gone to an REU program.
  • Your school is not nationally recognized for their math department.
  • Your overall GPA is not high.
  • You don’t feel confident in your mathematical abilities.
  • You believe you will be rejected (for any reason above or others).

If you have considered not applying to REU programs for one of these reasons, we want you to know that there have been many successful applicants in your shoes before (including us) so you can and should apply!

Finding an REU

Here is a presentation from our conference, OURFA2M2, that includes information on how to find REU’s and other research programs. Past eMentoring Network blogs also provide a list of REUs aimed at first and second year undergraduates. You can find that blog here. When you visit an REU program’s website you’ll likely find descriptions of the individual project topics they are planning for the upcoming summer. We encourage you to be willing to work in areas of mathematics that you may not have much background in. What’s perhaps most important is that you choose a topic you find interesting, so that if progress is especially slow or difficult you are still fueled by your interest in the topic of investigation.

Selecting programs

When we asked our fellow recent REU participants about application advice to share with you, one recommendation was repeated multiple times: Start as early as possible and be organized. You can use a spreadsheet to keep track of your applications, with columns for due dates and each individual piece of the application. Likely you will need a personal statement, two letters of recommendation, and a CV/resume. A past eMentoring Network Blog contains advice on asking for letters of recommendation, which you can find here. You can note down when parts of the application are completed and submitted and which you still have to finish.

Another piece of advice that was emphasized is that fit is very important. It should be possible to tell from the REU website what the target audience is in terms of mathematical experience. Ask yourself what you want to gain from an REU and make sure that the programs where you apply align with those goals. You should be excited to join the program, even if the research area is largely unfamiliar to you. If in doubt of whether a particular program might be the best suited for your goals, speaking with a trusted mentor could be very helpful.

REU programs are highly competitive and you should apply to several programs to maximize your chances of an acceptance. Most students apply to around 10-15 programs, and at least 8 is reasonable. Because these programs are competitive, it’s wise to apply to a wide range of opportunities, like counselorships, internships, and research programs that are not REU’s — Some alternatives are provided in the presentation linked here.

Advice on application materials

After selecting the programs that you will apply to, you will have to start working on the application materials they require. Here we provide advice about some of the most common application materials.

Personal Statement

In the personal statement, you should demonstrate the skills and experiences you have that would make you a successful participant in this research program. These skills do not necessarily need to come from previous mathematics research experiences. Depending on whether the proposed REU projects are individual or collaborative, you can talk about experiences you’ve had working independently or on a team. For example, maybe you have persevered to solve a particular problem or understand the material from a challenging class, or you have developed collaboration skills by working on homework or projects with other students. Articulating your interest in a specific project offered by the REU can be beneficial. For example, did you take a class related to the research area? If so, what did you enjoy about it? Did you listen to a lecture on the topic that caught your interest? One of us knew nothing about graph theory beyond an hour-long research talk she attended, but she made connections between the visual nature of the subject and how she generally enjoyed visual mathematical problems.

Be sure to detail why you are applying to an REU and why you want to do research. Do you want to figure out if a research career is right for you? Do you want experience in one specific field to decide if you like it and would potentially pursue that area in graduate school? Do you already find the subject fascinating? If so, why?

Do not forget to personalize your statements to each of the programs you are applying to — we know that this means you will have to work longer on your materials and we believe this will lead to a more favorable outcome. Explain what you expect to get out of that specific program and why and how you will benefit from those experiences. Additionally, be sure to speak about why you and the program you’re applying to will mutually benefit each other. This means that you should speak about how you will be an asset to the program. What experiences, interests, personality traits, technical or “soft” skills, or combinations thereof do you have that make you a uniquely qualified person that they definitely want on their team? As we stated previously, these experiences don’t need to have come from previous research experiences. For example, many university classes ask students to do a final project or a presentation. What did you learn while doing it that would benefit an REU team?

In the personal statement, you can discuss any challenges or barriers that have influenced your academic journey and the opportunities you have had access to. For example, are you a first generation college student, or do you come from a low-income family? If appropriate, mention that research opportunities are limited at your home institution, as likely this makes you the target audience of many REU programs. You can also discuss how aspects of your identity and life tie into your mathematical journey, and how an REU might help you overcome challenges or barriers.

Lastly, have multiple people review your writing if you can. You can ask professors, mentors, friends, and past summer program participants to provide feedback on your personal statement. Different people will have different perspectives, and it is generally helpful to clarify what feedback you are looking for, such as typos, grammar, organization, style, or content. Ask people who know you well to edit, as they know your strengths (and weaknesses) and which of your past experiences you can use to make the most compelling case that you are a good candidate for the program you’re applying to. Many universities also have resources to help you create applications, such as career centers and writing centers. We encourage you to make use of those offices and the resources they provide.

Supplemental application materials

Some programs ask for the answers to multiple specific questions. If the application also requires your personal statement, see this as an opportunity to be more specific about why you should be selected to participate in the program. Even if you feel you answered a question in your personal statement, don’t answer a question with, “see my personal statement,” follow the directions and include the information they ask for in the places they ask for it. Of course, do make your best effort to take these questions seriously and your answers should also implement feedback if at a minimum for grammar and typos.
Some applications ask you to mention your favorite mathematical theorem or concept. Such questions are there to gauge your interest in math and your ability to communicate about math, not to pick an impressive theorem or to prove that you have specialized knowledge. It’s okay to speak about something complicated if it’s something you’re interested in but don’t understand well — as long as you are honest about your level of understanding. You could also talk about what you are intrigued by and what new theorems or concepts you hope to learn in your coming courses. We encourage you to not try to appear more knowledgeable than you are. Be honest and genuine.

Recommendation Letters

When you apply to an REU, you will likely need to ask college professors for recommendation letters for the first time. You should ask professors who know about your mathematical ability, work ethic, ability to collaborate with other students, perseverance, intellectual curiosity, enthusiasm for learning, and/or personality to write your recommendation letters. If you’re reading this well in advance of when you first plan to apply to programs, start thinking about building those relationships with your professors. Most programs require at least one letter from a mathematics professor.

Tell your recommenders the different programs and their deadlines. Give them plenty of time — at a minimum a few weeks. You should consider having a draft of your application materials ready before or soon after you ask, since these can be helpful documents for your recommenders. Sometimes a recommender will request that you share these materials with them before they write the letter, but if they don’t, you may offer it anyway. Just as you tailor your personal statements to particular programs, consider using different recommenders for different programs. If you have multiple strong relationships with recommenders, you can match your recommenders to programs by their professional connections or research interests. If not, though, that’s okay, too! Remember that finding good recommendation letter writers may not always be an easy task. It can be hard to establish healthy and close professional relationships with professors.

The presentation we linked in the beginning of this blog post has an entire section (Networking/Mentoring) with advice that can help you establish good relationships with potential recommendation letter writers. We emphasize that this needs to be done with ample time so as to be able to request the letter in time for your application deadlines.

CV/Resume

There is already much advice on the internet about putting together an effective CV or resume. Career centers at colleges and universities can often provide templates, advice, and feedback. Consider tailoring your CV to emphasize skills or subjects you think will most appeal to each program. Here we provide copies of our current CVs as examples.

Submission

When creating your materials, be sure to be consistent with your formatting. Font type/size, paper margins, writing style, etc., should be consistent for everything that you submit. Even though you must submit multiple files, think about them as part of one application package which will be viewed together and should look like they belong together. Include your name and the program you’re applying to on each document, and be consistent in how you name files. One naming convention we recommend is to include your name and the document type: LastName_CV, LastName_transcript, LastName_personal_statement, etc.

To reiterate the earlier advice, start your applications early enough so that you can submit on time. If you are late, do request an extension, especially if you can articulate a specific reason for the delay. However, note that even though some programs may not grant extensions as they are highly competitive, moving from guess culture to ask culture can be beneficial as you learn to advocate for yourself within math spaces. Also, if you do not have the full application materials at the ready, offer to share the materials you do have prepared with them so they can begin looking over your application while you finish the rest.

Be aware of the deadline for your letter writers (which may be different from the application deadline) and feel free to check in with them about whether they’ve submitted. Sending a short email with a friendly reminder of upcoming deadlines a few days in advance is often very welcomed by professors. In most cases, you should receive confirmation that your application or letters of recommendation were received. Feel free to ask for confirmation if you don’t receive it automatically.


Accepting an offer

If you’re accepted to a program and it is not your top choice, you can contact the directors of the other programs to inquire about your application’s status. Once you have an offer from an REU, we highly recommend scheduling a meeting (either via a phone call or video call) with your potential REU mentor to determine if the program is a good fit. If such a meeting is not offered with the acceptance letter, know that it is very normal to ask. We think that this bank of REU/grad fair questions is a good starting point for questions you can ask during that meeting. Don’t forget to learn about the living/housing situation of the program, since this can have a lot of impact on your personal wellbeing, and you need to be happy and well to do good research. With this in mind, here are some additional questions you can ask: Will REU participants live together in a house or in dorms? Can students access the gym? Are there restaurants nearby? Is there a quiet place where you can practice your musical instrument? Does the program have activities to provide social interactions among participants and to build community? Alternatively, if the program is fully online, you should ask questions relating to your participation virtually. For example, you could ask: Will the program supply needed technology? Will the program be flexible with your schedule given that others within your household share internet/devices?

If you need it, you can also ask for extra time to make your final decision, particularly if you’re waiting on a decision from other programs. Some but not all REU programs are in agreement that you do not have to accept an offer before the Common Reply Date, which is typically on March 8th. It is courteous to other applicants and important to decline an offer as soon as you know you will not attend the program. Once you have accepted an offer, you should withdraw your remaining applications or immediately decline any other offers that you receive.

Preparing for the REU

Don’t stress! You generally won’t be expected to do much to prepare for the REU before it begins, but it’s a good idea to check with your REU project mentor if they have specific skills that you can work on or review before the program begins. It will be useful to know some LaTeX as you participate in an REU and, in fact, throughout your mathematical career. Your program may give you specific tasks to help you learn but if not, you can consider learning some on your own. We recommend using overleaf.com, which is a free LaTeX program online with many templates to get you started.

If you are rejected…

Some REU programs only send out acceptances and don’t send out rejections. This means you might not get an email from programs that are rejecting you. If you’re not sure about your status, you can ask. Remember that not everyone can get into their top choice, as most REU programs receive hundreds of applications. Do keep in mind that we know of many successful students with bright mathematical careers ahead of them that never participated in an REU. If you are rejected, know that you are not alone. An REU rejection does not say anything about your future in mathematics! If you do not get into an REU this year, seek other opportunities and if possible, apply again next year. Your application will only get stronger with one additional year of math courses and experiences.

Acknowledgments: We are grateful to many people for their advice throughout our careers which has made this post possible, including the speakers at OURFA2M2 2020, the 2019 Lafayette College REU cohort, the 2019 and 2020 MSRI-UP cohorts, and many professors at our institutions and elsewhere.

Author biographies:

Alvaro Carbonero is an undergraduate at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He has participated in the REU programs at Lafayette College and Rochester Institute of Technology.

Brittany Gelb is an undergraduate at Muhlenberg College. She has participated in the REU programs at Lafayette College and DIMACS.

Amaury Miniño is a first-year PhD student at Colorado State University. He graduated from Florida Atlantic University and has participated in the F-LEARN program and the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute Undergraduate Program (MSRI-UP).

Vanessa Sun is an undergraduate at Macaulay Honors College at Hunter College, City University of New York (CUNY). She participated in the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute Undergraduate Program (MSRI-UP).

Lee Trent is pursuing her undergraduate degree at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology. She has been a counselor at Rose-Hulman AMP and PROMYS and participated in the REU at Grand Valley State University.

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Guess Culture versus Ask Culture

By Kim Holman

When I was a child, I grew up in a “guess culture” household. I had to pay attention to the people around me and make a guess as to whether or not I should ask for something. I learned that you should only ask when needed and when you think the other person will likely say yes. This is stressful on a child, to be honest.

I went to boarding school at age 14, and eventually learned to self-advocate and ask for things I wanted or needed, even if the answer might be no. This is how “ask culture” works. By the time I was 18 and graduated, I was pretty well-versed in both cultures, but had firmly taken to ask culture as my primary means of meeting my needs. It made for a rocky relationship with my parents because I was constantly asking for things – they thought I was being needy or greedy – but really what I was doing was simply asking a question and not having my guess of what their answer may be prevent me from doing so.
Asking for something could be as simple as “will you get me [brand, scent] of shampoo when you go to the grocery store?” Or, it could be something major, like “will you support me financially if I live off-campus,” or, “will you pay for the brake job for my car?”

Knowing your audience here is key. When I was working for an engineering consulting firm, they were very much an ask culture. I could always ask for something; I might get it, I might not, but there were no repercussions from simply asking a question. I went from that environment to work in government, in a related engineering field, and it was much more of a guess culture. Within my tiny office unit, ask away – but when it came to higher-ups, only ask for what you needed and what you felt like they would probably agree to or else you were painting a target on yourself, and maybe even being labeled as a problematic employee. It takes a lot of skill to navigate between these different cultures and to recognize when you should switch between your innate culture to the other.

Now that I am a graduate student I have begun to see some of the benefits of my self-advocacy and adopting of an ask culture. Here are some things that I have gotten by asking: a book read-along for my department of the new title by Dr. Pamela E. Harris and Dr. Aris Winger, Asked and Answered: Dialogues on Advocating for Students of Color in Mathematics – and copies of the book for everyone who is interested; a new office chair; an office in the department as a grad student with no TA or RA appointment; support from family and friends when I went back to school as a nontraditional student and mother of three. Yet, asking does not always go smoothly and here are some situations where I have had to tread lightly: inviting grandparents to my kids’ events, as they are out of town and feel bad when I invite them to things they cannot make; lactation space when I returned to work postpartum (we won’t even get into the legalities of this – we will accept it at face-value).

I was first introduced to ask vs. guess culture as a concept through a social media post. As soon as I read about these concepts I was finally able to put words to the way I navigate social and professional situations. Overwhelmingly, when dealing with women I am more confident in asking, but with men I overwhelmingly feel the need to guess as to whether or not I should even ask. This could be due to the people I know and interact with, and gender could be insignificant, or it could be a relevant point. I don’t know and I am still doing some self-reflection on these topics. I’ve also noticed that people in marginalized communities are more receptive to ask culture than cis-het white persons, in particular men. Again, I don’t know if that is significant or spurious, but it is an observation I have made with my own interactions. Of course, the context of these interactions could also play a role in who one receives or adapts between ask and guess cultures.

Something else I have noticed is that, as an asker, guessers who I don’t interact with often almost always respond positively to what I’ve asked. This could be because I don’t ask often, as I don’t see or talk to them often, so they aren’t doing things for me as often. At least that has been my impression. I will ask my grandmother for all sorts of things, although not very often. Being one of 24 grandchildren, I don’t think she keeps track of who asks for what and given that this side of the family is very solidly part of the guess culture crowd; if you ask for something you clearly need it or else you wouldn’t have asked. Like I said, I also very rarely ask my grandmother for things or to do things for me, so even if she is keeping tabs mine is very short.

Another key component in guess culture is evaluating whether or not you should pose the question. You have to evaluate the person or organization, and begin putting out feelers to see if they will potentially say yes or no. You only ask when you are certain that they will say yes to whatever it is that you are asking for. If you’re really good at navigating guess culture, you won’t even have to ask the question – it will be offered to you. That’s the kicker. Lead up to the request with those feelers so that they see your need and offer to meet it. This is HARD, y’all!

Incidentally, because I grew up and spent my formative years in a guess culture environment and have switched to being an ask culture individual, I feel that it has made me a more effective educator. I see the needs of my students and I offer to meet them well before those feelers go out and definitely before they ask. It has helped me to be able to anticipate what is happening around me and how I can be of service to others. In the classroom, in particular, I see it as a service. It reduces the anxiety in my students and makes me more approachable. Once they see that I am willing to meet needs that were unasked, they begin to ask for help, to come to office hours, to schedule meetings with me. It is a beautiful arrangement!

As we gear up to start a new semester, I encourage you to think about ask versus guess culture and how you might move from one into the other for better self-advocacy and to better serve your community.

Kim Holman

Kim Holman

Kim Holman is a PhD student at Auburn University studying discrete geometry. She goes by the name Professor Pi in the classroom and Moon Pi #3.14 on the roller derby track.

Posted in career advancement, General, Outreach, postdocs, Tenure, Uncategorized, Undegraduates, work life balance | Leave a comment

Networking to get the most out of the Virtual Joint Mathematics Meetings

By Pamela E. Harris and Abbe Herzig

In addition to sharing our mathematical work, the Joint Mathematics Meetings (JMM) provide a valuable opportunity to network with other mathematicians. Networking allows you to learn about other people and what they are doing, meet them, help them know who you are, and generally share ideas about mathematics, education, the profession, or any other topics that you might want to talk about. 

This year with JMM being held virtually you might wonder about options for networking and how to make good use of them in this new format. As you prepare to embark on some virtual networking during JMM you should check out the advice provided in this eMentoring blog Networking Basics for Math Undergrads. Although the advice provided is targeted for  in-person events, much of it continues to hold for a virtual conference. In particular, we suggest the following for virtual networking events.

Prepare for a networking event in advance:

  1. Create a virtual business card. This can be a google document with a sharable link where you can provide your name and contact information. You can also include where you are in your mathematical journey (Undergraduate/graduate student/on the job market, etc.) and any specific mathematical interests (“interested in algebraic topology”). Bonus points: turn your long sharable link into a tiny url to get a personalized short link with your name on it. Remember to make this document available to the public! You could also share your LinkedIn profile or personal webpage, if you have them.
  2. Have a second document ready so you can keep track of  contact information of people you meet, or that they share in a chat. This might be a document you save to your desktop, or you could also have a link to share where folks could write their contact information as well. This will be a helpful resource to you later, so you can follow up and build professional relationships.
  3. Upload a photo to your AMS profile and also in the Zoom platform, so that when your camera is off a picture of you is still displayed. This will help people remember you.
  4. Update your name as you would like it to appear and so that people can see it displayed in the Zoom window. Feel free to add your pronouns. 
  5. If there is an individual or a group of mathematicians you’d like to meet, look at the JMM Virtual Program to see where you can find them (the JMM program is posted on Mountain Time). You can also attend some general networking events, which will be announced in the program email you will receive each morning of the meeting.


While in a networking session:

  1. Turn on your camera, even if only briefly. We understand everyone’s bandwidth (literal and metaphorical) is different. So this could be just initially to say hello and then explain your bandwidth limits and turn it off. If possible, display your photo as mentioned in item #3 above. 
  2. Introduce yourself. Prepare a brief introduction in advance, and consider posting the link to your virtual business card, LinkedIn page, or personal webpage in the chat (see #1 above). If you are in a breakout room or talking with different people, feel free to share it again if you meet others you want to connect with. 
  3. An online gathering is different from an in-person one in several ways. Online, if you do not show yourself or speak up, others may not know you’re there. Find ways to make your presence known–make a comment, ask a question. Don’t know what to ask? Try “Can you tell me more about that?” or “How can I find out more?” or “Can you recommend something I can read to learn more about this?” 
  4. Step out of your comfort zone. You do not have to talk to everyone or enter every conversation. It can help to prepare some questions or comments in advance. Most people enjoy talking about their own work, so a question about their research can be a good ice-breaker.  
  5. Stay in contact with the individual after the conference. A simple email the day after, where you remind them of your name, institution, and the topic of your conversation, can go a long way in building a new professional relationship. Asking a question about their work in the email can keep the conversation going.

You will find other helpful ideas at these posts from the eMentoring blogs:

You will have the opportunity to use these skills by joining the eMentoring Network and the AMS Department of Education for the informal networking session Networking for better mentoring on Friday, January 8th from 12:00-1:00 pm Mountain Time. This informal discussion will address questions like: What is mentoring? Who is a mentor? What can students expect from a mentor? Can good mentoring practices be taught? How do people find mentors? How can we adapt our mentoring to be better advocates for those most marginalized within the mathematical sciences? What lessons have we learned about mentoring in the past year, especially with the move to virtual platforms? These and other questions like these will guide our session, whose goal is to network for better mentoring.

Anyone registered for JMM can join Networking for better mentoring through the JMM Virtual Program.

We hope to see you there!

 

Posted in career advancement, General, Going to graduate school, Graduate School, Leadership, Uncategorized, Undegraduates | Leave a comment

Opportunities for First and Second Year College Students

By Pamela E. Harris, Ralph Morrison, and Cindy Wyels

There are many opportunities for undergrads to engage in mathematics research over the summer, including Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) programs and math-oriented internships.  However, many of these programs are aimed at rising seniors or rising juniors who have already taken upper-level math classes, and they often require coursework in abstract algebra and/or real analysis.  What if you’re excited about engaging in a summer opportunity in mathematics, but you’re a rising sophomore who’s only completed the calculus sequence, and maybe linear algebra? Or what if you’re at a Community College that only offers a few math courses beyond the calculus sequence? We have good news for you! There are some fantastic opportunities aimed at students like you, and we’ve compiled some of them in this  spreadsheet(Please note that the spreadsheet allows anyone to add comments and access to edit is available upon request. We encourage everyone to add information on any other programs they may be aware of that we may have missed. For those further along in their mathematics journey you can check out this list compiled by Dr. William Yslas Vélez.)

In each case we gleaned what information we could from the program’s website, or from the program organizers; we admit that some of this information may be out-of-date, and all of it is subject to change. Visiting these websites directly and contacting the organizers is a great way to get more up-to-date information. The spreadsheet also includes some programs that might not be running in 2021, so do pay attention to whether they’re officially running or not.  Also pay close attention to funding: unfortunately, most programs only provide funding for U.S. Citizens and Permanent Residents. 

In addition to these programs, we strongly recommend that students interested in these sorts of opportunities do some searching for additional programs and also practice self-advocacy in the process. 

On advocating for yourself: embrace the notion and practice it frequently. Whatever math background you have, know that you belong in higher education and in mathematics. So always seek out opportunities and ask your professors and mentors about programs that might be available to you. Even if you get told that they don’t know of any or if you apply and get rejected or told no – that’s better than the lack of an opportunity had you not inquired nor applied. At a minimum, the person you asked knows you’re interested in these programs and will share them with you as they learn of them. Also you now have an application that you can edit and tailor for future applications to such programs. 

How do you seek programs and opportunities? What might you search for, and where should you search? First, ask around at your own institution. Many institutions have organizations and programs that aim to advance students academically – look for things like MESA, LSAMP, McNair Scholars, RISE – these are all grant-funded programs that exist around the country. Your institution might have one or more, and depending on how such a program is structured, it might have student research as a component. Other state or institutional programs might include funding for summer research for students. Search for “student research” on your college’s website and ask academic advisors and faculty. And keep your eyes open – skim all those generic emails you get from your institution. You never know which one will announce that Big University has just partnered with Your Community College and will be offering a research program this coming summer. Similarly, you don’t know what professor has a research grant that allows her to hire 1 – 2 research assistants. Ask, ask, ask – and if the answer is “I don’t know of anything” your best response is “Thank you for thinking it over. Please keep me in mind should you hear of anything later!”

We look forward to hearing from you about what new opportunities you uncover and what you learn in the process of self-advocating! 

 

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Mathematics holds the key to increasing STEM enrollment of U.S. students

William Yslas Vélez
Emeritus Professor, University of Arizona

This article presents four main points.

  1. Promote the undergraduate mathematics major not only as entry into the workforce but also to prepare students for graduate programs in STEM fields.
  2. Recognize the difference in the educational systems between the U.S. and other countries and the impact this has on graduate enrollment in the mathematical sciences.
  3. Suggest that the AMS take a leadership role in leading the mathematical community towards a comprehensive look into the evaluation of graduate school applications.
  4. Point out the lack of diversity in the graduate programs of our top research departments.

Just take one more math course

“Just take one more math course” was the lead sentence in the article [1] announcing that the Math Center at the University of Arizona (UA) had received the 2011 AMS Award for an Exemplary Program or Achievement in a Mathematics Department. The Math Center forms part of the department of mathematics and is dedicated to organizing the mathematics major program by providing advising, information about internships, research experiences and scholarships, and supporting recruitment efforts. The Center also records demographic information (citizenship, gender, ethnicity) in order to assess diversity efforts. I had taken over the directorship of the Math Center in 2003 with the goals of doubling the number of mathematics majors and increasing diversity. Rather than emphasizing outreach to increase the number of mathematics majors, I focused on reaching into enrollments in our mathematics classes, an activity I labeled as INREACH [2]. I sent emails to students enrolled in mathematics classes encouraging them to pursue further mathematical studies. At the UA, there were 30,000 undergraduate students enrolled, many of them in STEM fields. I advanced the view that the more mathematics a student took, the more opportunities would be available. I promoted the math major shamelessly. I learned early on not to suggest that a student change their major, but rather that they add mathematics as another major. This proved to be a successful strategy. When I retired in 2018, there were over 650 mathematics majors, 20% of them from minority backgrounds. Half of the graduating mathematics majors had another major or another degree. There were an equal number of mathematics minors with the percentage of minority students greater than 20%.

Most of the mathematics majors were not headed to graduate schools in the mathematical sciences, rather they were using their mathematics to make them more competitive in the job market or in applying for post-graduate studies. The mathematics major, combined with stellar grades in the students’ other fields of study, helped students gain admission into top graduate programs in STEM fields. This suggests that if mathematics departments encouraged undergraduates to increase the mathematical content of their curriculum and add the mathematics major or minor, this would increase the participation of U.S. students in STEM fields. As the data below shows, U.S. students do not constitute the majority of students in many STEM graduate programs. What should this percentage be? Certainly having graduate programs that would be 100% U.S. students would be unacceptable, as would 0%. A percentage of less than 50% is problematic. A reasonable percentage for U.S students would be between 70%-80%. After all, graduate programs in the U.S are part of the U.S. educational system. Graduate education is the economic engine in increasing the earning potential of its citizens.

Data on U.S. participation in STEM fields

Dependence on foreign oil, in the past, caused great concern in the U.S. because it endangered our national security. Yet, dependence on international students to power our graduate programs and our scientific enterprise appears to be acceptable. Exactly how dependent is the U.S. on international talent? In 2016-17 (the latest data available) international graduate students represent the majority (over 50%) in many STEM graduate programs, as Table 1 [3] shows.

Table 1 is an excerpt for Table 22 of [3]

Doctorate recipients, by subfield of study and citizenship status: 2017

Area of doctorate

total number of doctorates

Temporary visa holders

% temporary visa holders

Computer engineering

419

294

70%

Structural engineering

103

67

65%

Electrical, electronics, and communications engr

1900

1230

65%

Industrial and manufacturing engineering

253

161

64%

Agricultural economics

144

91

63%

Computer and information sciences, general

123

75

61%

Civil engineering

741

444

60%

Computer science

1587

931

59%

Computer and information sciences

1987

1101

55%

Mechanical engineering

1409

750

53%

Econometrics, economics

1184

626

53%

Finance

188

99

53%


For the mathematical sciences profession, we can obtain data from [4] and it shows that 51% of doctoral degrees are awarded to international students. I strongly support the age-old view of “everything in moderation” as a good guideline for our graduate programs. We have long since passed the point of moderation.


Differences in the educational systems of the U.S. and other countries

In most other countries undergraduate students arrive at a university already having been accepted into a major. Some mathematics majors take analysis in their first year of study and three or four mathematics courses per semester as undergraduate students. Here is a link to the program of study at the University of Guanajuato in Guanajuato, Mexico (http://www.demat.ugto.mx/index.php/estudiantes2/consejos-para-nuevos-estudiantes-2/licenciatura-en-matematicas). International students have often completed academic training comparable to students with Master’s degrees in the U.S..

A liberal arts education is a requirement for most U.S. students. It is not unusual for U.S. students to declare a mathematics major in the second or third year of undergraduate study and take 1-2 mathematics courses per semester. The liberal arts education gives students the opportunity to explore other areas of interest before deciding on a major. Students interested in pursuing a graduate program in the mathematical sciences may not take analysis until their last year of study. In the meantime they have developed the mathematical maturity to understand this abstraction.

Is there any evidence that this later arrival at mathematical maturity correlates with creativity, or determination or any of the other factors that impact students’ abilities to become successful mathematicians?

Rethinking the admissions process for graduate school

Graduate programs must consider two criteria when accepting students into a graduate program. Can students pass entry-level courses and the requisite examinations, and are they creative enough to write a strong dissertation? Departments want the “best” graduate students. However, contrary to mathematical culture, “best” is not defined.

Perhaps “best” means what is best for the nation? Historically, minorities lack representation in the mathematical enterprise. By attracting students from under-served populations, mathematics departments could play a vital role in addressing STEM diversity. Certainly, increasing diversity is an important goal, one of increasing importance in a country undergoing such dramatic demographic changes. Mathematics departments could follow the lead of the Math Alliance [5] (https://www.mathalliance.org/), an organization whose stated purpose is to increase the number of minority students applying to graduate programs in the mathematical sciences.

Could “best” mean what is best for the department? International students have completed coursework equivalent to a U.S. Master’s degree and have demonstrated that they understand entry-level courses. This preparation enables them to move quickly on to their research interests and this demands less teaching from the faculty.

Perhaps “best” means selecting students with the best mathematical creativity? Mathematics departments choose prospective graduate students with the highest grades and GRE math subject scores. Instead of selecting students with mathematical creativity, admissions committees choose students who excel in test-taking and mathematical knowledge. In this process, mathematics departments fail to recognize the differences between domestic and international educational systems when comparing students’ GRE scores.

When I became director of the mathematics graduate program at the UA I was given no instruction. This is so typical of the mathematics profession. In graduate school we are prepared to become researchers. When we accept a faculty position we are then expected to become effective teachers, mentors, evaluators and administrators. The AMS should bring the community together to investigate new methods of evaluating selection criteria for graduate school and to develop training for faculty in these methods. Departments have relied on standardized testing platforms, like GRE, for decades. Its effectiveness in predicting success in graduate school could be one of the projects initiated.

Sadly, there is evidence of even further bias against U.S. students being accepted into STEM graduate programs. In a 2017 article, Mervis [6] stated that university administrators were concerned that Trump’s administrative policies would result in a 30% drop in the number of applications from international students, compared with the number of applicants from 2016. The article went on to say that a smaller applicant pool allows “administrators the option of admitting students who previously would not have made the cut, including more domestic students. But educators are loath to move the bar if it would lower the quality of the talent pool.” I find it quite surprising that university administrators are so willing to disparage U.S. students in public.

The U.S. educational system sets forth the requirements needed for a student to earn an undergraduate degree from the university. Presumably this preparation has prepared students to continue to post-graduate study. Students from outside of the U.S. must complete more advanced mathematics courses in order to earn this same degree and are therefore at a distinct advantage when applying to U.S. graduate schools. What is the rationale for changing the bar other than the fact that so many international students are applying? The bar should be set at a level commensurate with the requirements set forth by our educational system. This higher bar places U.S. students in an inferior position as far as the graduate admission process is concerned.

No taxation without representation

Universities are supported by U.S. tax dollars, both state and federal. Part of that support comes from the minority population. What is the minority population getting out of this investment [7]? For the academic year 2016-17, 1957 Ph.D.s were awarded by 299 departments. How many minorities were part of this group of doctoral recipients? Among the US citizens earning doctoral degrees, 4 were American Indian or Alaska Native, 30 were Black or African American, 33 were Hispanic or Latino, and 4 were Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander [4]. This is a total of 71 minority doctoral recipients! For decades, billions of dollars have been spent on mathematics graduate programs with a negligible return for the minority community. If mathematics departments are not going to include minorities in their graduate programs, then don’t take their tax dollars!

The situation for minorities is even worse at the top research universities. The Doctoral Math Private Large grouping in the AMS survey [8] consists of 24 departments with the highest annual graduating rate of Ph.D.s (23 of the 24 departments responded to the survery). This grouping contains some of the best research departments in the country yet the percentage of female Ph.D.s is the lowest of all the groupings. Moreover, this grouping reported a total of 2 minority Ph.D.s! for the academic year 2016-2017. How is this even remotely acceptable! Given that NSF has an explicit goal of increasing diversity, why are these departments supported by NSF grants?

Where are the top research departments going to find minority faculty if they are not producing any minority mathematicians? Our faculty do not represent the population of the U.S. and this is a problem that needs attention. By reconsidering the admissions process for graduate schools, top research departments could begin to build pathways for faculty positions.

Everything in moderation went by the wayside in our graduate programs

In [4] we see that almost all of the percentages of U.S. citizen doctorates are around 50% in the mathematics groupings. I am surprised that percentages of U.S. students are not higher in biostatistics. The mathematical requirements for applying to graduate programs in biostatistics are three semesters of calculus, linear algebra and probability theory. (Harvard Biostatistics: https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/admissions/degree-programs/#research) and U of Washington Biostatistics: https://www.biostat.washington.edu/program/admissions/requirements). Biostatistics programs need to devote some energy towards recruitment of U.S. students.

In looking at graduate programs at different universities, I came across the mission statement from The Center of Mathematical Sciences and Applications (CMSA) at Harvard:

The Center for Mathematical Sciences and Applications will establish applied mathematics at Harvard as a first-class, interdisciplinary field of study, relating mathematics with many other important fields. The director of CMSA Yau states, “The center will not only carry out the most innovative research but also train young researchers from all over the world, especially those from China”. How is Harvard finding the funds to support an effort specifically aimed at training international postdocs? The U.S. minority community does not have such funds to encourage Harvard to create such a program for U.S minorities. The purpose of the Harvard program is to train international postdocs who would then out-compete U.S postdocs in the marketplace. Is this what is best for our nation?
Curiously, I gave a presentation at JMM in Denver in January 2020 pointing to the CMSA website. Curiously, this mission statement at CMSA disappeared soon thereafter.

The role of mathematics in producing U.S. STEM graduate students

Undergraduates with a strong background in mathematics are competitive for STEM graduate programs. The U.S would benefit if mathematics departments increased the number of mathematics majors. However, it is important to realize that the goal of an undergraduate degree in mathematics is not necessarily to pursue a graduate program in the mathematical sciences. We need to communicate to students that the mathematics major at the undergraduate level can lead to a wide variety of employment opportunities. For those interested in pursuing STEM graduate studies the mathematics major will strengthen their applications.

In my own work at the University of Arizona, the outstanding graduating senior in department X was often also a mathematics major or minor. This occurred year after year and the administration took notice. Mathematics majors were an integral part of STEM education at the UA. This model is worth replicating elsewhere. Mathematics does not just reside in a mathematics department. It needs to be incorporated into STEM and by increasing the number of mathematics majors across campus, we provide a well-prepared workforce for the country and a larger pool of eligible students for graduate schools.

Increasing diversity requires extra work and dedication. The UA model shows how a commitment and an infusion of resources can help faculty accomplish this goal and carry out this meaningful work. The importance of these efforts cannot be over-emphasized. The changing demographics of the U.S. requires a concerted effort to re-examine the application process of our graduate programs and respect the education of our undergraduates.

References

1. Arizona’s Math Center Wins AMS Award, Allyn Jackson, Notices of the AMS, Volume 58, Number 5, 2015, pages 718-721. http://www.ams.org/notices/201105/rtx110500718p.pdf
2. Inreach is the new outreach, William Yslas Vélez, MAA Focus, Volume 35, Number 4, August/September, 2015, pages 4-5. https://www.maa.org/sites/default/files/pdf/MAAFocus/Focus_AugustSeptember_2015.pdf
3. Data Tables, National Science Foundation, National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics (NCSES) Doctorate Recipients from U.S. Universities: 2017, Table 22. https://ncses.nsf.gov/pubs/nsf19301/data
4. Report on the 2016–2017 New Doctorate Recipients Amanda L. Golbeck, Thomas H. Barr, and Colleen A. Rose, Notices of the AMS, Volume 66, Number 7, August 2019, pages 1151-1160.
5. 2017 Award for Mathematics Programs That Make a Difference, Allyn Jackson, Notices of the AMS, Volume 64, Number 5, pages 476-478. .https://www.ams.org/journals/notices/201705/rnoti-p476.pdf
6. Drop in foreign applicants worries engineering schools, J. Mervis, Science, 17 February 2017, p. 676.
7. Broken Social Contract, Letter to the Editor, William Yslas Vélez, Notices of the AMS, September, 2020.
8. Departmental Groupings, The Mathematical and Statistical Sciences Annual AMS Survey. http://www.ams.org/profession/data/annual-survey/groups

Author notes. The author thanks Helen Grundman for thoughtful comments on this article and for suggesting a less combative tone and to the reviewers for many helpful suggestions. This article was originally submitted to the Notices of the AMS, but after several revisions, it was rejected. The referees were very helpful and accepting their comments improved this article. Regarding the sectionEverything in moderation went by the wayside in our graduate programs”, one referee commented, “This entire section needs to be removed from the paper. It does not add value to the paper and it is not at the professional level of the rest of the paper or the Notices in general.” On the streets of this nation, people are demonstrating against injustices, but apparently, the Notices will not allow minority voices to complain about the injustices suffered. In the end, I could not accept the revisions suggested.

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The Mentorship of Our People

By Jennyfer Galvez-Reyes

A couple of months ago I found myself wondering how I was going to navigate applying to graduate school by myself this coming cycle. To some people, applying is not that big of a deal. They have a mom, dad, multiple mentors to go to for help. For people like me, a first-generation college student born to immigrant parents living at or below the poverty line, this seems like an impossible task. Who do you ask for help?

It got me thinking about my undergraduate application process. High school counselors and teachers guided and mentored me through the application process. I was also a part of College Match Los Angeles, an organization that provides high achieving low-income students with free SAT prep, college tours, and help with applying to college and financial aid. It literally took a village to get me to Williams College.

While at Williams I had one mentor in particular that not only took an interest in my success at Williams but also ensured that I had a game plan for achieving both my short term and long term goals. Along the way, especially towards the end of my time at Williams I met professors that understood me and really saw me. All of me. I may not have had the opportunity to be academically mentored by a professor who looked like me in the STEM fields, but seeing her as a professor on tenure-track at Williams did more for me than she will ever know.

Which brings me back to a couple of months ago when I was expressing my concerns about the graduate school application process to a couple of my best friends. One of my friends, who applied to biochemistry and chemical biology programs, took it upon herself to share everything she had learned from the application process with me. A second friend, who will be applying to medical school and thus does not have a lot of knowledge on the graduate school application process (PhD), recommended I look into Cientifico Latino. Cientifico Latino aims to make the application process easier by pairing applicants with a mentor, either a PhD student or a post-doctoral fellow in a specified field, who will guide the mentee through the application process. Because my relationship with my current laboratory is tenuous, I sought out my former Williams mentor and he suggested The Women+ of Color Project (WOCP). WOCP organizes a three day workshop for women of color interested in the physical sciences and mathematics, providing 50 women+ of color with direct mentorship, and 100 women+ of color with access to recordings of the workshops.

As I continue preparing for the graduate school application process, I’m constantly reminded of the value and importance of mentors and mentorship. Mentorship can be difficult to find and definitely requires two-way interest. I sought out every mentor that I’ve formed a relationship with and it was immensely helpful when my mentor had a strong desire to share their knowledge with me and invest in me. Professors, friends, and/or coworkers can all be possible people to form a mentor/mentee relationship with. Mentors don’t necessarily have to be 50 years old and a full professor. Personally, many of my mentors are people around my age. A different way to meet mentors is through mentorship programs. Cientifico Latino and WOCP are just two of many programs available to aspiring STEM graduate students. For example SU(5) provides support and mentorship to incoming physics and astronomy graduate students. Project SHORT is dedicated to supporting graduate school and pre-health applicants. The Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS), the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students (ABRCMS), and BioAcCES all organize conferences each year for underrepresented minority students in STEM and provide different resources which may include mentoring programs.

While there is no doubt that the application process is daunting, it can also be a chance to find your people. People who will cheer you on, pick you up when you’re down, and remind you of your worth when imposter syndrome threatens to take over. It’s important to not only have mentors ourselves but also to pass on the knowledge to those coming after us. Like Toni Morrison so perfectly put it, “When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else. This is not just a grab-bag candy game.” Reach back and help those trailing you. Pass on information you wish you had, resources you needed, job listings you know about. Mentorship and community are integral parts of succeeding in spaces that weren’t designed for people like us. Despite the lack of consideration for us and our experiences, we have an ever growing community willing to help each other into these spaces.

Jennyfer Galvez-Reyes

Jennyfer Galvez-Reyes

Jennyfer Galvez-Reyes is an aspiring chemistry professor. She hopes to use her chemistry and Latinx Studies education to teach chemistry in a culturally relevant way. Her research interests lie at the intersection of chemical biology and ethnic studies. Jennyfer is passionate about making STEM diverse, inclusive, and equitable through advocacy and education. She enjoys doing her make-up, listening to music, and spending time with her friends.

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SUBgroups: An Interview

 

By Vanessa Rivera Quiñones

Transitioning to graduate school is a challenging and isolating process for many first-year students. ​SUBgroups are groups of 3 to 5 first-year students from different mathematics graduate programs that meet through video chats every two weeks to build community and support one another. These groups have three goals in mind:

● Sharing the challenges, successes, and everything in between.
● Uplifting each other by listening, cheering, commiserating, and offering advice and
different perspectives.
● Bridging the graduate student transition and connecting to the wider mathematical
community.

Registration for the Fall 2020 SUBgroups cohorts is open. ​There will be two SUBgroups cohorts in the fall, because of different start dates for semesters/quarters. One cohort will begin in early September (registration window from August 17-28), and the other begins in early October (registration window from August 17- September 25). ​This amazing online initiative is organized by fellow mathematicians Dr. Marissa Loving (Georgia Tech) and Dr. Justin Lanier (University of Chicago). In this interview conducted via Zoom, I chatted with the organizers a bit about what inspired them to create this program.

VRQ: I am so excited to chat with you. Can you tell our readers a bit about yourselves?

Marissa: “I am an NSF postdoc at Georgia Tech. My research is in geometric group theory. I study hyperbolic surfaces, more specifically, curves on surfaces. My research involves drawing a lot of pictures and making combinatorial arguments about topological things. I have been in the mainland for a while now, but I was born and raised in Hawai’i. And, I am the second oldest of 12 kids. I am the first Native Hawaiian woman to get a Ph.D. in math, and that has shaped my experience in the math community in many ways.”

Justin: “This past spring I finished my Ph.D. at Georgia Tech, and this fall I am starting as an NSF postdoc at the University of Chicago. I work in the same field that Marissa does: mapping class groups and surfaces. Before I started graduate school, I worked in K-12 education for 10 years, mostly in New York City.”

VRQ: Last year, you launched SUBgroups, an online peer group for first-year graduate students, and you took a new approach to support these students. What motivated you to take on this initiative? How did that happen?

Justin: “It was inspired in part by my experience as a teacher—networking and being in community with teachers online through blogs and Twitter. Being a teacher and being a graduate student have a lot in common. You are doing the same things as many other people, but you are doing it in a pretty local way. Some people have the luck of having a friend or a collaborator in the office next door, while others feel very isolated. It is a bit luck of the draw. Someone who could be your new best friend or collaborator might be several states away. The experience of building meaningful relationships virtually was a part of my professional vocabulary when I started graduate school. I also knew that a fair amount of doing mathematics research happened online—collaborations on Skype—but not so much for graduate students. You have your cohort at your university that you may or may not get along with. You may have imposter syndrome, or there may be competition among people. So people have negative experiences. It would be great if you could connect with peers in a lower-pressure setting.”

Marissa: “As I mentioned I did my undergrad in Hawaii, and I went to a small state school, UH Hilo, so I was part of a small cohort of students, and it was really tight-knit. When I started grad school, it just felt like you got lost in the shuffle a lot. There were not a lot of brown women in my department, and that added another extra layer of isolation. On top of that, there were a lot of classmates that were constantly jockeying to show how much math they knew. And how much better they were at everything than you. It was very discouraging and very lonely. It felt that there weren’t many places to have discussions about how you were struggling because you were expected to maintain a certain facade of like: “I belong here”, “I am really smart”, “I am not having any problems”, “Everything is awesome”. The hope for SUBgroups was to create an environment where students can be more vulnerable about their experiences. I really believe in the power of vulnerability and how that allows us to connect very deeply with people in ways that are nourishing for ourselves. It is hard to do that at the local level. Especially, when there is so much pressure on you to perform to a certain level. The goal of SUBgroups is to break down some of those walls by connecting people at different institutions. The motivation for me was knowing how hard it was for me. The feeling like I had to project this air of having it together, no matter how much on the inside I was falling apart.”

VRQ: Is that part of the reason you chose to focus on first-year graduate students?

Marissa: ​“Definitely, that was part of it. The main thing is that the first year is a big transition point. The change from going from undergrad to grad school, the change in course work, the change in surroundings, the actual physical uprooting that happens, it’s a lot of things happening at once, and it’s such a critical point in your overall career. If you really have a horrible first year, people can often end up leaving programs over that. They have to abandon whatever dreams they had for themselves in mathematics. So it seems like a critical point to catch people, keep them connected, and stop them from slipping through the cracks.”

Justin: “It is also the moment where grad students haven’t become specialized. As time goes on, you would want different kinds of support for them that are maybe more focused on their area of research. But for first-year graduate students, they have a lot of common concerns and experiences that they are encountering together even though they are in different local places. To piggyback on something Marissa was saying, there is a big difference in social culture between undergrad and grad school, when in undergrad, you show up and you’re meeting hundreds of people in your different classes, sports teams, clubs. Starting grad school has a very different feeling from that. There are ways to connect with people outside your department, but it’s just harder. And there is not usually structural support to make those social things happen. That is also a further reason why SUBgroups is a useful support structure.”

VRQ: What is most exciting about this project is that it showcases that when you believe in an idea enough (and you are willing to put in the work) you can make it happen.

Justin: “When I walked into the new environment of grad school, I already had a toolkit. I saw the problem, and it felt like I already had the hammer—to connect grad students virtually. The rest is just details: the individual structural choices about how the program works, how big the groups are going to be, or how they interact, all of those are choices. But it just felt shocking to me: are you telling me there doesn’t exist a systematic effort to organize people coming into the math research profession in order to support each other? It’s not that big of a world. This is not something that would be easy to coordinate for, say, all beginning public school teachers in the country. But the scale of math graduate school is so manageable, we could write to all the graduate directors, it’s not that many people.

A starting point of this project is that you have to believe in people. You have to believe that if you have people, and you help to connect them, good things will happen. I’ve had so many extremely positive experiences building relationships virtually. And way more people are going to encounter how powerful virtual connections can be now, because of the pandemic. It’s really easy to get caught up in what will be most effective or useful. But maybe you should think instead about every conversation that doesn’t happen because it can’t happen in person. A lot of good things can happen for free, at scale, that people don’t even consider.”

Marissa​: “That’s how Justin and I built our relationship. Because Justin invited me to start a reading group with him over Skype, and it was great. Until last year, the majority of our interactions were virtual. Justin was a grad student at Georgia Tech, and I was still a graduate student at Illinois. As soon as Justin pitched me his idea for SUBgroups, I was in. Because meeting and doing math (online) with Justin was a big part of feeling like I belonged in math. He was one of the first people I connected with to do math research in my specific area. Building community beyond my institution has been so important to me throughout my math journey, and I knew SUBgroups would work because I had experience building strong human connections with people online. I didn’t need much convincing to buy in.”

VRQ: It makes me think a bit about logistics. Were there any initial challenges when you were getting started that you can think of?

Justin: ​“First of all, it’s not so surprising that logistical difficulties can be overcome, and that the program does work. There are so many math collaborations that happen exclusively virtually. It’s only other aspects of our professional lives where using virtual tools is a novelty. One challenge last year was trying to match up groups so that the participants all had Skype or all had Google Hangouts. That’s a big change going into this year just because everybody has Zoom. Another challenge was trying to be diligent and careful about the privacy of people’s information. That was something we didn’t know about at first, but we got help and support from folks who understand the laws that are in place and the technical aspects that need to happen to make sure protected information is safe.”

Marissa: ​“We sat together for hours as we carefully sorted all of our participants into different groups. We tried to match up all of their timing preferences and other group preferences to meet their needs. So, for example, we had students who were the only women in their incoming class, so it was really important for them to be in a group with other women. We had a Latinx student who shared that they were only in week one of their program and they were already really lonely and wanted to connect with other Latinx students, if possible. So, we tried to be very mindful about taking student’s group preferences into consideration so they could be placed with other students having similar experiences.”

VRQ: It might be easy to think, ‘oh, we just divide students into groups’. But what I am hearing is that you are not just finding a group, which might not work either, you could be in a group full of strangers and feel equally isolated. I think what makes SUBgroups different is that you try to make tailor-made groups to what the student needs.

Justin: “At the same time, we don’t have a magic formula, we are not asking their opinions on lots of things. One challenge is that we are going large scale—pulling together people from so many different programs—and then moving to a smaller scale. And whenever you are doing something that depends on a handful of people, then you need to make sure that they are all showing up and in on the loop. And even when you have a group of people who have goodwill, and who have the incentive to be there, the program still has to be structurally robust enough that people don’t just drop away. If people start disappearing, then the group dynamic falls apart, or the meetings stop happening. So there are these other layers of trying to come up with preventive measures and additional ways of connecting people so that it’ll work well.”

VRQ: We’ve talked a bit about logistics and challenges, but what has success looked like for SUBgroups?

Marissa: “Hearing from students that it was a good experience. That they liked it, and that they would recommend it. One of the SUBgroups participants I knew beforehand. I was one of her mentors for an undergraduate research program. So I knew her as an undergrad and knew that she was going to start her first year of grad school last fall and I was really happy that she decided to join SUBgroups. This past week, she retweeted our announcement for the upcoming SUBgroups cohort and said: “I did SUBgroups last year and I loved it! 12/10 recommend”. So, that was extremely rewarding! Without SUBgroups, I wouldn’t have been able to provide the same kind of support to help her navigate that transition effectively. Some undergrads I have mentored in the past have signed-up for the 2020 cohorts as well!”

Justin: “As we are starting up this year’s SUBgroups, we are getting emails from students. In checking in, they are really thankful that the program exists and that we are organizing it. Especially, at this particular moment, where people are starting graduate school remotely. And that’s satisfying. I am glad it’s not our first year to try to do it at this moment—that would be tough!—but I am also glad it exists now, and we are not starting this a year from now. I think it will be good for a lot of people. It also feels good when people more senior to me say this is a good idea, and I get to say thanks, and also, it’s not hard. There are a lot of ways life can be made better, and they don’t have to cost a lot of money. You just have to set them up.”

VRQ: That’s a great point. You know, I see all these initiatives that I wish existed when I was a grad student. Is it going to be perfect? No, but will it be good enough to make a difference? Yes. Is there anything else you would like to share about SUBgroups?

Justin: “Something that SUBgroups makes a small dent in is that you want mathematicians to recognize themselves as part of a broad professional community. You hear people that have a small group of people or friends that they met at that one summer program or at that conference. And those are places where mathematicians mix. It is really easy for us to get locked into more narrow research areas, and that becomes our community. It just makes it so our sense of responsibility fragments. But, you know, 10 years from now there are going to be groups of professors that did SUBgroups together. They are gonna know a small handful of people in other fields, in other different kinds of institutions. I think having shared experiences and shared work to do, that isn’t math work, is part of being a mathematician. You want people to have those experiences to build their self-concept of what it means to be in a math community. It’s really powerful, like in Project NExT, having faculty at undergraduate serving institutions that have a shared purpose. All in all, it’s a powerful and empowering piece of professional activity.

I think there’s a lot of room to develop more profession-wide programs and activities that could better address the needs of the math community. So much of our thinking happens on an institutional basis. Individual grad committees will think about how we can support their students better. But who is having a conversation about how we support all math grad students, together? I don’t know of a body that has that as its focus and mission. There is not a committee on entry into the profession. SUBgroups is an attempt to bridge that gap.”

Marissa: ​”That’s the great thing about SUBgroups. We don’t need to have a cap on how many people can join and who gets to be part of it. If you are a first-year graduate student who is starting a math grad program, and you are concerned that you’re going to feel isolated. Or, you want to connect to other people by plugging into a community that you’re going to share your experiences with. To build them up and be built up by them, then you should register for SUBgroups. You should come and get in on the fun.”

Justin: ​“What is challenging, in this work, more than other experiences I’ve had with teaching, is you’re putting an experience together for others to have, but where the experience is happening out of sight. We have a bedrock faith if you put people of goodwill in touch and you help to shape that experience, that it will be a supportive and positive experience—and then you say go. A piece of SUBgroups is that we have them do some reflecting about what’s gone well and has gone poorly. We are prompting them to journal and go to a group of peers to talk about how life is going. They are the only ones actually doing the work. We just set up the machinery and support for that.”

Marissa: ​“In this conversation, I’ve realized that a big reason I feel invested in SUBgroups is that I have sent so many people into this pipeline. And I know there is the potential that they will get chewed up and spit out. So I feel responsible. There are all these young people that I have encouraged and pushed to be in these places, math graduate programs. Although I am always giving them all the caveats and warnings about what that experience can be like, it feels good to do something tangible to help them have a more positive grad school experience. That is actually very important, because I definitely had gotten to a point where it felt irresponsible to keep encouraging young students of color to go into math graduate programs, while knowing how bad it could be for them, how bad it was for me. Now, through SUBgroups, I am doing something real to help them have a better math experience, the kind of experience that I really dream of them having.”

Have questions about SUBgroups? You can reach the organizing team at gradsubgroups@gmail.com.​

Posted in career advancement, Changing Graduate Programs, General, Going to graduate school, Graduate School, Outreach, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Just Say Yes. Meaningfully.

By Julianne Vega

In this post, I hope to convince you that when opportunities arise there is no need to panic and say “yes” or “no” immediately. Rather, I hope to convince you that by thoughtfully considering what the opportunity means to you and how you will accomplish it, you can respond meaningfully. In doing so, you will find yourself engaging in experiences that are impactful and aligned with your personal mission statement. I will share with you how I approach decision-making and some questions I ask myself along the way.

Let me start by providing three touch points to anchor this post.

The first happened two years ago. I went to the Graduate-Professional Student Leadership Conference at University of Kentucky and attended a session titled “How to Be a Graduate Leader.” The two moderators, one other graduate student, and I were the only attendees. Because of the smaller turnout, our session became a discussion. During which the other student said, “This is my second year at this university and I would like to get into leadership roles. How do I do that?” To my dismay, the moderator responded, “I have a friend who is a Dean and the way she got there was by saying ‘yes’ to everything. So, if you want to get into leadership roles you should say ‘yes’ to everything.” Now, I hope this makes you cringe as much as it made me in the moment. Just say “yes” to everything? Just say “yes” to everything, as a second year graduate student? I couldn’t believe it. Saying “yes” to everything is a slippery slope to burnout and the advice is in direct contradiction to the typical advice of learning to say “no.” I jumped in to redirect the message from saying “yes” to everything to saying “yes” meaningfully. I encouraged the student to think deeply about what his strengths were and what he wanted to accomplish as a starting point.

The second touch point happened about a month ago. As a brand new assistant professor, I reached a professional benchmark: I said no to something that was truly meaningful. At the end of a virtual Math Circle research camp, my students expressed interest in continuing the project to work towards writing an expository paper. I really enjoyed my time working with these students and I would have loved to continue, but upon further reflection I realized with the pace we were working coupled with moving, starting a new job, and several research commitments of my own, there was potential that the students would feel less excited and less empowered at the end of the project than where we were at the end of the camp. It was only after careful consideration of how much time I could commit and what a successful product would look like that was able to make a full decision. I was also concerned that by not continuing I would be letting down the students. My fears subsided when I saw that their email responses were still filled with genuine joy and gratitude for the time we did spend together.

The last event happened a few days ago, as I attended a faculty orientation. As we discussed service opportunities one of my new colleagues wrote in the chat “Learn to just say NO!” This led me to think “rather than learning to say no, why don’t we learn how to say yes meaningfully?’’ So, I went on a bit of soul searching to try to understand what leads me to feel so empowered to say “yes” with purpose.

Why is it so hard to make a decision?

It would be wrong for me to continue without acknowledging that part of the reason why it is so hard to say “no” is because of the pressure to please supervisors, the pressure to avoid making waves pre-tenure, the fear of letting others down, and the fear of missing out. My aim is to empower you to view saying “no” as a positive response that will lead you to a more fulfilled mathematical journey.

How to navigate saying yes or no meaningfully?

1. The first thing you’ll want to do is buy yourself time before giving a response. Express some interest and ask about the timeline for the invitation and by when they require a response from your part. Then reflect on the following questions: How much time will I need to spend per week on this new task? What does a successful product or outcome look like? When does it need to be completed? The purpose of this step is to punt your answer so you can provide a thoughtful response after consideration.

2. Consider whether the opportunity is right for you. Ask yourself, does this fit with my personal mission statement? If you haven’t done so already, check out this post on personal mission statements. Taking the time to create your own personal mission statement will be invaluable when it comes time to think about engaging in an opportunity. If the opportunity does not align with your personal mission statement then saying “no” is a breeze. No matter how meaningful it is overall, if it’s not in alignment with your mission statement there are certainly people better suited for the task.

3. If the opportunity does align with your personal mission statement, then you want to consider if you have time to commit to the task. Ask yourself, what would success look like for this project and do I have time to commit to completing the task? More generally, you can ask, can I see a way to complete this project in relation to the rest of my work?

Notice that the second question is not just considering time in the present schedule. Instead it’s viewing all of your projects as waves that are in the process of coming in and going out. This will allow you to say “yes” on more occasions than may seem possible while still accomplishing them to your personal standard.

Hopefully, your answer to this question will allow you to make the final decision of whether to say “yes” or “no” to an opportunity. If you need a little extra push in your decision-making process, see the next section.

What else should I consider when deciding if I should participate in an opportunity?

1. You are a leader. Let me say it one more time for those in the back, you are a leader. We are all leaders. “Leadership is the art of motivating a group of people to act toward achieving a common goal (Ward).” The sooner you see your leadership strengths and the impact of your actions, the sooner you will be able to find meaningful activities to fill your time. I truly believe that everyone, starting from kindergarten, is a leader and engages in leadership.

The book that really cemented this strong leadership view within myself is titled Awakening the sleeping giant: Helping teachers develop as leaders by Marilyn Katzenmeyer and Gayle Moller. The following excerpt focuses on teacher leaders, but parallels leadership at many levels. As you read, reflect on what parts resonate with you.

“Teacher leaders lead within and beyond the classroom; identify with and contribute to a community of teacher learners and leaders; influence others toward improved educational practice; and accept responsibility for achieving the outcomes of their leadership. […] Teacher leaders also reach outside their schools to a wider professional community. […] These communities of learners and leaders can be the impetus for teachers to realize that their leadership skills are valuable and can give them the courage to lead within their own school while developing both professional expertise and leadership skills.” (p.6-8)

Did you see parts of yourself in there? To strengthen the parallel consider replacing “teachers” with “students” in the last sentence: “These communities of learners and leaders can be the impetus for students to realize that their leadership skills (i.e. contributions and strengths) are valuable and can give them the courage to lead within their own school while developing both professional expertise and leadership skills.”

Leadership comes in many forms. Formal leadership roles include positions held during extra curriculars, volunteer work, or committee work. Informal leadership occurs during group work, collaborations, and even takes the form of personal leadership throughout your own learning. In all of these roles we are contributing to a community of learners and leaders, influencing others, and accepting responsibility for the outcome.

As a leader, your time is important. You need to find what is meaningful to you and pursue it with passion. If all else fails and you are ever on the fence of whether to say “yes” or “no” to an opportunity stop what you are doing, gather up all of that Lizzo[1] energy, and think to yourself, “I am a leader and my time is important. Is this something that I want to do with my time?” Then, listen to that gut reaction and run with it.

2. “Every time you say yes to something you are saying no to something else.” I received this advice from Ben Braun and it has resonated with me since. Admittedly, this advice is never the reason I say “no,” but it is advice that makes me feel better about saying “no.” As we discussed above, there are many reasons why it is hard to say “no” and this advice has given me the extra boost of confidence to follow through on a “no” response.

3. Who will you be working with? When you are making a decision, consider who is in the group. Is it just one other person or a group of people? Is there a chance that you will find mentors, sponsors[2], or collaborators among the group? Will you be supported? Is there someone in the group that you know you don’t work well with? Could this opportunity be a stepping-stone? All of these questions could impact your decision. In the words of Elizabeth Gilbert, “Sometimes to lose balance for love is part of living a balanced life” and in the words of Pamela E. Harris, “You need to find your people. Focus on finding those people whose working and communication style match your own.”

If you have reached the point where you are committed to saying “no,” check out The Four Parts of No by Courtney Gibbons which details how to craft a “no response.” Of course decision-making is always difficult especially when it comes to professional commitments, but my hope is that you are walking away feeling a little more empowered to confidently make decisions that are right for you.

Julianne Vega

Short Bio: Dr. Vega is an assistant professor at Kennesaw State University and an MAA Project Next (Brown ‘20) fellow. Her mission is to cultivate a community of compassion and empowerment, a place in which everyone is growing together.

References:
Katzenmeyer, M. & Moller G. (2009) Awakening the sleeping giant: Helping teachers develop as leaders (3rded.). Corwin.
Ward, S. (n.d) What is leadership? And can you learn to be a good leader? Retrieved August 13, 2020, from http://www.thebalancesmb.com/leadership-definition-2948275.


[1] If you are unfamiliar with the singer, rapper, songwriter, and flutist Lizzo, take a moment to listen to her music. Her energy is amazing.
[2] A sponsor is someone who advocates for you as you advance in your field.

Posted in career advancement, Outreach, postdocs, Tenure, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A Need for Mentor-Mentee Contracts

Student Authors: Alberto Alonso, Noel Bourne, Ethan Bush and Organizer Authors: Alexander Diaz-Lopez, Pamela E. Harris, Vanessa Rivera Quiñones,
Luis Sordo Vieira, Shelby Wilson, Aris Winger, Michael Young

We recently participated in Math SWAGGER: Summer Workshop for Achieving Greater Graduate Educational Readiness. This workshop was organized by a group of underrepresented mathematicians, who know first hand the many challenges and situations that underrepresented students, like ourselves, must navigate in order to successfully complete a PhD in the mathematical sciences. In one of the workshop’s sessions, we discussed the mentor-mentee relationship and its effects on a student’s experience in graduate school. In this article, we describe the main takeaway from the session: that open communication in the mentor-mentee relationship was crucial for student success.

As part of the session, we read the article Mentoring minority graduate students: issues and strategies for institutions, faculty, and students by Thomas, Willis, and Davis, in which they discuss how miscommunication leads to a dysfunctional mentoring experience. The authors state that “when the lines of communication… are not left open and properly defined, incidences… become more evident, and in some cases cause conflict.” Of course, communication establishes a baseline for current and future interactions, and without articulating clear expectations or without having open lines of communication it could lead to potential problems within the mentor-mentee relationship. Yet, through our discussion, it became evident that some of us had expectations of mentors that we had never directly communicated nor agreed on with them. For example, some students expect their mentor to be able to advise them on job searches/placements and to help expand their network and connections with other people in the field. Yet, the reality is that not all mentors can or should serve in this capacity as this type of mentoring requires a mentor to be well connected to other scholars and to help students find people who might be more equipped in addressing more specific goals.

Being able to fully articulate expectations in a mentor-mentee relationship is key to building a strong and supportive relationship. Through the setting of mutual expectations, we can avoid the hurt feelings associated with being let down, which can be experienced both by a mentor and by a mentee. In fact, one great way to work on building a list of mutual expectations is by completing a Mentor-Mentee contract such as the one found here. Although that contract is based on a research mentor-mentee relationship, many of the items used for building strong communication skills apply to general mentor-mentee relationships. These include:

  • A strong mentor/mentee relationship starts with a conversation to discuss what each person is trying to get out of this relationship. It is important to establish this at the beginning of a new relationship because the potential mentor may not have certain characteristics that you may initially expect a mentor to have. This will help you to determine if perhaps searching for another mentor is the most appropriate course of action. Note that you cannot force a mentor to have a certain characteristic if it is not within them already. For example, if you need a more hands-on mentor, and the mentor does not believe in hands-on interactions, then the relationship will probably not work.

  • It is important for the mentor to acknowledge their own limitations, and know when to direct their mentee to other experts in the field or a more suitable mentor. It is unrealistic that a single mentor will know everything. As a mentor, you have to become familiar with what you can provide to a mentee, and be comfortable with not knowing all the answers. It is a sign of maturity to know that you have to direct your mentee to other experts in the field that will be able to answer your mentee’s questions and who could potentially serve as better mentors.

  • Familiarizing yourself with each other’s career goals is important in the mentor/mentee relationship. The responsibility of the mentor is to help the mentee reach their end-goal, and knowing what the mentee wants to achieve will help guide the mentor in providing resources to the mentee, as well as stimulate constructive conversation during one-on-one meetings. Coming up with 30, 60, and/or 90 day milestones can be beneficial in approaching career and life goals. This is meant to be used as a measure to see how far along you are to achieving your goal within a specific timeframe. What can be achieved in 30 days? 60 days? 90 days? Goals that are broken down from short-term goals to long term goals can be helpful in keeping track of one’s own progress.

Even with a contract in place to guide the mentor-mentee relationship, we must acknowledge that there may be reasons to end the relationship. The contract linked above has specific language to address this and mentions: “In the event that either party finds the mentoring relationship unproductive and requests that it be terminated, we agree to honor that individual’s decision without question or blame.” Although this is within the contract it can be a source of stress for either the mentee or the mentor to bring up that the mentor-mentee relationship might not be a positive and mutually beneficial one. Yet, there are times when it is best to simply end such a relationship. Even when it may feel like a “breakup” we should know that not all mentor-mentee relationships will last a lifetime. Some can simply be for a predetermined amount of time. In fact, reassessing the benefits of the relationship every so often can be quite productive in either addressing new needs and new challenges within the mentor-mentee relationship.

Although we have described the mentor-mentee relationship in a contractual way, it would be a missed opportunity to not mention that these relationships are deeply personal and at times emotional. Mentors are people that guide you throughout your academic and professional career. They are someone who can give you guidance and wisdom. The mentor-mentee relationship often extends beyond just school-related and professional work. A mentor is someone that you can talk to during times of distress. When a mentor-mentee relationship works, they are deeply meaningful and impactful to both parties. Given this impact, it is important to focus on how to build strong communication skills so that the mentor-mentee relationship is a positive one for all involved. We encourage the use of a Mentor-Mentee Contract to begin having these conversations.

Posted in career advancement, General, Going to graduate school, Graduate School, Uncategorized, Undegraduates | Leave a comment

Staying the path: Motivation through graduate school

Student Authors: Alberto Alonso, Jasmine Camero, Alejandra Castillo, Fabrice O. Ulysse, Victoria Uribe, Andrés R. Vindas Meléndez, and Organizer Authors: Alexander Diaz-Lopez, Pamela E. Harris, Vanessa Rivera Quiñones, Luis Sordo Vieira, Shelby Wilson, Aris Winger, Michael Young

Graduate school is a journey. It has its positive moments and its struggles, but one thing is clear: the goal is to obtain the PhD. So what is our drive and motivation for obtaining a PhD? This was a topic for reflection and discussion among the participants and organizers of Math SWAGGER. The Mathematics Summer Workshop for Achieving Greater Graduate Educational Readiness (Math SWAGGER — www.mathswagger.com) is a five-week virtual program that brings together a group of underrepresented current and incoming graduate students (including women, underrepresented minorities – African Americans, American Indians including Native Alaskans, Latinxs/Hispanics, and Native Pacific Islanders – and persons with disabilities) for a workshop on graduate school readiness to address and create action plans for underrepresented students to navigate challenges and situations while successfully completing a PhD in the mathematical sciences.

In this article, three incoming PhD students and two current graduate students provide their reflections on their motivation to complete their graduate studies and what mentors could do to help strengthen, support, and further motivate them throughout their journeys. As you read some of the authors’ reflections you will get a glimpse into their lives and also see some similarities in motivation factors, including, a passion for mathematics, people, and community.

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Alberto Alonso

Alberto Alonso is a Mexican-American who will be pursuing a PhD in Mathematical Modelling at the Rochester Institute of Technology. He graduated with degrees in Applied Mathematics and Sociology from SUNY Geneseo. Alberto intends to focus his studies in Mathematical Biology to better understand the spread of diseases, or medicinal drug transportation in the human body. In his spare time, he enjoys baking, playing classical music, and crocheting.

Alberto Alonso: Pursuing a PhD in mathematics has always been the end goal in my academic career since high school. Initially, my motivation for pursuing such a degree came from wanting to wear the doctoral regalia. However, as I continued through to my undergraduate studies, I realized that earning a PhD meant much more. The title of being called “Dr.” brings such a different tone when people address you– a level of respect that was not always apparent during my experience in mathematics, and in academia as a whole. Being able to prove to “the world” that a gay Latino can earn a PhD is a motivator, but definitely not the main one that comes to mind.

What really pushes me forward is the support of my family. Being the first-born in a Latino family, a first-generation student in college, from immigrant parents who moved to America not knowing the language, what motivates me is achieving the “American Dream” for my family. To give back to them the way they have always provided for me– that is the greatest motivator. My parents have always believed that working hard, and staying focused will get you far in life, and I am willing to make any sacrifices that may come my way. Secondary to the latter, I want to be able to be “the person” for anyone who is pursuing a career in STEM. It would have been great to see a reflection of me in academia sooner, to affirm that I can make it in STEM, and that I’m not alone in academia. I want to be the recluse for someone to be able to relate to and empathize with where they are coming from.

Right before I started undergrad, my institution had a program that brought together a cohort of people from underrepresented groups to help prepare students for undergraduate work. The cohort was structured in a way that helped expand our thinking socially and academically, to notice nuances in our experiences that may not be apparent or present for others; and this was aided with the help of mentors in the program as well. The mentorship that was provided by upperclassmen and facilitators really prepared me for my academic career, and being a participant in Math SWAGGER could have not come at a better time.

As I was applying to graduate schools, there was this constant fear of not being ready for graduate studies. Having also taken a two-year hiatus from school to work a corporate job also did not help in mitigating my fears. No one in my extended family ever sought out to pursue a higher degree–I felt completely alone until I became a part of Math SWAGGER. The group reminds me of the summer before my undergraduate studies, and I could not be more grateful for the people that brought this group of people together.

To be able to listen to other people’s experiences, and to be able to learn from professors and 3rd, 4th years alike, is an experience that will be irreplaceable. Moreover, the mentorship that the group exudes is helping me prepare for what to expect in graduate school. It perpetuates the feeling of unity, and togetherness that I would not otherwise find once I start my program. Being connected to a group of bright, humble, funny people gives me the confidence to pursue the PhD program, and motivates me to “make it.”

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Jasmine Camero

Jasmine Camero is a Mexican-American who, in the fall, will be an incoming Mathematics PhD student at Emory University. Born in Santa Ana, California, she earned her B.A. in Mathematics from California State University, Fullerton. With a PhD, she plans on becoming a professor and serving as a role model for all underrepresented groups, especially women of color like herself. As a professor, one of her goals is to plunge into spreading her admiration for such an influential subject to others. During Jasmine’s free time, she enjoys cooking and baking, working out, and playing with her dog.

Jasmine Camero: Motivation is described as something that causes a person to behave in a certain way. To me, motivation is defined as the desire and passion to do something you want, but that may not always be easy. Now, motivation, from the perspective of a graduate student, can hold many meanings. However, for a person of color who is navigating academia, motivation is not something that is always constant. When tackling a responsibility that will take five to six years of your life, such as completing a PhD, you will need a lot of grit because the secret to success is not purely from talent, but from perseverance.

So, why go to graduate school? Following the motivation session in Math SWAGGER, I realized that my purpose and my motivation is an amalgamation of reasons. It has to start with the mathematics. If you plan on dedicating an extensive portion of your time doing something, you have to enjoy it. We must relish in the idea of further uncovering the world of mathematics because the discoveries we make in the field can hopefully one day gear the societal progress we need. However, it is never just about this. It has to be more than that. Graduate school is definitely not going to be easy, so if I am going to put myself through that, there has to be more. There has to be people. Much like Math SWAGGER has been emphasizing, community is critical and extremely influential in building our framework as people and as students. Being a part of Math SWAGGER, I am now part of a welcoming environment that only celebrates the stories and experiences of underrepresented folks. It has made me more aware that we must take the extra steps to create these spaces for us to connect, relate to one another, and support each other through the ups and downs of this journey.

Another incentive to continue my academic journey is my family. As a first-generation, Latina student studying mathematics, I obtain pleasure in the anomaly that my presence in the world of academia holds. I have never felt prouder to be a first-generation student. I am the first in my family to earn my bachelor’s degree and I cannot wait to earn my doctoral degree in mathematics. My parents were not afforded the opportunities that I have had so it is really important to me to do this not only for myself, but for my entire family. Although they may not completely understand this journey that I am on, I know I can eternally count on their encouragement.

After obtaining a PhD in mathematics, my ultimate career goal is to become a professor. I would like to be at an academic institution where I can research, teach, and facilitate the development of future mathematicians because I believe mentors have a strong impact on students. The latter of these tasks is super important to me because, as a person of color who loves math, I recognize that members of underrepresented groups wanting to enter STEM fields still face systemic hurdles. I want to do my part in removing those hurdles by becoming a role model and mentor for those looking to enter the field. This is what I believe mentoring is about–providing productive direction and encouragement while being an advocate for the success of the students.

Motivation can hold various definitions for everyone and requires a subjective aspect for each individual, but one thing that can be agreed on is that motivation is what keeps us going–this can be your family, your cohort, or simply people you have encountered along the way. I constantly remind myself that everyone’s journey is different, and it may not be perfect, but as long as you enjoy what you are doing, then it is all worth it.

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Alejandra Castillo

Alejandra Castillo is a graduate student in Statistics at Oregon State University with research interests in unsupervised learning, statistical inference, and statistics education. She received her B.A. in math from Pomona College and calls the nearby San Gabriel Valley home. Alejandra also enjoys hiking, finding good boba places, listening to podcasts, and reading.

Alejandra Castillo: My motivation to pursue a graduate degree has changed a few times. There are aspects that have not, such as the support from my family, working on problems in/with statistics and my goal to help broaden the path for others in higher education. As a current graduate student, I’ve come to see that there is no one way to do well in graduate school because growing and growing pains are at the center of it all.

In college, I learned that there were intellectually enriching professions. I became interested in this active exchange of ideas. I could not believe that these were jobs. I could not believe that part of professors’ jobs was to learn, teach, and keep learning. Representation is powerful, so being surrounded by people with PhDs, I became interested in graduate school. While I enjoyed what I was learning, ultimately it was fellow classmates and professors who kept me engaged despite the obstacles. Mentors throughout college were instrumental in supporting my interest in math. They have been key in humanizing math and thereby making it accessible.

In discussing the topic of motivation with the Math SWAGGER community, similar themes of family and representation emerged for many of us. The organizers also shared with us their motivations throughout graduate school. Their willingness to share personal stories has been moving because it reminds me that no one really has a perfect graduate school experience, but people can help make it better. In an effort to help us grow, one organizer challenged us to think more critically about how we will use any source of motivation to persist in challenging circumstances. This resonated with me because of the instances in graduate school where I have felt isolated. There have been times where, as much as my family wants to help, they can’t. I believe that this is where graduate mentors can help. They can meet students where they are, be advocates and share opportunities, among other things. I’ve been fortunate to find mentors who are willing to listen, offer advice, and demonstrate care beyond the academic transaction that might be coursework.

I can’t help but think about how helpful having these conversations would have been prior to beginning graduate school. This is why I am very excited to learn and share what I’ve learned with incoming graduate students. I have found a new community in the space Math SWAGGER has created.

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Fabrice O. Ulysse

Fabrice O. Ulysse is a Haitian-American incoming PhD Student in the Department of Mathematics at the University of Notre Dame. His current research interests are in Algebra and Logic. Born and raised in Canarsie, Brooklyn, NY, he received his A.B. Cum Laude in Mathematics from Cornell University. He hopes to become a Professor. His interests outside of mathematics are politics, music, film, the Premier League, NBA, and NCAA Ice Hockey.

Fabrice O. Ulysse: When I finished my Bachelor of Arts in May, some of my fellow math majors let me know they’ve had enough of math and are glad they don’t have to do it again. Other undergraduates could not entertain the idea of spending any more time in school, at least not at the moment, and felt that they’d learned enough. I, on the other hand, still feel like I have more to learn and more to do in mathematics. This hunger to learn more in math, and one day contribute to math, made me realize that I see myself being a professor, hence further motivating me to pursue a PhD. Even when I’m tired of doing mathematics, I always enjoy reading pieces and books about the History of Mathematics and reading articles about the current state of Mathematics research on Quanta Magazine. I am fortunate that my love for mathematics has kept me going.

Passion for mathematics is often the first source of motivation to get through graduate school mentioned by incoming grad students. However, that passion for mathematics gets tested during the PhD years. Furthermore, it can completely go away from time to time. So the love of the subject alone won’t get one through the 5-6 years of the PhD. I know that Abstract Algebra would not have been nearly as fun without the study group I formed. We spent many hours together, suffered, bonded, and enjoyed lots of funny moments. This study group even made doing mathematics more fun and exciting. I looked forward to studying with them every week, and this group was vital to my success in the course. Likewise, the great friends and mentors at MSRI-UP in 2019, kept my dream of pursuing a PhD alive, even when I almost gave up on it.

There are several spaces where I’ve met many URMs in the mathematical sciences. Those spaces have given me the confidence to pursue a PhD, partly because I know that other people that look like me have succeeded and are even thriving. Math SWAGGER is now one of those spaces, and it is allowing me to make more meaningful connections with other black and brown mathematicians, hence helping me build a community. These are people I can contact for professional, academic, or even life advice, with the added benefit that they can understand my experiences as a minority in math. I know that I will not be lonely for the next 5 years, because of this network of support. So far, during Math SWAGGER, the personal stories from professors and graduate students have often emphasized the importance of community. It became clear how crucial having a good community was during the darkest hours of the PhD, which is one of my biggest takeaways from last week. I now know that building and finding communities, even if they’re not on campus, will be essential to get through graduate school.

Lastly, I believe that mentors should not make their mentees feel guilty about wanting a life outside of mathematics. It could make them question if they’re a fan of mathematics, and ultimately negatively affects their motivation. It also denies the reality that we are multifaceted beings, and are capable of enjoying more than a select few related activities.

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Victoria Uribe

Victoria Uribe is a Mexican-American PhD student in Applied Mathematics at Arizona State University. Her current research interests include inverse problems, numerical linear algebra, and machine learning. Raised in Paradise, California, she received her B.S. in Applied Mathematics from California State University, Chico. After graduation, she hopes to work as an Applied Mathematician in the aerospace industry. Her interests outside of mathematics include triathlon, weightlifting, traveling, and writing.

Victoria Uribe: My motivation for completing my PhD program is generated in large part from having eliminated alternative career paths. Before starting graduate school for applied mathematics, I first attended a semester of law school. Despite getting my undergraduate degree in applied mathematics, I decided in 8th grade that I would become an attorney, and I was determined to see it through. I had always enjoyed math but thought that I needed to become an attorney to really help people. I thought that it would be the most tangible way to make a positive impact in the Latinx community. Within two weeks of law school, however, I knew that I was in the wrong place. I felt as though I was missing out on the “next thing” I would have otherwise learned in math. I quickly dismissed these thoughts, believing that the math PhD I was dreaming of would be considered selfish: something that only benefitted my own interests.

It wasn’t until I met with the Dean of Students about leaving law school that I realized how getting a PhD in applied mathematics could positively impact the Latinx community as well. She pointed out that few in the mathematics community look like me and that my success could help inspire others to pursue mathematics.

Transitioning from law school back into mathematics didn’t happen overnight. While studying for admissions exams and applying to graduate programs, I worked in an ice cream shop before finding a job in a corporate office. Having these jobs really made me appreciate being in school and pursuing my own interests. When it finally came time to start graduate school again, I couldn’t wait.

Many PhD students have told me that the first year is the hardest. Having just completed my first year, I certainly hope so! This past year brought many challenges, but I never truly considered giving up. I believe that taking several years between my undergraduate and graduate programs in applied mathematics allowed me to determine that, above anything else, this is what I want to be doing. Being a part of the Math SWAGGER workshop and community this summer has been a huge blessing. Going forward through the rest of my PhD journey, I am motivated by knowing that I have 37 allies in the other participants and leaders. Taking part in this group of underrepresented mathematicians, who want to create real and lasting change in our field, reaffirms my decision to positively impact the Latinx community via a PhD in applied mathematics.

Supportive mentors have been instrumental in my success thus far. My best mentors have been good listeners, have been invested in my well-being, and have been quick to share opportunities such as Math SWAGGER with me. It is important that mentors see their mentees as more than just students. While school is a full-time job, many students are also facing challenges outside of the classroom. Knowing that you have faculty cheering you on can make all the difference.

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Acknowledgements: We acknowledge funding support for Math SWAGGER through the National Science Foundation Award #1744463.

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