The MathFest Experience

In this contributed blog post Alvaro Cornejo and Kayla Harrison reflect on the experience having attended MathFest 2019 in Cincinnati, Ohio. 

Participants of the Pomona Research in Mathematics Experience (PRiME) REU.

Was it worth attending the conference?

Alvaro: Definitely. I got to see so many different perspectives on mathematics and as an undergraduate, I think that is important. I was even able to see how people are making mathematics more inclusive by becoming advocates and mathematicians. I enjoyed that there were so many topics on mathematics and that everyone there wanted mathematics to be open for anyone and everyone. As I want to go into academia, it was very cool to see how people gave these talks and were all very passionate about their topics. It was nice to see the world of mathematics outside of the lecture hall and was reinvigorating to my dreams. For instance, the last performative piece in the jubilee that was a dance about being told that you “were not smart enough” for math and it really touched me. It made me realize that I can push through and that I am good enough for mathematics despite being told that I was not by people along the way. MAA Mathfest has really solidified my passion for mathematics.

Kayla: Yes MathFest was totally worth attending. Being an undergraduate math major, many of my mentors and professors only know the career path of becoming a professor, however, I am not interested in working in academia. Because of this, I have not really known what sorts of opportunities are available to math majors other than those in academia. At MathFest, I really liked how there were many groups, organizations, and companies with job opportunities in math (other than academia), that were in the exhibition hall. This was really cool for me because I can not only network and put myself out there, but I was also made aware of the many career paths math majors can have other than going into academia. Not only were these organizations/companies in the exhibition hall, but I really enjoyed that there were talks and panels about career paths in Business, Industry, and Government (BIG) for math majors. These talks and panels were really helpful for me, because as a rising senior in college, this is the kind of information that I have wanted to know for a while but did not have the connections with people who have these experiences.

What was your experience presenting your mathematical work?

Alvaro: It was nerve-racking, but rewarding. As this summer was the first time that I had done math research and given a talk on mathematics, I had no idea what to expect. When we tried to put everything into a presentation I was surprised by the amount of information my group and I had learned over the summer. My sense of imposter syndrome subsided as I realized that we all know the background of our research since we all put the work into knowing the material. I was very proud of all the work we put into the planning of the talk, which really helped me feel less anxious when presenting.

Of course I still was nervous when practicing the presentation. I found that practice made me talk and feel better about it. While practicing our group mentor Professor Barrios reminded us to keep in mind the audience and to remember when we were first learning all the material. From then on it became clear to me that the main goal of this talk is to teach. This is something incredibly powerful and helped remind me why I want to go into graduate school. I want to keep learning to teach others, and to be a role model for minority students like me that they too can continue to learn and teach mathematics. After giving the talk, it felt very rewarding. I had a glimpse of what I want to continue to do in my life and felt very included in the process. It left me very hopeful on my future and made it clear that this is a goal I have.

Kayla: When doing the research, sometimes you get stuck on something and think that you have not really made any progress in you work. However, when it came to presenting, I think that really helped me and my group realize that we really have accomplished and understood a lot in such a small time.

Presenting my work was such an amazing experience. I learned a lot about how to be as detailed and concise as possible so that our audience understands enough and remains engaged in our talk. I also learned that presenting my work is really not as intimidating as I thought it would be. Going into my talk, I was pretty nervous that people would ask a bunch of questions about my research and I would not know how to answer them. After giving my talk, I came to realize that I have learned a lot this summer and I really know what I am doing/talking about.

Presenting my work really was a confidence booster, because I feel like I have experienced the ‘imposter syndrome’ and have been really insecure about my place in the math community. So, when I presented my research, I finally felt a sense of inclusion.

What do you wish you had known before attending MathFest?

Alvaro: Don’t forget a notebook and pencil, and make a schedule before hand if you can. There are so many cool talks, and many happening at the same time. So plan out a few that you would like to go to get the most out of each time section of the conference. Also, a pencil and notebook were very helpful for jotting down notes of the talks, book references, emails, links. I tried to use my phone but I always remember things better writing things down. I also wish that I had known of this conference earlier in my undergrad. There are so many cool topics and I had no idea about this conference, and I hope that maybe more undergraduates can come to this.

Kayla: I wish I had known that each day is so jammed packed with events that you have to make a schedule of talks and things you want to go to. This was a bit overwhelming, but pretty cool because you always have something to do and there is always a cool talk to attend.

Any last thoughts?

Alvaro: I enjoyed MAA Mathfest, I got to see different perspectives and topics on mathematics. As an undergraduate, I forget that the world of mathematics is so vast and there is still so much to discuss within this community. Seeing mathematicians be great presenters and advocates was really inspiring and as something I want to become. I feel like I learned about the opportunities and got the chance to connect with other people. I am very glad I got a chance to attend this conference.

Kayla: This was such a great experience for me, and I recommend that all undergraduate math majors try to attend. There are so many cool talks and panels to go to, which could really get students interested in different areas of mathematics. There are also many opportunities to meet other math majors and math professors from around the country which gives you a chance to make new friends and network. I felt like I learned a lot about the endless opportunities math majors have and that really excites me about my future in mathematics!

My name is Alvaro Cornejo. I grew up in Los Angeles and am a mathematics major and  fourth year at UC Santa Barbara.

Kayla Harrison is from Maryland, and is a senior Mathematics major at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida

 

 

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A Scholar-Athlete’s Tips for Organization and Time Management

Natasha Crepeau

Natasha Crepeau

Blog post by Natasha Crepeau, Harvey Mudd College

I’m a junior at Harvey Mudd College with decent (and improving!) grades, a D3 athlete, and player in the Pomona College Band. I’m only able to manage this and take care of myself by trying to organize and manage my time well during the school year, and I’d love to share my methods and tips with other people.

First, let’s talk about organization. My biggest suggestion is to write everything down. That means tests, homework, meets, concerts, office hours, and anything else that you need to do or be at. For homework and tests, make sure that you write the due date so you aren’t surprised when the date comes around. If you think you can remember everything, I think you might be mistaken. I take my planner everywhere and I write everything down inside of it. Some people use their phone instead, but personally I feel that writing something in your notes application doesn’t have the same permanence as writing it on a piece of paper. Once you have a planner, and everything written down, you can use highlighters, different colors, or even emojis to distinguish the very important from the less important. Part of the joy of having a planner is getting the satisfaction of crossing something off once you’ve finished it.

I also have an organizational system for applications. I’ve used this system since I started applying for college, and I will continue to use it as I apply to study abroad programs this fall. I was able to apply to 10 REUs, and what made that possible was my organizational system. I always create a spreadsheet that lists all the programs I’m applying to. Within this spreadsheet, I include key information I’ll need to reference frequently—this includes program dates, application due dates, required essays, the number of letters of recommendation I needed, and if I had heard back from that program. It saved me from having to look up a program whenever I wanted to work on an essay or start collecting the materials needed so I could submit my application. I cannot stress how important writing everything down is. It has made my life much easier.

Once you’ve organized yourself, you need to manage the time you have to accomplish the tasks that you’ve written down. Learning how to effectively manage my time has helped me feel happier in school. The first thing I learned was how to say no. Cross-country practice is at 6:00 am, and my coach emphasizes the importance of getting 8 hours of sleep a night. This meant I was supposed to be in bed at 9:30 pm every night. Many events in my freshman fall were well after this bedtime, and I had to learn how to be alright with not attending them. I was afraid I would be missing out, but since my teammates all had the same schedule, I wasn’t missing hanging out with them. When it came to friends that weren’t teammates, I became okay with not always being there and being excited to hear about the night another time.

Even if you don’t have morning practice, you should be getting enough sleep. Sleep is an important part of taking care of yourself, and an overwhelming amount of work can feel more manageable when you’re well rested. I believe that everyone should have a set bedtime and stick to it. There’s no need to stay up all night doing work. With a bedtime, I’m more motivated to complete my work before I must go to sleep. Some days that isn’t possible, but those days are few and far between for me.

Now that you have a bedtime, there are a set number of hours during your day. In these hours there are classes, jobs, time for work, and meals. That sounds like a lot, but you should also be giving yourself a few breaks. There are a few different ways to do this. My friend group has designated meals as break time. We all take around an hour per meal and we aren’t allowed to do work during this time. Instead, we talk, laugh, vent, and decompress from the stress in our lives. Meals are one of my favorite things in college because I get to not think about work. I also have meets on Saturdays, so I also take Friday evening to watch a movie with my teammates and prepare for the race. It helps me relax so I can run well on Saturday morning. I believe that breaks are required. Nobody can work all the time, and there’s no use in pretending that I can.

Breaks are important, but they can only work if you do work when you say you’re going to do work, or else your work time just becomes another break. Some people are just procrastinators, and I know it can be hard to break the habit. Breaking the habit will be easier if you set yourself up for success. First, I put myself where I know I’ll be productive. That can be something like office hours and tutoring or be a location on campus where you are minimally distracted and have what you need to work. I like a certain study room at Mudd that has several whiteboards and an outdoor classroom when the weather is nice. I also remove as many distractions as possible. I’ll put my phone in the other corner of the room and play some music so I can stay productive. I also avoid procrastination due to frustration. If a problem set is giving me trouble, I go get help instead of staring at it for 2 more hours. If I have easier work, I’ll switch to finishing that to give my mind a break. These methods work for me, but they may not work for you as well, so it is important to find what helps you stay productive.

There is an overwhelming amount of stuff to do as a student. What has helped me stay afloat is good organization and time management. I make sure I’m not surprised by anything because I’ve written it down. I lay out the tasks I need to complete and when they’re do. Once I’ve laid out what I need to do, part of the how I’m going to do it is how I spend my time. I make sure I’m working when I’m supposed to be, and I take breaks everyday so that I’m not working all day. My strategies have helped me tremendously, and I hope they help you. What’s important is finding something that works for you and sticking to it. Find a system that allows you to take care of yourself, because your happiness and well-being is the most important thing in your college experience.

Posted in career advancement, General, graduation, Undegraduates | 1 Comment

Trip to the National Museum of Mathematics

by Maria Roman

We left the Williamstown mountains behind as the early morning sun began to peek through the windows of the tiny bus. There was a journey ahead, but to be honest, I vaguely had any idea of what we were about to encounter. I lazily looked out the window as we got closer to the city, my homegirl Shakira blasting through my headphones. It almost felt like that scene in Zootopia where the little country rabbit sees the huge metropolitan city for the first time. I had been in New York multiple times… but never with the hopes of spending a whole day doing math problems, which to my surprise, felt like the perfect Saturday plan.

Looking back, I was not disappointed. From the second we stepped in, the National Museum of Math was a logical wonderland that I could have gotten lost in for hours, from the bike with square wheels, to the funky spinning chairs and the human tree, to the puzzles, non-euclidean geometry, tessellating patterns and 3D printed geometrical figures. The two-floor museum was as elegant, fun and modern as it was thought-provoking and educational for all levels of mathematics.

Games at the National Museum of Math

Nonetheless, with all of the crazy puzzles and weird, quirky games, my professor and I spent the most time on what seemed to be the simplest of puzzles: Sixth Sense.

Sixth Sense Game

In this little number grid, you had to arrange all of the numbers in such a way that any four chosen numbers from one row and one column added up to 34. We spent more than one hour trying to come up with a solution, considering planes of symmetry, grouping numbers in a variety of combinations, and worked with a few of the math majors who attended the field trip… all to find out that the best way to obtain the right combination was to assign the numbers in order from least to greatest.

And still, even with the simplest puzzles, any kind of given assumption does have complex and intricate ideas. The Sixth Sense solution did, in fact involve some planes of symmetry, some ideas in combinatorics, and was slightly more complex than it looked like from its straightforward answer. However, this doesn’t mean that such complexity should feel overwhelming and impossible, and not deriving the correct answer immediately was perfectly fine, because what mattered most was playing with ideas and knowledge, experimenting, and asking questions about the possibilities.

I think especially for myself, doing such a problem made me realize that I have the habit of assuming that any math problem is inaccessible and overly complicated, a stereotype reinforced by years of not-so-great math classes and teacher experiences that (with a few great exceptions) had the tendency to make mathematics appear as an exclusive, distant subject only meant for a select few.

We left the museum and walked around Madison Square Park to realize that this tiny two-floor wonder was just the beginning, and nothing around me looked the same. The tall skyscrapers were now gigantic mathematical questions and geometrical concepts, aesthetically modelled to withstand the forces of gravity. Our infrastructure was nothing more than logical planning, and the people walking happily could be observed statistically and mathematically, both from a chemical and biological standpoint, all the way to their social behaviors and attitudes. Everything seemed just slightly newer, and slightly more mysterious than before.

The trip made me feel grateful to have had the opportunity to travel and learn, with the help of invested professors such as Professor Harris and support from the Center for Learning in Action (CLiA) at Williams College.

Maria Roman

Biography: Maria Roman is a first-year prospective Chemistry and Mathematics major at Williams College. She is a Research Assitant in the Chemistry department, and in the future hopes to have a career in medicine and global public health.

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Manuscript Pre-Submission Check List

Reviewer 2: “I did not read carefully past section 2. … I recommend that the article not be published in [redacted]”

This particular reviewer read to page 4 of our 18 page manuscript, when the main result was on page 10. This was what we received after almost a full year under review (11 months and 7 days to be exact, but I am not bitter!). Yet the first reviewer read the manuscript carefully and provided detailed feedback along with a recommendation to publish. We have contacted the journal’s editor to request a third referee report — a tie breaker if you will. What next? We wait. Hopefully less than a year…

This can be the reality of academic publishing. But let’s be honest: it is appalling that a reviewer would only read to page 4 of an article and be bold (arrogant?) enough to say that they did not read the article carefully after the fourth page. Yet my undying optimist, ever the academic, wants to find some lessons in this experience, or to at least reflect on what one can do prior to the submission of a manuscript that may help the overall outcome: getting an acceptance.

So here is a pre-submission check list you may find useful.

Giving a seminar talk
There are varying pieces of advice on this. Of course you should give talks about the results of the paper as often as possible. However, do make sure you have things written already and in draft form because people may ask to see the details and you want to be ready to present those when requested. Also, giving a seminar is a quick way of getting people to think about your work and possibly collaborate.

Have students read your work
As my dear mentor Rebecca Garcia, mentioned to me (as she gave me feedback on this post!): ​Getting your students to look at your work is a solid way to get some high quality feedback. Students are wonderful at finding inconsistent use of notation, lack of clarity in exposition, and have even spotted errors in definitions, examples, and results in papers they have read — just ask my students Alexandre Gueganic and Maryanne Masibo. Asking students to read preprints of manuscripts seems to be more common practice these days, since I’ve noticed various acknowledgements where authors thank their students for their feedback. Perhaps this could even be the start of a research project with the students!

Once you have given talks and polished the manuscript here is what I do next.

Let the work marinate
My dear friend and wise coauthor Erik Insko taught me the value of letting an article sit on the arXiv for some predetermined period — often 10 days. This short time gives people the chance to see the article and possibly send you comments on the work before you have submitted it to a journal. In fact, Erik sometimes sends an email to his math friends with a paper announcement saying something to the effect of “Hey, here is my new paper on X. Let me know what you think!”  I recently found out that this is more common practice than I realized. In fact, I added my email to Bruce Sagan’s listserve where he sends a preview of his upcoming papers before they hit the arXiv. The point? If well-established mathematicians are sharing their work with their friends, so should you! This leads naturally to our next two items.

Request peer feedback
If you are a postdoc+ (+ denotes and beyond), it is likely that your peer (another postdoc+) will referee your work. Then you might as well give them the opportunity to ask you questions about the work out in the open rather than under the veil of anonymity the review process imposes. So go a head and email someone you cite in your references, who is at a similar career stage as you, and ask for their feedback. Sometimes they may even have suggestions on how to expand the work or what would be a natural direction for future research.

Send the manuscript to a more senior mathematician
This is scary (can you hear my teeth rattle?). Yet, to my complete surprise people do respond to a junior mathematician’s emails and they may even say your results are cool! Or tell you that they have some ideas on how to prove a thing you and your friends conjectured, from which a new collaboration may emerge (William T. Trotter this is a shout out to you sir!). Of course one can’t ask these things very often (not sure what very often is… once a year seems like a good guess) but this is one good way to solicit some advice from people who likely know the standards for journals in your area. One way to ask for help is to tell them about your work and ask if they may have a recommendation for a journal to which you could submit the manuscript. That way it is a precise question and if nothing else now these mathematicians know your name and the type of work you do.

Submit to a journal
After doing some/all of the above things, and implementing any feedback received (along with updating your acknowledgement section) you may find that you are ready to submit the manuscript. Don’t do it. Sleep on it. Then reread the manuscript out loud. I know it sounds silly but it is the only way I find typos. After all, you are trying to avoid falling prey to the best way to find typos — hitting the submit button!

Finally submit
Did you sleep on it? Ok then submit!

If you have any other advice to add to this checklist please use the comment section. I look forward to seeing your advice!

 

PS. I want to thank Alicia Prieto Langarica and Rebecca Garcia who I sent this blog post to for feedback, and I wanted to point out I did in fact sleep on it before submitting. Yet, its likly hat this post still contians typos 😉

 

PPS. Quick thanks to Rene Ardila for finding a typo that was unintentional.

 

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Are you stunting your productivity by constantly checking your email?

By Dr. Toyin Alli

Dr. Toyin Alli

This semester, I’ve been focusing a lot about productivity and how to be your most productive self when you sit down to get stuff done. And I believe a big part of being your most productive self is knowing what not to do while being productive.

Constantly checking your email is number one on my list! Did you know that when you multitask you decrease your productivity by a lot? So when you are constantly checking and replying to emails all day, you are literally having to restart and reset your mind to get back to your work. And that makes it easier and easier to get distracted, tired, and lose focus.

My recommendation is to set times in your day just for checking and responding to emails. I like to check my emails in the morning, during lunch, and at the end of the day.

If you’re looking for more accountability during your productive times, I’ll be launching my new program, the Productivity Accelerator today! To be the first to know when the doors open, sign up for the waitlist here! (By clicking this link you will be added to the waitlist for the program and be redirected to my YouTube video all about it!)

What is the Productivity Accelerator Method?

The Productivity Accelerator Method is a two-week productivity sprint to help you be more focused and productive in grad school so that you can actually get stuff done instead of stressing over the amount of stuff you have to get done. This method consists of three major components: planning, accountability, and follow-through. So if you are good at planning and setting goals but struggle with actually following through and implementing those plans, the key piece you are missing is accountability. And the Productivity Accelerator Method will help you with that missing piece.

Click here to learn more about the Productivity Accelerator!

2 Misconceptions about Work Life Balance

Yesterday, I posted a live video on my YouTube channel about work-life balance and the two misconceptions that we have about it. In the video, I share how we can change our mindset about work-life balance so that we can have a healthier approach to managing life, school, and work. The link below will take you to the video. (Sorry, the quality isn’t grad because I did it live.)

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

A Personal Reflection on Broadening Participation in STEM

Contributed by Amy Beth Prager

During my student tenure at MIT, I expressed and increased my sincere devotion with respect to broadening participation in STEM. Ultimately, I became co-director of the MIT Womens’ initiative, which allowed me the opportunity to give presentations to multiple cities within Northern America to audiences composed of secondary school girls. During my final year in graduate school at MIT, a friend and I gave such a presentation in California.

This presentation was a turning point in my life, both personally and professionally. By sharing cramped living conditions for almost two weeks, more than 3,000 miles from home, we learned a lot about each other. Before leaving for our trip, I was generally looking forward to sharing an academic experience based on our mutual interests and goals. I approached it without any real emotion, just grateful for the opportunity to share an important goal with a like-minded colleague. Our personal relationship became strengthened as I found out more about my friend as a result of us sharing a living space, facts that I never before imagined. I learned more about her situation, for example, some of the financial struggles she was up against and the lack of uniform parental support that caused her hardship. In order to put herself through school she was serving at a restaurant and she spoke about how difficult this was: how little sleep she got; her challenges with her limited living space; and how she was studying computer science—in part—to be able to afford educational opportunities for her own future own children. She spoke about how her mother had said she did not need to be educated because—of her gender—she would only become a homemaker. I never knew how much she had struggled merely because of her gender.

I was emotionally impacted by all of this. The magnitude of the emotions that I felt were indescribable. I felt mad, sad, angry, depressed, and yet full of pride for my friend. Though my lived experience was different from hers, her pain, her sadness, her bitterness, and her resentment of those family members whom she felt were not supportive resonated with me. I had thought I was just going on a routine business trip with a colleague, and it turned out to be an eye-opening experience for me.

Part of the reason her story spoke to me is because I am a transgender woman. My STEM journey has been similarly marked by gender-identity. Obstacles that I have encountered along the way have further enlightened me on the challenges some women face in the field of STEM, and this has helped strengthen my own identity as a woman. Having undergone gender reassignment surgery more than two years ago to become fully female, one of the most supportive and accepting communities I am part of is that of women in STEM.

I recently saw my MIT friend at a meeting for a well-known software company in Cambridge. I asked her how she was doing and she responded that she was getting more sleep and was engaged. I felt so glad that she was doing well, and felt so unbelievably ecstatic that I may have played a part in her success, simply by listening and providing her some encouragement and support. Largely because of this encounter, I have shifted most of my research efforts to focus on broadening the reach of mathematics education, rather than simply mathematics. Ever since that turning point, I have focused all my resources on STEM education and outreach and I have never been happier.

Amy Beth Prager

Amy Beth Prager is an applied mathematician whose research focuses on improving gender (and other forms of) diversity within STEM. Her primary interest in the 21st century is in CS/STEM outreach to young women and girls, which is derived from her rare perspective on these matters. Amy is a postoperative transgendered woman, who has been both a male and a female in the technology industry, and she sees the vast differences in perception and treatment that she feel no cisgendered person could ever realize. Amy is extremely passionate about these issues and would welcome the opportunity to be an integral part of any diversity awareness program in the U.S. or globally.

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Imposter Syndrome

By William Yslas Vélez, Emeritus Professor University of Arizona

If anyone should suffer from the imposter syndrome, it should be me. But I don’t (See [1] for a description of my undergraduate years). In my early years in the profession I was certainly intimidated by the academic pedigree and background of those around me, their ability to quickly understand the concepts, their powers of deduction and their intuition into mathematics. But intimidation does not mean that I don’t belong. Belonging was and continues to be an active and aggressive decision on my part.

My first mathematical experience outside of Arizona was as a summer intern at Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, NJ. Everyone around me was white, with degrees from the best institutions, and connections to the best mathematicians in the world. What affected me most over that summer was the lack of personal contact between individuals. I felt invisible. In [2], I described my reaction to being there, but in spite of my alienation, I worked hard and produced a paper during my time there [3].

William Yslas Vélez celebrating his retirement!

More than the academic pedigree though is the sheer brilliance of the mathematical community. I chose number theory as my area of research. Over the years I have listened to amazing talks, speakers showing tremendous insights and cleverness. I am so fortunate to have the background to have been able to appreciate the ideas presented. Twice, not once but twice, I have struggled with an idea for months and Hendrick Lenstra resolved the problems overnight, and I mean literally overnight. In the first instance [4], I had proved that the smallest order of an element in a coset in a finite abelian group actually divided the orders of all elements in that coset and wondered if the result could be more general. A couple of years passed and the problem was brought up at the Berkeley Problem Solving Group. Lenstra provided a counter example the next day [4, 5].

In mathematics, we are fortunate to be surrounded by brilliance. And this raises the question: Do we belong? Almost any student, at one point or another, will realize that they are not the best student in the class. In fact, for most of us, this will occur in our first college mathematics class. If our goal in life is to be better than anyone around us, life will be a disappointment and a mathematical career will be difficult and disappointing. Part of being a mathematician is submitting an argument in favor of an idea. This submission may encounter criticism, the argument may be incorrect or others may find a shorter more elegant route to the result. This criticism may be difficult for some to take, but it is an integral part of our profession. I, like probably all of us, have received referee’s report that combine correct criticism with cutting remarks (like this one that I received early in my career: The author leaves me with the impression that he is not aware of any progress in mathematics in the 20th century). In my role as advisor to the math club, I would inform the student leaders that the club should not be a showcase for their mathematical skills. So often, these bright students wanted to show off and this discouraged others from participating. Intimidating others with your abilities is a poor foundation for life.

As faculty we can be intimidating to students. We understand the material that we teach very well and we can appear to be so much brighter than the students. But we are not brighter, we are just more knowledgeable and have been blessed with mathematical ability. And I do mean blessed. I think that most students could pass our calculus courses if they had enough dedication and worked hard. Obtaining a doctorate in mathematics is very special. It takes a love of the subject, an increased ability for abstraction and a willingness to spend years in contemplative study. These are special blessings and we should use our blessings to better the lives of the students that we encounter.

Let’s think about what is occurring in a mathematics classroom. We introduce some of the most beautiful and important ideas imaginable, ideas that have changed the way we look at life. A mathematics classroom is like an art appreciation class, but much better. In an art class students are given explanations as to why the art is important, how it fits into history, and why it differed from its predecessors. As much as a student might enjoy a painting by Rembrandt, this enjoyment will not help most students create a comparable painting. In mathematics we are introducing mathematical creations comparable to the best art, but we should be providing the students with the ability to create that art for themselves, to arrange that information in their own mind, to connect the new ideas to the established knowledge that students already have. With time, dedication, and practice students become active artists in the creation of new mathematical knowledge. The artistry starts small—solving homework problems. If a student finds pleasure and joy in finding a solution, in understanding a new concept, then this emotion is a sign of belonging to the mathematical community. Emotions are not fake and this joy provides the evidence that the student is not an imposter. When faculty have those same emotions in research or teaching or scholarly endeavors, this is proof, proof of not being an imposter.

As an undergraduate I never saw the excitement for their subject in my instructors. In fact, most of them looked bored as they taught their classes. Mathematics classes are so often depicted as the instructor droning on. This is especially true of entry level classes. The purpose of an entry level course should be to motivate the student to take the next mathematics course, and not just to satisfy a requirement [6].

Is it possible to re-envision the mathematics classroom? Can we look at mentoring students differently? Our goal should be to bestow on them the wonderful gift that allows for creative expression. It is this gift that allows me to say that I belong to this mathematical community. Though my own mathematical creations are small compared to so many mathematicians, my joy in having been able to resolve some problems is HUGE. I remember going to my thesis advisor’s office with an important insight into the problem that I was working on and he said, “No that can’t be because the root of unity, because it is not, because. Oh, I see!” In a presentation that I gave at a Western Number Theory Conference as a graduate student, I turned around to see Julia Robinson [7], with a smile of appreciation as she understood my proof.

This is what we are giving to students, this ability to be artists, to create information for themselves based on the cumulative knowledge of our community. And this cumulative knowledge has been created, reformulated, and repackaged by all of us. This is what I think belonging is: to participate in the mathematical enterprise and to have moments of joy in this participation. If students are given the opportunity to create mathematics and find enjoyment in that process, then they are not imposters. They are our colleagues.

I suspect that many students, and also faculty, say they suffer from the Imposter Syndrome. This syndrome is based on outside measures, and not on our inner-life. I recall a statement that appeared on a slide from a presentation by Rochelle Gutierrez, “People need mathematics, but mathematics needs people.” The mathematical enterprise needs all of us, our ideas, our enthusiasm and our emotions.

  1. SACNAS Biography Project
  2. Why do we need minorities among our faculty, Notices of the AMS, November, 2018, Vol 65,
    Number 10, pages 1057-1059.
  3. Some Remarks on a Number Theoretic Problem of Graham, W. Y. Vélez, Acta Arithmetica, XXXII, 1977, pp. 233-238.
  4. On a property of cosets in a finite group, W. Y. Vélez, Journal of Algebra 115, No. 2, 1988, pp. 412-413.
  5. Some results on radical extensions, F. Barrera Mora and W. Y. Vélez, Journal of Algebra, Vol. 162, No. 2, 1993, pp. 295-301.
  6. Mathematics Instruction, An Enthusiastic Activity, William Yslas Vélez, On Teaching and Learning Mathematics, AMS Blogs, August 1, 2014.
  7. Julia Robinson Math Festivals
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Preparing for the job market

Alexander Barrios

Cory Colbert

For this blog post I interviewed Cory Colbert and Alexander Barrios, two recent PhD graduates, on the lessons learned during their job search last academic year. Alexander started at Carleton College in the fall as a postdoctoral scholar, and Cory joined the faculty of Washington & Lee University as a tenure-track Assistant Professor.

Q: How would you recommend preparing for the job market?

Apply broadly. There are so many jobs for a new Ph.D. in mathematics. From NSA, Google and Goldman-Sachs to tenure-track, postdoctoral, and visiting positions all over the world. By the time you hit the market, you probably have a sense of where you’re leaning, but you are wise to cast a wide net in every way possible. Focus your attention on your preferred career, but apply to other places too. So, while we concentrated our efforts on liberal arts colleges, we also applied to postdocs at R1s, positions at teaching colleges, and positions in government.

Start early. Very early. We recommend getting into the right mindset and to start preparing your materials not later than the summer of the year you’re planning to be on the market. But the earlier, the better. For example, if you know that you’re going on the market a year in advance, then you can use that year to network aggressively, participate in numerous seminars, do more outreach, and ask questions of current job candidates to get a sense of what the market is like.

Update your CV and your webpage. For your CV, make sure you’ve listed not only works that have been published or are being reviewed, but also works that are currently in progress. It is important to demonstrate that you’re active. If you do not have a website, now is the time to make one. It is customary for most institutions to provide resources for creating your own webpage, so go and see what resources are available to you. IT services is usually a good place to start. Your website should contain your CV, your current publications and papers that are under review, your current works-in-progress, a teaching link (if, say, you use your website to post homework assignments and course syllabi), contact information, and a personal bio. You should be happy to express yourself and give people a sense of who you are while being professional. It goes without saying that you avoid discussing or mentioning highly controversial things on your website at this point.

Work that network! You’ve been building contacts for years, so now is the time to start reaching out to people that are established and letting them know you’re on the market. They may know about opportunities that are hard to find online; it costs institutions money to list their positions on traditional search platforms, so some places choose not to post a listing at all. Also, keep in mind that unlike postdocs at R1s, visiting positions at liberal arts colleges may not get listed until late December.

Give research talks and undergraduate talks! This is invaluable practice for your on-campus interviews. Begin by seeking opportunities at your institution; give seminar talks in your area and if possible give talks in the undergraduatePreparing for the job market? math club. Look for upcoming conferences in your research area. If one is coming up, submit an abstract to give a talk (or poster) if there is availability. Similarly, if the upcoming AMS sectional meeting has a session in your research area, submit an abstract. This gives you the opportunity to talk about your research to mathematicians who are not familiar with your work. After these talks, do not be afraid to ask for constructive criticism. With each talk you give, you want to make improvements so that the next one is better. By doing this, you will be more comfortable when you go for your on-campus interview talk.

If you are interested in liberal arts colleges or teaching colleges, contact colleges within driving distance from your home and ask whether it is possible to give a talk in their undergraduate seminar. As with the AMS sectional, submit an abstract to give a talk at the MAA sectional meetings. If you pursue this route, plan talks which are fun and accessible to undergraduates.

Q: Where does one find jobs in the Mathematical Sciences?

The traditional search platform is MathJobs (mathjobs.org), but there are others such as AMS (eims.ams.org), ChronicleVitae (chroniclevitae.com), and HigherEdJobs (higheredjobs.com). Jobs in industry and government usually have booths at major conferences, such as JMM and JSM. Also, your home institution may be hosting a job fair, so it is a good idea to find out about it as soon as possible. As we mentioned earlier, some schools, institutions, and agencies choose not to list jobs on these job-listing sites for various reasons, so you are also wise to “work that network” and find out what’s out there by simply engaging with people. Just by networking, you may even find someone who can get a visiting position for you in case you need an extra year to search for a job.

Q: How many places would you recommend applying to?

The advice we were given early on for the job market was to personalize applications to the institution or company you are applying to. This in turns caps the number of applications you can send out as it is time-consuming to personalize applications. Be aware that search committees get hundreds of applications and personalizing your application is a good way to stand out among the multitude of applications. That being said, you should aim to apply to at least forty places.

Q: What tips do you have for someone who is going on the job market?

While the first deadlines are usually in October, you want to have drafts of your application materials ready before September. This will allow you to continue editing and perfecting your application while giving you the opportunity to get feedback from colleagues which you can use to strengthen your application materials. In addition, we recommend creating a spreadsheet that contains each posting you are interested and its respective deadline. Moreover, we recommend having hyperlinks to both the job posting and the job application. This will save you time as the application itself usually does not have the job posting.

Regarding the materials, don’t be too cavalier, but consider adding some style and flavor to them. Use fancy letterheads that showcase your institution in your cover letter. Make your CV stand out by using modern and catchy templates, but don’t overdo it.

Most importantly, find that unique quality about you that will make the search committee want to learn more about you. For example, Cory has a passion for aviation and he used that passion to design a course for middle schoolers on the physics and mathematics of flight. Similarly, Alex is passionate about increasing math awareness among middle and high school students and has been the lead instructor for engineering summer camps at Purdue for students in grade 6-12. Both of us highlighted these passions in every way possible, from mentioning it in our teaching statement to making a note of in our CV’s.

Q: What advice do you have for the cover letter?

Your first order of business here should be to go back to the job listing (if there is one) and check for any requirements on what should be in the cover letter. Some places may require that you mention their name in the cover letter (though you should always do this). Other places may request that you make a brief statement about diversity or inclusiveness in your cover page. You don’t want to get your application rejected because you failed to write a sentence (or a word), so make sure you know what’s required first.
Beyond requirements, it’s important to understand that a typical search committee is reading through hundreds, or even thousands, of applications. Therefore, it is positively essential that your cover letter catches the eye and gets straight to the point. For example, we both used nice letterheads from our institutions which added a unique splash of color to our letters. Each of our letters had around three paragraphs, and every single letter was at most one page long. The first paragraph mentioned the school and why we wanted to be there, the body paragraphs spoke about our research and teaching accomplishments, and the last paragraph expressed our excitement and eagerness to interview. It’s helpful to mention in your cover letter that you’ll be at JMM (if that’s true, of course!). Both of us digitally signed our cover letters with free PDF editors.

Q: Any advice on writing a teaching statement?

Alex: Advice I was given was to avoid listing out each class you have taught as this is information that should be on your CV. Instead, the teaching statement should give the search committee a glimpse of your thought process with regards to teaching. Describe moments that show your growth as an educator and demonstrate a willingness to learn from prior mistakes. If you have experimented with various teaching techniques, write about them and reflect on how you will use these in your future classes at the institution you are applying to.

Cory says: The importance of the teaching statement varies with the institutions, but I believe they generally carry more weight among teaching colleges and liberal arts colleges over other places. At this stage in my career, I really wanted to be at a liberal arts college, so I wrote accordingly.
I wrote my teaching statement to be engaging and personal. I avoided going on and on about the merits of different teaching strategies, and I spoke instead about my personal teaching experiences in the classroom. I gave the committee a sense of how I taught at every level, from middle school to a topics course in commutative algebra; I invited them into my classroom and into my way of thinking. I also focused time on what made me a unique candidate: outreach courses in aviation theory! Beyond that, I demonstrated that my teaching strategies were not fixed and rigid, but were instead ever-changing and flexible. I noted that I vary my strategies depending on the course and what the needs of the students are, and not based on a fixed point-of-view of the “right” way to teach. Oh, and try to keep it under three pages, and make sure you get someone to read it before you send it off to dozens of places.

Q: How about the research statement?

Alex and Cory: Be mindful of the research interests of the faculty at the institution you are applying to. This is especially true for smaller colleges where there may not be someone working in your research area. Consequently, you should aim to have different versions of your research statements and let colleagues who are not in your research area read them to gain valuable feedback.

If you are applying to a teaching or liberal arts college, aim to have a very inviting introduction. The mathematics inevitably gets more technical as the reader nears the end of it, but at least the reader has an idea of what you do. And that’s extremely important. You see, many liberal arts colleges and teaching colleges are interested in how well you can explain your research to their undergraduates. This is important because they want to know not only if you are a good teacher, but also if you have opportunities to bring undergraduates onto your research projects; they, like us, absolutely love undergraduate research projects. You may even want to write a paragraph or two about such potential research opportunities. We suggest keeping it under six pages, and get someone to read your research statement!

Q: How would you recommend tailoring applications for various institutions?

Alex and Cory: Prior to writing your cover letter for the institution, learn about it. Look at its faculty, location, and its mission statement. What attracts you to the institution? These are things you should address in your cover letter, as there will be no other place in your application where you can address these things. This will also show the search committee that you did your due diligence and are not sending the same blanket statement to everyone. In addition, highlight aspects of your CV that will make you stand out and support your candidacy for the position.

Q: How many letters of recommendation are required?

Alex: Going into the job market, you want to have at least four letter of recommendations. Two for both research and teaching. Most job posts ask for exactly three or four letters of recommendation. For the positions requiring exactly three letters, you want to appeal to the institution’s goals. For instance, if applying for a research postdoc, you will want to submit at least two letters that discuss your research. However, for liberal arts and teaching colleges, you will want to submit two letters which discuss your teaching experience as well as any mentoring or outreach programs you may have done.

Cory: Most places require at least three letters, so I secured five letters several months before the first deadline. I got two research letters; one hybrid letter that commented on research and teaching; one teaching letter from my graduate school years; and another special teaching letter from my time at Bridge to Enter Advanced Mathematics, a summer residential mathematics program for middle-schoolers (www.beammath.org). I did not send all five letters to all places. For liberal arts colleges, I generally sent all five letters if I could. If I could only send four, then I dropped one of my research letters in favor of a letter that spoke more about teaching. For everywhere else, I usually just sent three research letters and my graduate school teaching letter. If I ever had to send fewer than four letters to a non-liberal arts college, then I usually leaned more into my research letters.

Q: Any tips regarding diversity and religious statements?

Alex: If an institution requires a diversity statement, make sure to read what they are asking for. Some diversity statements ask you to address a specific question on how you will improve upon the college mission to increase diversity.

Cory: Regarding a statement of religious background, I’d recommend being supportive if you don’t identify with that school’s religious beliefs. You don’t want to end up in a situation where they think you are something you are not, so be upfront with your situation (if you’re comfortable), but never lie or mislead. If you cannot offer your support, then don’t apply.

Q: Would you recommend reaching out to the committee?

Alex and Cory: There are various points of view on this, but generally we feel that if you’re really excited about a job, then it cannot harm you substantially by reaching out to the chair of the department and letting her know you’ve applied and how excited you are. The chair may not be running the search, but you will at least increase your chances of getting your file looked at carefully. That said, once you’ve reached out to the institution once, you should be hesitant to reach out many more times; you don’t want to badger or annoy the search committee with copious emails about the status of your file.

Q: How did you both manage time while applying for jobs?

Alex: With thesis writing and being on the job market I did my best to partition my time so that I could work on application materials as well as finalize research projects. To achieve this, I gave myself a series of weekly goals in the fall so that I would have all application materials completed by the end of October while allocating time to my research and teaching responsibilities. I personally use a planner but know of others who use Google Calendars or similar programs to plan out their week. In planning be realistic and give yourself wiggle room to accomplish your tasks. Lastly, once your documents are complete, seek constructive criticism from friends and colleagues and continue to revise them accordingly. While my first versions of my application material were done in early November, I found myself continuously revising my documents through January.

Cory: I made it part of my daily routine to spend at least 20 minutes per day searching for new jobs and managing my list of places to which I had planned to apply. This usually ended up being an hour or more because looking at all the opportunities is exciting. Once my CV, cover letter template, research statement, and teaching statement were all done and looked at by someone else, applying for jobs became pretty straightforward and didn’t take much time.

Q: Any final advice?

Alex: The job market is stressful, so plan ahead and budget your time so that you can complete all your documents in time. Look up conferences in your research area and write down the deadlines to submit an abstract. Make sure to network while at conferences and ask questions from colleagues who have been on the job market before.

Cory: The mission at this point in the game is to get noticed and secure an interview. Make your application stand out in every way possible to accomplish this goal, from having an aesthetic and accomplished CV to writing inviting and engaging research and teaching statements.

Thank you to Alex and Cory for their insight on their job search experience!

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How to Manage your Time and be Productive in Grad School

by Dr. Toyin Alli

Dr. Toyin Alli

Do you ever feel like you’re working all the time but never get anything done?  Or do you find yourself working on one task all day and neglecting your other responsibilities?  Or maybe you have so much to do that you forget what you need to get done and end up working late or waking up super early to get stuff done?

All of the above are my experiences from grad school.  I always felt like I wasn’t being productive enough to get all of my work done.  But really, it was a lack of time management skills that I was missing.

However, I quickly got my act together and found a way to manage my time more effectively and be more productive every day.  I started implementing a morning office routine that helped me to stay on track, manage my time, and be productive every single day.

And today, I’m sharing my productive office morning routine with you!  You can read all about it below or watch my YouTube video about it (also below). I even have a pdf template of my morning routine that you can use: Morning Routine.

Productive Office Morning Routine

  1. Brain dump everything you need to get done today.  The first thing I do when I get to my office is take 5 minutes to sit in silence and write down everything that I need to get done.
  2. Prioritize your to-do list.  Then I go through my list and figure out what things need to get done or started first.
  3. Determine your top 3.  Did you know that if you have more than 3 tasks on your to-do list, you are less likely to get everything done?  So I like to create a smaller priority list of 3 tasks that I need to get done first.
  4. Set time limits.  I also like to write down how much time I plan to spend on each task.  This is the time management portion of the routine. If a task takes longer than expected, you can always come back to it later after you’ve finished the remaining tasks on your priority list.
  5. Check your email.  Finally, I check my email to see if there are any other responsibilities or tasks that I need to remember to do in my day.  Warning. Never do this step first. It’s so easy to waste time in your inbox.

 

I hope that you have found this post helpful!  If you try out this routine, I want to hear about how it works for you!  DM me on Instagram @theacademicsociety_ and share your productivity wins with me!

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Requesting Letters of Recommendation

By Dr. Jennifer Austin

What to do well before requesting letters of recommendation

Change can be challenging for anyone and the transition in moving beyond an undergraduate career can be arduous for many. You can make this time easier by being proactive and planning ahead to ensure your success. In the semesters before you are at the point of requesting letters of recommendation there are a number of actionable steps you should be practicing.

First, make meaningful connections with your mathematics faculty as you will need at least three faculty members in your field of study to write letters of recommendation for you during your senior year. To write strong letters on your behalf they need to know you, how you work with others, how you work independently, and your overall potential. Be an active participant in your mathematics courses, attend office hours, ask your professors about their research, get to know your professors, and allow them to get to know you. Second, you must check in with your academic advisor and/or faculty advisior at least once a semester to see that you are taking the best mathematics coures to prepare you for your desired career or graduate school program.

Third, network, network, network. Find out if there are local chapters of the Association for Women in Mathematics (AWM), Society of Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM), and other professional mathematical societies on your campus. Join them or help found your own local chapter! Participate in your school’s math club, actuarial science club, or future mathematics teachers club. Finally, I would add that volunteering for outreach opportunities is a great way to connect with the larger community, share your knowledge, serve as a math expert, bring mathematics alive, and enhance your own communication skills.

How to request letters of recommendation for graduate school

For those of you who are grad school bound, during the summer between your junior and senior years, investigate graduate programs and compile the list of schools to which you will apply in the fall. The AMS has a great webservice to help you compare graduate programs in the mathematical sciences. In the fall, have fellow students, your school’s career services office, and your faculty advisor proofread your statement of purpose and CV. By November be prepared to request letters of recommendation from at least three faculty members (two of which should be mathematics faculty). When you request letters of recommendation, provide your letter writers with your resume, statement of purpose, an unofficial copy of your transcript, and a spreadsheet or chart listing all schools to which you are applying. When I am asked to write letters of recommendation here is a questionnaire that I request students to complete. You want to provide your letter writers similar information about you. In the spreadsheet that you provide your letter writers include the name of the school, the particular program to which you are applying, due dates, and the method of letter submission. Here is a sample of such a spreasheet.

Are you going on the job market with your undergraduate degree in mathematics?

Dr. Jennifer Austin is an Associate Professor of Instruction at The University of Texas at Austin where she serves as the Undergraduate Mathematics Faculty Advisor.

If you are going on the job market directly after earning your undergraduate degree, all the above information also applies to you as well. Moreover, networking and utilizing your on-campus career services office is of utmost importance to you throughout your undergraduate years. Your local student organizations such as math club or AWM will usually host career panels and resume workshops as part of their regular meetings. Your on-campus career services office will frequently host career fairs. Attend career panels and participate in career fairs early in your undergraduate years so that you are aware of all the potential directions in which your math degree can lead you. When you request letters of recommendation remember to provide your letter writers with a resume or CV detailing relevant extracurricular activities, employment, and experiences you have had. This is especially important if your letter writers are your professors who may only know of your academic endeavors.

 

 

 

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