This is the time of the year when students who have applied to graduate programs in mathematics hear back from those programs about admission and funding. If you are a student in the process of choosing a graduate program this year, one of the most important things you will do is to visit the potential graduate schools to try to determine if they are a good match for you. I can’t stress enough the importance of visiting the schools and talking to the faculty and the current graduate students there. When you visit each school, be sure to ask questions that give you the information you need to make the decision. Here are some ideas:
Do NOT ask vague questions like: Are graduate students happy here? Do students have funding for the entire time? or Are graduate students given professional support when they need it? The answers to all questions will be ‘yes’ but you will not find out about the student who are no longer in the program; you won’t find out what type of funding students have (maybe they work off campus!); and you won’t know if the support they receive is adequate. You must ask specific questions.
Ask professors (e.g. the graduate coordinator) How many students have been admitted to the PhD program in the last 3 years and how many students have received their PhDs in the last 3 years? The answer are hard numbers and you will be able to deduce the percentage of students that drop out of the PhD program.
Ask professors: What percentage of students failed the written exams each of the last 3 times they were offered? Again, this requires a specific answer that cannot disguise the reality. Regarding student academic support, you can ask professors and current graduate students: What activities do they have in place to ensure as much as possible that their students will successfully complete their PhD? You should expect an answer that include workshops for preparing for the written exams; departmental funding for students to attend conferences; professional development workshops on writing papers, collaborations, etc.; and teaching opportunities.
If you have been offered 5 years of funding, you don’t have to worry. However, if you have been offered funding for only 1 or 2 years, ask professors about the sources of funding that they currently offer their older students. Ask the graduate coordinator how many 4th and 5th year students do not have funding from the department. The goal is to find out whether students have to find their own funding in later years or if the department or their advisors find funding for them.
Ask 1st and 2nd year graduate students if they currently work in groups in their Analysis, Algebra, and Applied Math courses. This will give you an idea of the environment of the department: Is it one of cooperation or competition? Ask the older students how they went about choosing their advisor and selecting their dissertation topic. Some advisors provide thesis problems to their students and others are open to letting the students choose a topic according to their interests.
There are other important questions that one can ask, but at this point, you get the idea. Ask questions that require objective and quantitative answers so that you can get an accurate picture of the type of program it is and the environment (supportive or sink-or-swim) it provides. Readers that have additional ideas or questions, please post here as comments!