Networking Basics for Math Undergrads

Joanne Beckford, Alex Christensen, Pamela E. Harris, Lucy Martinez, Eduardo Torres Davila, and Fabrice O. Ulysse

No matter what grades, awards, projects, skills, languages, etc. a person may have, networking is an essential skill and tool for success. It is no surprise, therefore, that networking is at the forefront of so many conversations about career opportunities. Networking, as defined in Webster’s, is the cultivation of productive relationships for employment or business. This article will share advice and tips from several students on networking in the mathematical community, and in particular, how to make sure these relationships are productive.

Office Hours

One might not expect this, but office hours are not only a place for solving homework problems. Office hours are also where the professor gets to place a face to your homework and exams, and where you get to know the professor as a person. There is a lot of potential for non-coursework related conversations; topics could range from the professor’s research, to travel stories, or even finding out you both play Nintendo Switch. This, believe it or not, is a form of networking.

If you attend office hours often, and eventually decide to ask for a letter of recommendation, the professor will not only be able to attest to your academic ability, but also to your characteristics as an individual, hence improving the quality of the letter. Whether or not you ask for a letter of recommendation, it is a good idea to send an email to your professor at the end of the semester. These thank you emails serve to demonstrate your passion you had for their class. Sending an email to the professor of the class you liked will demonstrate that you are interested and it could lead to possible opportunities such as formal and informal mentoring relationships.

Another thing to note is that the words of the letter of recommendation are not the only things that matter, the social capital of the letter writer does too, since you will be benefiting from the letter writer’s network. There are times when the people reviewing your application happen to know your letter writers, and therefore understand the importance of letter writer’s co-sign of your abilities. The following tweet illustrates this process, and this is the essence of networking, and why it works:

We should also note that in office hours, you are often not just there with the instructor. Your classmates are there as well, making it a great time to meet other students in the course. Office hours are often where study groups for classes start, so it is highly beneficial to be there. In the process of doing this, you are expanding your network in your major and among your peers. This opens doors to new opportunities as you learn more about what they are involved in, or decide to start a new project together.

Research

Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) is an NSF program that “supports active research participation by undergraduate students…” There are many REU programs at many U.S. colleges and universities in several disciplines. If you are a U.S. citizen, we highly encourage you to apply to REUs, and to as many as you can. It is not uncommon for people to apply to as many as 10 REUs! In an REU, you will have the opportunity to tackle some difficult research questions, surrounded by a bunch of people that also love the things that you are doing. You will likely gain some mentors and good friends. These relationships will allow you to start building a community outside of your home institution, i.e. expand your network. REUs have very competitive selection processes, so gaining admission signals to employers and graduate schools that you possess qualities that are the most suitable for the program. While REUs are not necessary for admission into graduate programs, they do help a great deal. After completing an REU, you will have developed research experience, presentation skills, and sometimes you will have submitted a scientific paper, each of which is a very positive addition to your application. You will also have a whole new network of people supporting you in achieving your goals. REUs also give you a stipend and assist you with housing, so money is usually not a concern. It must be noted that one typically needs at least two letters of recommendation to apply, so we will take the opportunity here to emphasize once again the importance of networking on your campus, and getting to know professors.

If you are unable to attend an REUs, getting involved in a research project at your institution is another good option. Researching at your own institution shows a level of maturity as a math student and working with a professor will help the professor get to know you better both mathematically and on a personal level. It is important, as mentioned above, that your professors at your university know you both in academics and beyond so that your future letter of recommendations are strong.

Conferences

Conferences are a fantastic place to meet students and professors from other institutions. You might even meet someone from your institution for the very first time! To attend a conference, you should always look for funding opportunities to participate in the conference, such as by giving a poster presentation or talk about any previous research you may have done. Fund. This could be from your department, the conference itself, and programs or organizations you are a member of such as McNair, LSAMP, NSBE, SHPE, SACNAS, etc. The funding can usually cover the cost of your travel, food, and lodging, so make sure you can attend the conference at little to no cost. If you don’t know where to start finding funding, ask your professors! They can point you in the right direction.

Conferences can be quite overwhelming, especially large ones such as the Joint Mathematics Meeting. It can be quite easy to remain with people that you know. However, it is essential from time to time to step out of your comfort zone. You do not have to talk to every single person at the conference. It might help to set a goal to speak to two or three people and have some questions in mind for them, especially about their research interests. These interactions will be more fluid if you are genuinely interested in these individuals. Hence, allowing you to cultivate a productive relationship quickly. Having a business card, LinkedIn page, or, better yet, a personal website to give to the person, is an easy way to exchange contact information. It is necessary to make sure you 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 network.

Grad Fairs / Job Fairs

There are conferences designed to give students opportunities to interact with faculty and students from different universities or organizations in events such as a Grad Fair/Job Fair. While you are navigating a grad fair, make sure to talk to graduate students and professors. Come prepared and be ready to ask questions. If you are unsure of what questions to ask, we refer you to the blog Bank of REU/Grad Fair Questions which contains a list of questions you may ask at a grad fair. Asking valuable questions will show that you are a mature student and that you are serious about your career. Professors will be impressed that you came prepared with important questions. As mentioned in the conferences section, bringing a business card to a grad fair is one way to promote yourself and it will set you apart from most undergraduates attending the fair. Make sure to include important information in your business card such as your website, email and home institution.

While it is overwhelming to walk in a grad fair as there are a lot of people around you, we encourage you to come out of your comfort zone. Set a goal of how many booths you want to visit and make sure to select the ones that you will potentially be applying for graduate school or maybe summer opportunities. There are a lot of students who have been recruited at grad fairs for a job or for a graduate program. Be yourself and have fun!

Summer Schools

Oftentimes, REUs give you access to only a small pool of professors; and they may not be from the institution you are visiting. For instance, attending an REU at a site, you may not necessarily interact with all the math faculty at the institution. However, attending math classes at a summer school will allow you to interact with the professors from multiple institutions as well as with local students from the hosting institution. Spending a summer at a university will give you an idea of what attending that institution might look like during the academic year.

Applications to summer schools may include filling out google forms and funding requests. Some are more involved since they are more popular. Keep in mind that attending a summer school may give you the opportunity to be invited again. Professors might notice your academic growth and they could potentially be interested in mentoring you academically.

Another benefit of attending summer schools is that they are “guided conferences.” In other words, the first week is often an instructive week to get undergrads and first year grad students up to speed with the material and theme of the program. In addition, a summer school gives you a week to adjust to the material so you can prepare questions in advance. Remember that asking questions is important. Keep in mind that if you have questions, the student next to you will more than likely have the same questions as you! Therefore, do not be afraid or shy about raising your hand to ask a question as the rest of students will also benefit from them.

The following is a list of summer schools targeted for graduate students. However, if you email the organizers, they could give you an opportunity or chance to apply for it as an undergraduate student. Note that some of these programs may not run again – these are just examples of what you can look for when searching for summer schools.

Some summer school links:

For other summer schools (and conferences) we encourage you to check out the AMS Calendar of Events.

Online Networking

Given the current circumstances, most of what was mentioned in the sections above has moved online. We encourage you to look for online opportunities. Since online programs/conferences/workshops do not require you to travel, attending them will most likely be free. During these online events, make sure you take advantage of the time by asking professors and other graduate students for their emails. If you are with the right people, they will always be happy to offer their help. Creating connections via online platforms will help you in the future because people will (at a minimum) recognize your name. Make yourself known and the opportunities may come to you via these connections.

Conclusion

As a summary, we have compiled all the sections into the following list:

  • Office Hours: Visit your professors, get to know them and send thank you emails at the end of the semester.
  • Research: Apply for REUs and make sure you find a professor at your home institution to do research with as well.
  • Conferences: Come prepared to meet mathematicians and approach them after they give a talk. Ask for their emails and make sure to follow up after.
  • Grad Fairs/Job Fairs: Have a list of questions for the booths you want to visit. Have business cards ready and talk to graduate students, math faculty, and admissions personnel.
  • Summer Schools: Search for summer schools and apply for them. Search for these programs via the AMS calendar of events and through universities and math institutes.
  • Online Networking: Meet people virtually and search for online programs/workshops/conferences. Attending them will likely be free so take advantage of these opportunities to expand your network.

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