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.)

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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 (, but there are others such as AMS (, ChronicleVitae (, and HigherEdJobs ( 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 ( 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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How to maximize career advancement of postdocs

This post is intended to be the beginning of a discussion of best practices for postdocs in order to place themselves in a good position for the next step in an academic career. I encourage mentors  and junior investigators who recently finished a postdoctoral term to chime in with additional suggestions.

Take care of unfinished work right away. New postdocs typically have some unfinished work that stems from their dissertation or other previous research. It is important to take the time to take care of any loose ends as soon as possible.  This applies especially to work that is nearly finished and should be submitted for publication right away.  Good postdoc supervisors understand and will give you the time to do this. Continue reading

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Mathematics (Combinatorics) the Colombian Way: ECCO 2018

By Andrés R. Vindas Meléndez, graduate student at the University of Kentucky

The names of many ECCO 2018 participants

“How do you do mathematics the Colombian way?”  This was the question posed by Federico Ardila at the end of the first week of the 6thEncuentro Colombiano de Combinatoria (ECCO 2018).  The question my master’s thesis advisor asked motivated me to write a reflection of ECCO 2018 as a non-Colombian attempting to answer the question. I hope that this may also serve as an invitation/motivation for anyone interested in combinatorics to participate in future ECCOs.

Two years ago, in 2016 I participated in the 5thEncuentro Colombiano de Combinatoria (ECCO 2016), an experience that changed my perspective and approach to doing mathematics and has motivated me to shape the inclusive mathematics community that I want to see. After her ECCO 2016 experience, Viviane Pons (Université Paris-Sud) wrote a wonderful blog post detailing and reflecting on many aspects of the conference. I encourage you to read the post here.

What is ECCO?

The Encuentro Colombiano de Combinatoria is a conference that runs every two years. More than a standard conference, it is a school and a gathering of mathematicians of all academic levels who bring their passion for learning and sharing combinatorics. In 2003, the first ECCO was organized by Federico Ardila as a resulting effort of his SFSU-Colombia Initiative. One goal was to build closer ties among students from Colombia, the USA, and other countries to provide a space for collaboration in person, especially for students who have limited access to such an experience. In 2016, Federico Ardila wrote an article for the Notices of the AMS, titled, “Todos Cuentan: Cultivating Diversity in Combinatorics,” where he shares more on the creation of ECCO and his approach to creating spaces for students to grow in their mathematical learning, primarily in combinatorics.

ECCO 2018

ECCO 2018 was hosted by the Universidad del Norte in Barranquilla, Colombia from June 5thto the 16thand also served as a CIMPA School.  There were over 100 participants and about half were Colombian and the other half foreigners.  This year’s theme was “Combinatorics meets Algebra, Geometry, and Optimization.”  The two weeks consisted of four minicourses, which highlighted the theme.  Two minicourses were delivered per week, one in the morning and one in the afternoon.  The first week’s minicourses were led by Günter Ziegler (FU Berlin) and Vic Reiner (Univ. of Minnesota).  For those of you familiar with polytopes, you have probably encountered Günter Ziegler’s book, “Lectures on Polytopes.”  I fanboyed as he signed my copy of the book. Günter Ziegler’s lectures presented us with extremal examples and combinatorial parameters of polytopes.  Vic Reiner delivered his lectures covering q-counting and representation theory.  The second week’s minicourses were led by Lauren Williams (Berkeley/Harvard) and Rekha Thomas (Univ. of Washington).  Lauren Williams’ lectures provided us with an introduction to total positivity and cluster algebras. Rekha Thomas’ lectures took us into the world of polynomial optimization.

The style and presentation of this ECCO was similar to the previous years, but one change was that this was the first year that Federico Ardila was not directly involved in the organizing committee.  Now organized by a committee of former participants, this change highlights the sustainability of the event and the strong foundations that Federico has laid for ECCO’s success. Many joked that Federico was like the proud grandfather sitting around watching the fruition of his efforts.

After each lecture we took a coffee break where we had some great (and incredibly hot) Colombian coffee and pastries.  Then we gathered again in the lecture hall where each day we had two graduate students or post-docs give a research talk. These students and post-docs were from institutions around the world (Chile, Colombia, Finland, Germany, Mexico, USA, etc.).  After the talks, we then split into groups and participated in exercise sessions where we worked on problems related to the content of the minicourses that day. Each week also had a plenary talk and a session on open problems.  The first week we had the pleasure of hearing from Mauricio Velasco (Universdad de los Andes) and the second week we were honored to have Sara Billey (Univ. of Washington). Viviane Pons and her team also led a SageMath tutorial per week. A new addition to ECCO was a poster session, where many undergraduate and graduate students (including myself), presented their work. The conference ended with a panel, which I had the pleasure of participating in, where motivations, struggles, and social issues within mathematics were discussed.

Math the Colombian Way

Panel (Left to Right): Carolina Benedetti (moderator), Sebastian Sierra (undergraduate from Colombia), Gretter Dominguez (faculty from Cuba), Andrés R. Vindas Meléndez and Federico Ardila

We often hear of the French, German, American, or Hungarian way of approaching mathematics, but how do you do mathematics the Colombian way?  Home to Federico and many of the ECCO organizers, Colombia now has a strong combinatorics presence.  The Colombian approach to doing mathematics (combinatorics), as I see it, places a strong emphasis in community building.  To many mathematicians it is clear that mathematics is a collaborative effort, but there is more than just collaboration to building a community. In building a community, there needs to be a sense of friendship and accountability.  That sense of friendship and accountability allows everyone to actively participate in mathematics in a comfortable setting, without a fear of mistakes and also acknowledges that as a group there is no success if any person is left without understanding the mathematics occurring.

At the beginning of ECCO, participants were asked to read and share their thoughts of the Community Agreement.  By laying down the expectations of respect, we assured one another that this would be a rewarding and welcoming experience for all.  Many of the things on the Community Agreement seem like “common sense,” but as present times have shown us, common sense is not so common.  Many participants shared that the Community Agreement set mental expectations and reduced any anxiety they may have had in realizing interactions with other participants.

Salsa Dancing! Rekha Thomas, Federico Ardila, Lauren Williams, Andrés R. Vindas Meléndez

Part of the community building was also not in the classroom, rather it was centered around music and the dancefloor.  The introduction of dance to a professional setting, such as a mathematics conference, may seem strange to many, but it is engrained in the Colombian way of mathematics.  Dancing tears down the hierarchy and power dynamics that we often see in mathematics classrooms and conferences. At ECCO we had leading researchers seeing participants struggle with mathematical concepts, but we also had those participants see the leading mathematicians skirmish to learn some salsa moves on the dancefloor.  Indeed, dancing with each other allowed for everyone to foster an inclusive and lively environment, as well as a cultural understanding of our host country and its people. The dancefloor was a space where many participants who were unfamiliar with the dances and music of Colombia soon were cheered on and supported by the local students to the point where there was a feeling of security. This spirit of support transferred to the conference, especially for the problem sessions.

At ECCO, the participants solidify their understanding of the concepts presented during the lectures by working on exercises that were written by the minicourse instructors.  During the problem sessions, the groups consisted of participants from all levels, normally a professor/post-doc, a graduate student, and several undergraduates. Many of the problems were challenging yet rewarding once the groups worked together to reach a solution.  As with many approaches to learning mathematical concepts, by working on complex problems there is a building of perseverance and reflection.  The exercises were mathematically meaningful, but what is noteworthy is that all group members played an active role in reaching a solution and understanding of the concepts.  I observed that the more experienced mathematicians went directly to thinking about the abstraction of the problems, where the younger students emphasized a more concrete approach to exemplify the theory occurring in the problem, of course both ways of thinking are valuable.  An overarching outcome from every problem session is that everyone can engage, be excited about, and contribute to mathematics.  After working on the problems for an hour or so, volunteers presented their group’s solutions.  Here we saw wonders of how working in a supportive environment can contribute to mathematical understanding beyond what we have been exposed to. For example, we had students who had never had Abstract Algebra presenting deep results from Representation Theory. Experiences like these are a result from the wonderful exposition of the minicourse instructors, but also the patience and guidance of the more mathematically experienced group members.

Another aspect of the Colombian approach towards mathematics is the celebration of all successes and contributions, no matter how big or small.  During the panel, one of the panelists joked that we clapped for everything to the point where it became second nature to clap after someone spoke.  In spaces like ECCO, every participant had a role of being a motivator.  By clapping after a solution was presented, after a lecture or research talk was delivered, we encouraged one another to be the best mathematician we can be, while showing our support and attention.

The Colombian approach, as I have interpreted it, may not seem all too different compared to other approaches towards doing mathematics. But I can assure you that when we have all done our best to build a community that is equally professional, welcoming, inclusive, and excited about mathematics we can see our potential as mathematicians and can observe that mathematics can provide a life that is both academically and socially fulfilling.

The last day of ECCO 2018


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Reflections of a first year postdoc

By Luis Sordo Vieira

I recently heard Dr. Rochelle Gutierrez talk on “Rehumanizing mathematics: A vision for the future” at IPAM during the Latinxs in Math conference. So before I begin on my reflections, I want to include a picture of me, a human being, and not just a set of words that might or might not make sense, such as we often find in math papers.

Luis Sordo Vieira and Ivy

I am Luis Sordo Vieira, a Latino postdoc at UConn Health Center for Quantitative Medicine using mathematics for my profession. I am much more than a mathematician.  This is my doggie Ivy; my other dog Glenn (named after Canadian pianist Glenn Gould) would not pose for the picture. So he doesn’t make an appearance.  Below, is my best friend and wife, Sarah Sordo Vieira, M.A. in mathematics too. She went to grad school and decided that a PhD in mathematics was not for her and she is my favorite mathematician.

Sarah Sordo Vieira

I just finished my first year as a postdoctoral fellow at UConn Health in the Center for Quantitative Medicine, so I have had the privilege of living through my undergraduate and graduate years and a whole year as a postdoc. Before I forget how difficult grad school is (very difficult), let me share some of the most important lessons that I have encountered in my (yet academically inexperienced) career so far. I wish I had such a set of notes early in my grad school career and that several faculty members had read these notes as well, to get an idea of what grad students struggle with. These notes come without any sense of authority and, as is all advice, it is to be taken at your own risk!

Almost everything that you succeed at looks easy in retrospect.

Of course, this does not mean that it was. I got so angry when I would hear situations such as:

  1.  Graduate student John tells undergraduate Stacey “Undergraduate is nothing compared to graduate school.”
  2. Post-quals grad student Donald tells the first-year terrorized student Marcos that writing a thesis is much harder than quals.
  3. Early faculty Michelle trying to get tenure tells poor graduate student Robert that graduate school is some of the most fun years of your academic career, and nothing compared to the difficulties of pre-tenure.

These insensitive comments are more harmful than helpful. They degrade the difficulties of others and enable the sense of not belonging. These comments are extremely harmful to underrepresented groups.  We all have our own struggles.

We are defined by our failures as academics just as much by our success.

This year, I heard from a status quo successful and well-established professor that scientists endure more failures than enjoy success. In this case, this professor is a “successful” mathematician and a wonderful mentor and person, but this is not always the case with every mathematician we consider successful.  I wish I would have heard this earlier in grad school! Keep in mind this is a professor with several prestigious awards, publications, grants, etc. so I naturally asked him what he was talking about. He told me about some of his grants; several of his grants were given to him after more than three tries! Keep in mind that grants can take months to produce and think about. In retrospect (see point 1), this seems obvious. If you talk to many older mathematicians in academia, they will tell you they applied for the NSF Career award two or three times and never got it, or they submitted a paper 50 times before it got accepted. I failed my first qual in algebra! I think you get my point.  Which brings a key point here: A CV is a cleaned-up version of someone’s academic career. It only shows (what we consider) success. Keep that in mind when you decide it is a good idea to compare yourself to others (it never is).

Take your mental and physical health seriously in graduate school and academia. 

Perhaps it is easier to think of the importance of maintaining your physical health in grad school. The impression I got early from my undergraduate years and early graduate school is that a lot of graduate school is about suffering and we seem to be OK with this as a community. This is so wrong, and if you don’t believe me, read this article on the mental toll grad-school takes on students. I would not be too surprised if this extends to later in life in academia, although I do not know. This is a very serious issue and not something to just say “it’s normal in grad school.” NO. It is not normal to be depressed or feel severe anxiety.  Keep a check on your mental health. Have fun in graduate school! Keep a hobby and don’t let your personal life fall behind. If you need it, go to the counseling center. Seeking help when you need it is a strength, not a weakness; as cliche as that might sound, it is absolutely true. Never, ever hide your wonderful personality to try to fit in. It is not worth it.

Find a mentor(s). Be a mentor. 

Dr. Pamela E. Harris

Dr. Pamela E. Harris

This might be your academic advisor (hopefully this is the case, but it is not always, sadly). I was privileged to have a good academic advisor, mentor and friend, David B. Leep. Maybe your academic advisor is not a mentor. Regardless, it’s never a bad idea to have several mentors. For me, I was very lucky to find several people outside of my institution that I could always go to for advice, such as my good friend, theorem-proving machine, fellow dog-lover, and Mexican friend (to the right), Dr. Pamela Harris. She is an incredible mathematician that takes no nonsense from me. More impressive than her stellar CV is her willingness to stand up for what is right, regardless of how uncomfortable it might be. That includes when I say something insensitive or stupid, as we all do. (Picture is courtesy of my dear friend Pam.) 

Dr. David Murrugarra

Mentors might even lead you (unintentionally, I think…) into a whole different field from your focus in graduate school. They will open a set of doors that you might not have even known existed.

For me, that was my other local mentor at the University of Kentucky, where I earned my PhD. Dr. Murrugarra somehow convinced me that biology is super cool and mathematical. He is a good friend of mine, and I still come often to him for advice on navigating academic nonsense, such as reviews that make no sense, the ten million-journals out there, and the grant-writing landscape. He also gives me good advice on good Peruvian food and where I can get a good Pisco Sour. (The great picture on the left is courtesy of my friend David.)

Pay it back. Find an undergrad in your institution and tell them your experiences. I bet you have plenty of things to contribute (keep in mind point 1!)

A plea to the academic community. 

My last point is that we please reconsider what a successful mathematician is. Coming into grad school for a PhD, realizing it’s not for you, and leaving with a master degree is not a failure. Finishing an REU and realizing research is terrible and you never want to do it again is not a failure. Let us redefine a mathematician to encompass our fellow academes in math-ed. Math-ed is just as important for the math community as number theory. Stop using terms such as number-crunchers for scientists and industry workers applying mathematics to their respective careers. Let us stop considering mathematics as the ultimate science. Let us celebrate diversity in mathematics. I like the progress we are making here in the math community, but we still have a long way to go. A mathematician comes in all different shades, shapes, sexual orientations, sex, physical abilities, national origins, and length of hair (if I miss something, I apologize). We still have a long way to go.  In the biomedical sciences, there was recently an uproar about celebrating the birthday of James Watson, highlighting the importance of what we consider to be a successful scientist. It’s worth thinking about.

What do you consider to be a successful mathematician?

Posted in General, Going to graduate school, Graduate School, postdocs, Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Reflections on the 2018 Latinx in Mathematics Conference

This is a guest post from Emilia Alvarez, an amazing undergraduate student at Concordia University.

I’ve had a few days to think about my experience at the 2018 Latinx in the Mathematical Sciences Conference, and in sharing my thoughts, I hope to convey two things. The first is deep gratitude for the organizers and participants who created a comfortable and diverse community environment that fostered respect and growth, and even ended with me learning to salsa dance! The second thing I wish to convey is an urgency of just how important this type of event is, how beneficial it is, and why I would encourage students to seek out, participate, and even help organize more of these kinds of events.

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