For the Love of Math: Demystifying Graduate School


On the top floor of Evans Hall, overlooking a stunning view of the Bay Area, Berkeley Connect students recently met with a panel of graduate students in Mathematics. Grad students Elan Bechor, Maria Martinez, Kevin O’Neill, and Morgan Weiler were joined by Professors Thomas Scanlon and Jenny Harrison, the faculty directors of Berkeley Connect in Math. Undergraduate students were able to ask this knowledgeable group about the ins and outs of attending grad school.

First off, a student asked the panel, “What do you do on a day-to-day basis as a grad student?” Bechor was honest about it. “I do a lot of reading papers and banging my head against a wall trying to prove something,” he said. However, despite its difficulties, he continued, “The thrill of math research is trying out an idea that actually works. That’s always really exciting.”

Graduate school certainly doesn’t sound like a walk in the park, but the grad students had some words of encouragement to offer. Although the readings can be difficult to understand, and concepts difficult to prove, Weiler explained, “You get to pick what problems you want to work on.” This way, your graduate research experience is tailored to your individual interests. O’Neill also brought up the fact that grad students have a faculty advisor to help them select their research focus, making the process easier.

Professor Harrison also had some inspiring words to share. Despite the difficulty of research, she said, “Math is very alive and developing. We’re all interested in finding new things, so it’s worth all the sweat and loss of sleep when you find something.” She recalled a piece of advice a mentor gave her once: “You have to have 17 ideas before you find one that’s right.” She continued, “Knowing this gave me the freedom to be wrong.” This was a very valuable tip for the undergraduates to consider – the process of doing research in math becomes a lot less stressful when you stop fearing being wrong. It’s okay to fail, because that’s the best way to learn.

Another student asked about how to get into graduate school. “Letters of recommendation are the most important,” advised Bechor. “They often make or break your application, so be sure to build relationships with your professors.” Other members of the panel brought up the importance of getting good grades and good scores on the GRE, a standardized test that is an admission requirement for most schools.

Despite the stresses that come with graduate school, these math grad students were all happy with their decision to attend. When it comes down to it, they love math – and that’s why they’re doing this. As Professor Scanlon put it, “It’s beautiful to see how the equations work out. Math is an art.”

Posted by Madeline Wells, Berkeley Connect Communications Assistant

Comment to “For the Love of Math: Demystifying Graduate School

  1. Really really helpful post. We help students who are aspiring to study Maths at university in the UK.

    “You have to have 17 ideas before you find one that’s right.”
    Although you may have meant this more in terms on research, I’m going to show this article to my students. There is such a reluctance to actually “think” or to makes mistakes when problem solving – students just want to be shown how to get the right answer the first time round, and so they aren’t developing their problem solving skills or mathematical resilience..

    Do you ever tutor undergrad students and find the same thing?

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