What Do Graduate Students in Math Do?


Professor Antonio Montalban (far left) and the Berkeley Connect Math mentors share the joys and challenges of going to graduate school.


As students, we can sometimes lose sight of the fact that we are surrounded by incredible resources on a daily basis. One such resource might be the people who grade our problem sets, discuss readings, and mentor us on a daily basis—our graduate student instructors. And one of their areas of expertise is the experience of being in graduate school.

With this in mind, Berkeley Connect in Math hosted a panel to discuss all aspects of a Math-focused graduate education, harnessing the collective knowledge of current grad students and professors. Together with a room full of inquisitive undergrads, they covered topics ranging from the practical (“What is involved in applying to graduate school?”) to the more abstract (“What does it mean to do original research in Math?”).

To start the panel off, Professor Antonio Montalban, Co-Director of Berkeley Connect in Math, asked what seemed like a lowball question for all the mentors: “What is graduate school?” Alex Carney, a member of the Math Graduate Student Association, started the conversation off by noting that the format of the first three years of graduate school is very similar to that of an undergraduate education, in that students are attending classes and continually deepening their knowledge of the subject. However, he added, “there will reach a point in your education when graduate studies becomes all about finding sources of information for yourself, talking to mentors and peers about their own specialties and truly becoming a family with the people in your cohort.” Alex concluded that “you really just do the fun things that interest you and none of the procedural nonsense that you have to deal with as an undergrad.” All the Berkeley Connect graduate student mentors agreed that being able to build close relationships with the people in their department was an aspect of being a graduate student that didn’t quite seem to be available to them as undergraduates.

That seemingly innocuous first question posed by Professor Montalban led to students asking about the mentors’ own personal experiences with graduate school and eventually focused the conversation on the process behind conducting research in math. “How are you expected to have original research in a subject that seems already so well studied?” a student inquired. Professor Jon Wilkening replied that once graduate students complete their second or third year, they are often surprised by how much math is a “living and changing field” and that so much of it is new. He added that “once you reach the horizon of what’s new, conducting research will feel very natural.” Co-Director Jenny Harrison added that as students venture deeper into their field, the questions that they are trying to solve might take years to prove, instead of the few minutes or hours that they might be used to from undergraduate studies. However, while frustrating at times, she promised with a smile that the “pleasures of success are so much sweeter.”

An hour of discussion passed quickly; students were encouraged to continue the conversation with their graduate student mentor. As one graduate student mentor put it: “after all, we were all in your shoes not that long ago.”


Posted by

Victoria Jing

Berkeley Connect Communications Assistant