Reflections on Grad School – Ashwin Narayan ’16

Ashwin Narayan ’16 left Williams with a math and physics degree and found himself in graduate school with little idea of what he was doing. Somehow, he’s muddled his way into his second year of a PhD in applied math at MIT, and he’ll keep going as long as the administration lets him.  Here are his reflections on his first year in graduate school.

The realization that my first year of graduate school had ended only really hit me when I returned from vacation and had to fumble with the keys to my new (and empty) office. The “ziggurat,” a wonderful open-plan maze of cubicles and chalkboards, my home for the last year, was already occupied by the new batch of first-years. The first thought that occured to me was that I’d have to update my Tinder profile: “First year grad student pretending I know things but really subscribing to the ‘fake it til you make it’ doctrine.” As a first-year, impostor syndrome is cute and funny; as a second-year, maybe it’s worrying and sad. With qualifying exams coming up in January, maybe it’s no longer a good idea to answer, “I’m not sure yet …” when someone asks you, “So what type of math do you do?” It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the monumentality of the upcoming challenges, and reflection has always been my way to cope. It’s comforting to look back on what you once thought would be impossible but ended up being completely feasible.

Two years ago, I entered my senior year at Williams with unprecedented levels of self-confidence. The previous semester, I had thrived in Budapest, proving to myself that (a) I could survive in the real world (i.e. without a dining hall) and (b) maybe I was actually decent at math. Then there was a very productive and enjoyable REU experience over the summer which ended with tantalizing whispers of a potential publication. The next steps were obvious: write a thesis that revolutionizes the field, take some more hard classes, go to graduate school next year, draped in flying colors. Then repeat steps one and two. But of course, we remember Of Mice and Men, and this wasn’t even a particularly well-laid plan.

My first indication that I had perhaps over-simplified my future was the GRE subject test in mathematics. After years at Williams, I had forgotten that standardized multiple-choice exams existed, especially in math. I lived for partial credit. And apparently I was pretty terrible at calculus. Getting fewer than half of the questions correct on an exam ostensibly meant to evaluate my competence in the subject I majored in was already demoralizing. But then I stumbled upon this truly awful website where applicants from previous years listed their biodata and the schools they got into. Students who appeared far more qualified than me were getting rejected from schools far less selective than the ones I had set my sights on. Blog posts told me that graduate school was a waste of time unless I was absolutely certain I wanted to go into academia. How could anyone expect a liberal arts student to be absolutely certain about anything? At this point I wasn’t even certain which majors I would be finishing at Williams.

Writing statements of interest compounded the existential dread. Why did I want to go to grad school? Why applied math? What areas of math was I interested in? How was I qualified to attend this program? I couldn’t possibly use the actual answer to those questions. I wanted to go to grad school because I wasn’t ready to go into the real world and couldn’t pay for law or medical school. Applied math because it seemed the most versatile discipline and thus a way to postpone any real decision making. But because I hadn’t actually taken any applied math classes, I had no idea what areas I was actually interested in. And thus I felt in no way qualified for any of the programs I was applying to.

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Alumni Feature – Anand Hemmady ’17

Anand Hemmady ’17 majored in math because he didn’t really know what else to major in. Luckily, the math professors didn’t give him too hard of a time, so he somehow graduated.  Here are his reflections on his time at Williams.


I didn’t intend to major in math when I got to Williams. Math was something I usually enjoyed but also wasn’t very good at, which made me think I should look for something else to major in. Unfortunately, I felt similarly about every other subject, so I really had no clue what to study. I figured I would just take some math classes anyway, since I heard that the professors were great, and I knew that math would be useful no matter what I ended up majoring in.

During my first two years, when I didn’t always feel comfortable at Williams, math felt like a world where things made sense. Well, I take that back – math rarely made much sense. But I found that, with enough effort and badgering of professors during office hours, things started falling into place. You know that feeling of re-visiting something you once thought was impossible to understand, and all of a sudden it seems intuitive and natural? I got to experience that every once in a while, and those moments of understanding are my fondest academic memories. Of course, for every such moment of clarity were thousands of moments of feeling lost, but math taught me to become comfortable with not knowing things, and to keep striving for understanding. My relationship with math hasn’t changed much from when I started college. It’s still something I usually enjoy, and it’s still something I’m not very good at. Somehow, my experiences at Williams allowed me to embrace the former and make peace with the latter. After that, it felt like a no-brainer to major in math.

What really caught me by surprise was the dedication and compassion I felt from the math professors. Every professor I had held office hours more often than they needed to and went out of their way to make sure that we got the support we needed. Many also made it a point to make personal connections with us. I felt this most when I got a concussion the day before the spring semester of my senior year. All of my professors immediately told me to take my time to get better and were happy to let me turn assignments in late. As much as they cared about my math education, they cared more about my wellbeing as a person, and that’s something I really appreciate.

Looking back, I’m really thankful that I chose to major in math. I made so many close friendships, both with fellow students and professors, through the math/stats community, which became a sort of second home for me while at Williams. I guess that’s why I regret not doing more to make the community more welcoming to all. As a cisgender male, I knew that my experiences within the department weren’t representative of how everyone else felt. I regret not being a better ally. I’m a pretty shy person, and I was always scared to speak up about these sorts of issues. I did what I could while trying not to make much noise. I tried to listen to people without judging and let them know that I was there for them, and I did my best to talk less in class in order to let other people participate. I know I could have done more though. I’m still trying to understand what it means to be an ally and how to empathize from my position of privilege without being patronizing. I wish I began that process earlier in my undergraduate years.

That’s just one of the many reasons why the AWM is such an invaluable addition to the Williams math/stats community. Getting to know members of the AWM and attending one of their dinners helped me reflect on my privilege and understand the courage it took for non-cisgender males to simply exist in the math community. Everyone in the AWM is also just really, really cool, so I appreciated getting to spend more time with all of them. I hope that everyone who is interested in diversity and representation within the math community gets a chance to interact with the AWM. That being said, us cisgender males have to be mindful that the AWM is, first and foremost, a space of solidarity for individuals of other gender identities, and we must make sure that we don’t take up too much space at AWM meetings and events. I’m convinced that we can do this in a respectful and thoughtful way, and in doing so, become better allies ourselves, while maintaining the integrity of the space that the AWM provides.

To any students who are reading this, I hope you take a chance and enroll in some math courses. I hope you find them as enriching and welcoming as I did. If you don’t feel at home in the department, though, or if you ever feel uncomfortable about something, I hope you remember that spaces like the AWM are there for you, full of amazing and kind people who have gone through what you are going through, and who have made it through with their love for math (mostly) intact.

A Note About Sexual Harassment – Megumi Asada ’17

The following letter was written by Megumi Asada ’17 and distributed to all math/stat majors who graduated in 2017 during senior week. They wrote this letter to remind students of the sexual harassment that goes on in the math community that no one talks about.

Dear Math & Stat Majors in the Class of ’17,

Some of you are about to graduate completely ignorant of how toxic Williams students, particularly math students, have been towards me and many others here. Some of you might go on to careers in math, in academia, or other roles of leadership and that frightens me. It frightens me that you’ll leave here never having learned about some of the discrimination that your peers face on a regular basis.

A classmate in the math department once told me that I should contact him if I ever became homeless and ended up in sex work. I’m not making that up. This also wasn’t the most egregious of comments I received from him. Some were even more humiliating. I’ve received sexual comments from multiple math students in Bronfman and Paresky, in crowded rooms in the middle of the day. I was worried about speaking out for a while because I was worried that some of you would make excuses for my harassers or try to assassinate my character. I’ve even been too embarrassed to tell most of my friends about some of these comments. Quite frankly, I don’t care anymore. If you don’t believe me, that’s on you.

For those of you who are shocked, I have many, many other stories I’d be glad to share. I could honestly go on all day. If you’ve not heard any critical experiences of our department directly from students of color, from femme students, you have been shielded by a veil of positivity and ignorance. I’m not saying it’s wrong to have enjoyed your time here, but I hope it worries you that there are gaping holes in your perspective, in what you have seen and heard.

I’ll probably be sexually harassed again. Actually, if I continue in math, I know it will happen again. That’s something I’ve had to think about constantly when considering where to study, who to study with, and what I want to do with my future. There’s really nothing I can do about it. But there’s something you can do. If your friends start talking about other people in sexual or predatory ways, call them out on it. Yeah, it’s kind of awkward doing that. But I promise you that it’s 1,000 times more awkward to be asked for your measurements in the student center at dinnertime. You can also stop blaming people (mainly POCs) for what you might consider to be divisive rhetoric. It’s not our rhetoric that’s divisive; it’s the reality that is. This reality makes it harder for many of us to fully thrive in math communities. I hope that wherever you end up you actively combat actions that belittle and ostracize gender and racial minorities. Otherwise you will be a passive player to the harm done around you.

I hope this letter starts some much-needed conversations.


Megumi Asada ’17