Megumi Asada ’17, a former AWM officer, wrote the following post while visiting graduate schools in spring of 2017. They are currently teaching high school math through a teaching nonprofit called Blue Engine. The following year, they will be studying math at Cambridge on a Herchel Smith Fellowship. Feel free to contact them with questions!
While traveling for a grad school visit it dawned on me that most of what I’ve learned about the application/admission process for math PhD programs has been by word of mouth. It’s a stressful process with many components. Another senior from Williams mentioned how it’s a shame that those of us struggling through this mostly kept to ourselves when we could’ve suffered together.
I hope this can serve as a first (baby) step in demystifying this process for anyone who’s considering math grad school and for those who are just curious.
Sitting at the airport the day before the visiting students day was really bizarre. My imposter syndrome was on overdrive to the point where it was kind of funny. It felt as though my name would one day rise in the ranks of infamy among the other renowned large-scale con artists. There’s an art, I guess, to being a sleepy, unprepared twenty-something on your way to visit a school where you may one day get a PhD.
I was pretty nervous about my meetings with faculty. It had taken me long enough to be convinced that I could go to my Williams professors for advice. Something about being in a new space with people who work with PhD students made me feel especially unworthy of these peoples’ time. Thankfully, none of them had expected me to understand their research beforehand. Despite my efforts, reading lists of cryptic publication titles more frightened than excited me.
For most of the day I wasn’t in the best mood, as I wasn’t feeling particularly drawn to any specific research topic from my first few faculty meetings. When asked, I called myself a geometry/topology person, but this started to feel like an elaborate lie, as there’s definitely some geometry and topology out there that I don’t care for.
I got lucky with my third faculty meeting where I was introduced to a really cool problem in random matrix theory. This was weird for me because typically the word “matrix” elicits a deep visceral cringe. It was a kind reminder of what it feels like when something new just clicks and captivates you.
Afterwards I had a really nice conversation with another student from another small liberal arts college about feeling intimidated by students from large universities with accredited graduate programs. Some exchanged inside jokes amongst themselves about famous mathematicians they’ve met. For me, it served as a reminder that I’m but a potential guest in this elite, old boys club. Still, it was really nice to hear from other people who felt like they didn’t belong among the scary people.
I wish I could say that the visiting day I went to was the best thing ever, that the gods bestowed upon me all the rays of light and confidence I could wish for, but that wasn’t how things went. It was mostly stressful and overwhelming, but there were good bits and moments when friends and complete strangers took the time to affirm me and my concerns.
For now, I’ll have to remain undecided on how I’ll be spending the next few years. Wishing the best of luck to other seniors scrambling to figure out their post-graduate plans.