Beyond Courses, Dissertations, and Exams

connecting my math graduate school experience and career

Posted by Steven Clontz on April 24, 2023

On April 25 I’m giving a talk at Auburn University’s Department of Mathematics and Statistics graduate student seminar. My alma mater invited me to share about my experiences in grad school, and how it prepared me for my academic career.

I’m writing the below in a bit more generality, in case it’s maybe useful for other graduate students looking ahead to life after the defense.

Note: it’s looking like I won’t have time to complete this post before my talk, so I’ll finish writing everything up as soon as I can this week.

The basic stuff

I arrived at Auburn in 2004 as a freshman, and left with my PhD in 2015. This is not a strategy I usually advise, but between my personal and academic interests, I think it wasn’t unreasonable for my own situation.

While in graduate school, I kept a 4.0 GPA. I think this has been mentioned exactly once ever since in a professional setting. Completing courses is obviously important, and I’m sure the respect I earned from my faculty mentors corollated with these good grades, but I do regret the stress I put on myself at times worrying about them along the way.

While a Master’s student (originally both in math and math education, though I quickly dropped the latter) I completed the three preliminary exams required of PhD students: topology, graph theory, and complex analysis. I knew I wanted to study topology or graph theory, so choosing those was easy. I don’t remember why I picked complex for the third (maybe purely based on scheduling), but I do remember having to relearn most of it five or so years later when I was assigned to teach an undergraduate section at South.

When I was a graduate student, “topology” meant “set theoretic topology and maybe some continuum theory” to me. I’m not sure that’s a perspective that’s even possible almost anywhere besides Auburn. While most researchers I’ve met seem to view first-semester graduate topology as the details you slog through so you can enjoy the geometric/algebraic/low-dimensional stuff, I loved the word puzzles and technicalities and counterexamples one needs to dream up to define a $T_2$ but not regular space, and Auburn has some great faculty working in this space. It wasn’t until I was looking at the job market that I realized how niche my area of focus was. I’m not sure if knowing this earlier would have changed my mind at the time, but I definitely tell this upfront to graduate students who want work with me at South. I’ve mentored one Master’s student and co-authored a nice paper with them, but they now are in a PhD program studying graph theory at UC Denver.

Ultimately (and perhaps expectedly), my dissertation, directed by Gary Gruenhage, was by far the most important artifact of my required activities as a graduate student. As one does, I spent two or three years playing it out into a handful of my initial publications. I remember being quite nervous about how I’d advance my scholarship without having my regular meetings with Gary. It took me longer than it should have to figure out the trick: you probably won’t be very productive working without mentors or collaborators. While I had lots of friends and collaborators (on non-research projects) during graduate school, I wish that part of my graduate experience involved working directly with other students on research, so I could have learned earlier how to work with colleagues rather than just my major professor.

The extra stuff

While there’s no way I could have paid my own way through graduate school, being a graduate teaching assistant / instructor isn’t strictly required to earn your PhD. That said, developing myself as an educator was at least as important as developing my research program. I’m at an R2 university where TT/tenured faculty generally have a 50-40-10 split: 50% teaching, 40% research, and 10% service. So while there’s theoretically an equal balance of research and teaching, the quality of my work in the classroom is way more obvious to my colleagues and supervisors than my research.

So if you want to be a professor, don’t sleep on the importance of being a good instructor! Generally PhD graduates do not move laterally in their careers, so graduating from a state school R1 means you’re more likely to end up at a teaching-focused small liberal arts college than a research-focused university. And thinking of my own institution, while your in-person interview for a tenure-track position may focus mostly on your research, you won’t get that interview without evidence on paper that you’ll be able to manage our 9+6 credit hour annual teaching load with primarily non-math STEM majors. So reach out now to your institution’s Center for Teaching and Learning to find what support they offer graduate students, and look for professional development opportunities such as workshops and conferences that can help you enhance your classroom skillset.

Since I arrived at South, I’ve deliberately not stepped up to run for Faculty Senate. Which is admittedly a bit selfish (and now that I have the security of tenure, I should reevaluate that decision). But I picked up on the importance of governance within academia as a graduate student, because I served as a department Senator, and later President of Auburn’s Graduate Student Council. Beauracracy is a reality of any non-trivial organization, and that goes double for a university. And while I haven’t run for office, I have made a point to develop working relationships with several administrators across various units on campus, which has been quite useful in finding solutions to problems related to some of my more unique scholarly projects.

I mentioned that 10% service, but I can promise you that in terms of actual time, I spend more than 4 hours a week on it. Service encompasses a wide variety of activities, but some of the most fulfilling are related to outreach. I was spoiled at Auburn due to the excellent staff of COSAM Outreach: as a faculty member I have to handle all aspects of an outreach event, but as a graduate student I could focus on the mathematical activities themselves, while COSAM Outreach handled the logistics. So take time to volunteer with outreach events, and learn how to connect general audiences with mathematics, before you’re also responsible for arranging the parking passes and catering.

The wacky stuff

In this section I’m going to dive into a couple major projects I took on during graduate school that probably generalize poorly to others. But I mention them because while it was unclear how they’d impact my future career, as we’ll see, they did. So don’t avoid the wacky stuff: enjoy your hobbies, and don’t be afraid to pick up a side hustle. You never know how they might pay out down the road…

When I was a graduate student, I was fortunate that Eric Harshbarger was still organizing his annual “Puzzle Parties”. These games are akin to a city-wide escape room: teams of players would tackle dozens of puzzles in as many hours, each solving to a location hidden across campus.. (TODO: Puzzlehunts and AMP’d)

TODO: Teloga, LLC

TODO: What’s happening now?


pi-Base and AIM Workshop

MaPP, AMS Notices