Careers in Mathematics: Graduate School Advising Guide
Steps in Applying for Grad School
First step: read the pamphlet Preparing for Graduate School prepared by Kari Dueball, Assistant Director of Graduate Studies in the MSCS Department at UIC. Dueball's advice is based on many years of handling graduate admissions, mentoring graduate students, and advising UIC undergraduates.
Next, you should sign up for the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) -- both the General Exam, and most likely also the Math Subject Exam. Admission to most graduate programs in based in part on your GRE scores, some schools more than others. Some schools require the Subject Exam, others do not. However, an excellent score on the Subject Exam is always useful information to provide to the admissions committee, whether required or not. The results of your exams should be submitted by the application deadlines, or not long afterwards. These deadlines are typically anywhere from December 15 to January 15, for admission beginning the following August. The web site for the GRE is here: www.ets.org/gre/
The GRE Exams are given at several locations in the Chicago area, including on the UIC campus. Often available seats for the exams are limited, so sign up as soon as possible. For example, there is an exam given at UIC on November 8, 2008.
Admission to graduate programs is typically based on three factors: your courses and grades as an undergraduate; your GRE scores; and what can be the most important, letters of recommendation from faculty. This latter requirement may scare some or many undergraduates, especially if you are in classes where the Instructor for the class always "seems to be busy". Most Professors are always "busy", but many are happy to make time to discuss your graduate plans, and will do what they can to help you in the application process, including write a supporting letter.
First, there is a distinction to be made. At UIC, we have four types of course Instructors - Professors, Visiting Research Professors, Lecturers, and Graduate Students. As you take courses with higher level, your classes are more likely to be taught by a Professor, either tenured or visiting. By your senior year, you should have had courses from at least several Professors. The reason for pointing out this distinction, is that tenured faculty are more experienced at writing letters of recommendation, and hopefully can do the best job. Visiting faculty are often young researchers, pursuing their research interests in one of the fields of strength in our department. They also know how to write a letter of recommendation, although they may not have had the opportunity so often. Lecturers in our department may, or may not, be research mathematicians, and correspondingly may not be well-known in the math community. Finally, graduate students are still students, and are probably not the best resource for writing your recommendation letters. The point is that the admissions committee at the schools you apply for will take into consideration not just what your recommendation letters say, but also who wrote them.
Given all that, who do you ask to write your letters of recommendation? First, it should be someone who knows you, and your abilities as a student. If a faculty member writes a letter in support of you based just on your grade in some course, there is not much to say. Much better and easier for a faculty member, is to write a letter in support of a student who you have interacted with, whether it be about problems in some course, or questions you may have had about math, or just in general. So, get to know your Professors! Make an effort to talk with them. Ours is a wonderfully diverse faculty in the MSCS Department, with many research interests, and also widely diverse personal interests. Busy though faculty may seem, interrupt them to talk about your future career in Math!
The Math Club, Putnam Team and even the Friday Teas provide excellent opportunities for meeting faculty, so they know you are when it comes time to apply for graduate schools, as well as other jobs you may consider.
In any case, arrange for three letters of recommendation from faculty who you feel will say something positive in support of your application. Dueball's guidelines discusses the where-all of getting these letters, after you have decided whom to ask.
Who Pays? Can I get A Fellowship?
When applying for graduate admission in Mathematics, you can also realistically hope to be offered a Teaching Assistantship. Read on to learn more...