Computer Sciences (Math Pre-Grad Intern) Senior Justin Hilburn
Before I enrolled in the IE Pre-Grad internship I knew I was going to graduate school, I just didn't know what for. I enrolled in UT as a computer science major and I was fortunate enough to be in the Turing Scholars program. Therefore there was never any question about who to talk to or what to do if I wanted to go to graduate school for computer science. (Un)fortunately, at the end of my sophomore year I realized that that my interests were largely theoretical and I might be happier as a mathematician.
When I started taking classes in the math department I felt like a fish out of water. I didn't know any of the students, there were no social events, and there was certainly no one to ask for career advice. As I took more math classes I realized that my mathematical interests were broader than I had imagined.
The one thing that most helped me find a home in the mathematics department was the establishment of the Undergraduate Math Club. Every week a professor or grad student would come and give an expository lecture to an audience of about twenty interested students. At one meeting Brian Katz gave a talk on groups their relation to chemistry. Afterwards we chatted for a while about mathematics and he told me he was doing work in algebraic geometry. This was fortuitous for a number of reasons. My main research interested in computer science was programming language design and mathematical logic and I had just found a book called "Sheaves in Geometry and Logic" on the deep connections between logic and algebraic geometry. Unfortunately I had been unable to parse it because I didn't have any knowledge of algebraic geometry.
Brian said he didn't know anything about the specific area I was interested but he would be happy to do a reading course Hartshorne's "Algebraic Geometry" (which has a reputation of being a particularly difficult book) to help me acquire the background. I also decided to enroll in graduate classes in algebra, differential topology, and programming languages. Brian warned me that I was taking on too much, but I assured him I could handle it. I had taken graduate classes in the computer science department before and I figured the two in the math department wouldn't be too different.
I was wrong. Unlike computer science grad classes, the introductory math grad classes are meant to prepare you to pass a rigorous set of pre-lim exams by the end of your second year. At first I was able to handle the workload, but it wasn't too long until I was overwhelmed.
Because all of my classes had assignments had deadlines I spent most of my time working on homework for my grad classes and almost no time working on my self paced reading course (other than one heroic effort during spring break). My weekly meetings with Brian steadily became less and less productive. Fortunately, he was very understanding about the whole thing and kept the I-told-you-sos to a minimum.
Despite the bleak picture I have painted of my experience, I am very glad that I had the opportunity to participate in the internship. Most students do not get a dry run at what their first year of grad school would be like. Even though I did not do as well as I had hoped, I learned many valuable lessons. First of all I learned that it is more beneficial to pick a few things and do them well than to try and do everything at once. More importantly I learned that my time management skills are going to require a major overhaul if I am going to succeed in grad school.
Another benefit of the internship is that I got to meet all the grad students in my classes. It is interesting (in an anthropological study sort of way) to watch other students go through the stressful process of adapting to graduate school without being in graduate school yourself. More importantly it is great to be surrounded by people who are truly interested in what they are doing. I have also found out about a number of interesting seminars and talks. For example I went to a talk on quantum computation, topological quantum field theory, and knots given by one of classmates from algebra.
Most importantly this internship has given me the opportunity to get much closer to my professors. In particular and Eric Allen, Mike Starbird, and Dan Knopf. This summer I am actually working for Dr. Allen on the implementation of the type checker for the Fortress programming language. He was also able to point me to the schools with the strongest programming languages groups. Dr. Starbird gave me lots of advice about teaching and whether to pursue a degree in math or computer science. I had a really great conversation with Dr. Knopf about grad school, the purpose of pre-lims, and being a good teacher. I am also really grateful to J Moore who pointed out that British computer science departments are better integrated with their math departments and sent an email to his colleagues in the UK to find out which departments would be a good fit for someone with my interests.
Now that the internship is over I have made some decisions about what I want to do in the future. First of all I want to try to do a research project on quantum computation next year, because I don't think I can make a reasoned choice on graduate school without trying my hand at research. Because of the lessons I learned this year about spreading myself too thin and the fact that I will only need a language credit and one math course to graduate my math degree (I will get my computer science degree this summer), I plan to enroll part time and spend all of my free time on research. Then I can compare how much I enjoyed that experience to how much I enjoy working at Sun this summer to make an informed decision on whether industry or academia is right for me. My experience this semester also convinced me that working for an organization like Teach for America for a few years before applying to graduate school would not be career suicide. I have always been interested in math education and I feel that would be a chance to put my money where my mouth is.
I'm very grateful that I got to have this opportunity to learn more about myself and discover whether grad school is right for me. Regardless of whether I decide to pursue a career in academia or not I am certain that my experiences this semester will help me succeed.