Math Pre-Grad Intern Vladimir Coxall
My IE Pre-Grad internship experience was an interesting and informative one to say the least. The main focus of my internship was to learn more and prepare for graduate school as I plan to apply right after I complete my undergraduate degree in mathematics. I have attended talks given by graduate students and been to sessions highlighting steps of entering graduate school but I felt that I still was drawing a blank when I tried to visualize a complete picture of the world I would be entering a year from now.
Considering the academics of graduate school, one of the most surprising things to find out was that coursework is not as important as in undergraduate years. A typical graduate school course load is two or three courses but they are more in-depth and specialized to the area of study. For example, my mentor Richelle Thomas is taking a course in Transport Phenomena since her field of research deals with understanding how the body moves and reacts to different substances. Unlike undergraduates there are not as many varied course requirements to pass like having a certain number of hours in history and government or learning a foreign languages. Moreover, the crux of the focus is on the research. I would say that this possibly the greatest contrast between undergraduate and graduate school. After four years of guided learning, students form a solid basis of the field that they are interested in. When doing research in graduate school, you are in uncharted territory so to speak. Researching means answering questions that probably no one knows the answers to and making innovations along the way. It is a self exploration of your field of study and also a chance for the graduate student to wrestle with new problems contributing to the field as a scientist.
Let's backtrack for a minute though and explore how one actually makes the transition from undergraduate to graduate school. The very first thing to do is to locate faculty at different universities whose research interests you and find out more about it. Either email, call or visit them personally to speak with them about their research. In some cases, the university will pay for you to fly to their campus and often times most large universities have an open house for graduate students. Some important things to keep in mind are 1) How does the professor treat their graduate students? Speaking to the grad students at the universities can be a great help in getting a clearer picture. Also what is the professor's style? Is it very detailed and hands on where you have to report back to them often or are they more laid back and leave you to your own devices. Since graduate school is such a large time commitment, it is important that not only the research and professor be a good fit but also the university as a whole and the city surrounding it. One should keep in mind the weather and size of the city, as well as the size and resources of the university. Is it in a small town where there is much to do, or placed within a large, bustling urban metropolis? Coming up with a good criterion for possible graduate schools is necessary because the fees associated with applying can quickly add up. In addition to locating possible schools, not surprisingly you also have to take a standardized test - the GRE or Graduate Readiness Exam. The GRE is similar to the SAT's in the fact that it is meant to test a general knowledge of fundamental concepts across a variety of subjects - verbal, mathematics, et cetera. However, depending on the university, you may also be required to take GRE Subject Tests which go more in depth into specific subjects i.e. the Mathematics Subject Test covers all the different areas of math learned up to the college level so from algebra and geometry, including calculus and up to things like partial differential equations and abstract algebraic structures. Besides research interests and test scores, schools and particularly the faculty want to gain a better perspective of the applicants so you must also submit a personal statement or a statement of intent, laying out your goals, and motivations for enrolling in graduate school, pursuing that field of study and particularly why you wish to research with that particular professor.
The final piece of the puzzle about graduate school for me was learning what students do in their downtime. A significant portion of their time is spent studying, researching and attending class but since it is more intensive, do they have the free time that we undergraduates do? The answer I uncovered was a simple one. Graduate students are people too, they want to spend time with their friends and have fun too. They participate in a wide variety of activities like intramural teams, professional organizations and nonprofessional organizations. My mentor for example is an active member of the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) since her time as an undergraduate where she has served as president, and been on the regional executive boards. She is also a member of the Black Graduate Student Association.
My IE internship has been an invaluable experience in helping to prepare me for graduate school. By participating in it, I was able to get a clear picture of graduate school, starting from how to make the transition as an undergraduate to daily life in grad school. Some of what I learned was surprising and some not so surprising. Overall though, I learned how to further my ambitions as a mathematician and what the road ahead will be like. I gained a network of people with whom I can solicit information and experience and also was able to attend a national conference for a professional organization I am a part of. The internship exposed me to new things and helped me to answer questions I had, a good preparation for life after undergraduate years.