Home > Uncategorized > FAQ’s about my doctorate in mathematics

FAQ’s about my doctorate in mathematics

People often ask me a standard series of questions about “what I do.” I don’t know where these questions came from, but their occurrence, and even their order, is fairly predictable. I have collected them, along with my standard responses, followed by commentary, here. Caution: if you read this, asking these questions to me in a future conversation may be rendered redundant, and thus you may find yourself short on ammunition if we find ourselves in a one on one conversation. This can be awkward.

Question 1: What do you do?

Standard response: I am in graduate school. I’m getting a PhD in mathematics.

Remarks: I have fine tuned this one quite a bit over the years. if I simply say “I am in graduate school” I am immediately met with the obvious question “cool, what are you studying?” If I leave out the PhD part, I often get the question: “are you getting your masters?” to which I reply, “no, PhD.” This usually provokes some sort of awed response, “oh wow, that must be intense.” The person then often follows this with a remark about their lack of ability in math. Or, the person simply assumes I am getting a masters, which creates an awkward moment on question 5 (see below).

Question 2: A. How long do you have left? OR B. When are you going to be finished?

Standard response: I don’t know exactly. I’m hoping less than a year. I could be finished soon, or it could take me a while. It all depends on how tough my problem turns out to be–it could take another month to solve, or several years. There’s no way to tell.

Remarks: I’ll confess, I despise this question. To draw an analogy, this is bit like asking someone, immediately after they tell you their job description, “Oh that’s cool. When are you going to get a promotion?” Would you find that annoying? It makes me feel like being in graduate school is an introduction, a prelude to my real life, which will begin after I get my degree. This is often despairing, because I don’t know when I will have my degree. I don’t want to think about it like this; as far as I’m concerned, what I’m doing now is what I do. I don’t have to keep doing it, though I don’t really have much else going on for me right now. When I graduate, I’ll either do more of the same as a professor somewhere, or I’ll move on to something else. The main difference between being a graduate student and being a professor is, well, about fifty thousand dollars.

Question 3: What are you going to do when you graduate?

Standard response: Well, if I stay in academia, then probably I will teach at a university somewhere, and do research. The balance between the two depends on the appointment itself–some schools are more concerned with teaching, whereas some are more research oriented. But I may do something else entirely.

Remarks: This response is a pretty honest assessment of my situation; it basically contains all the answers I’ve given to this question over the years, which have varied depending on my state of mind in regards to getting my degree. There have been times when I’ve felt like this definitely isn’t my calling in life, and I’ve strongly considered quitting–these moments are all captured by the “I may do something else entirely” response.

Follow up to question 3: You said you might do something else entirely. What would you do instead?

Response I’d like to give: What will I do if I give up on mathematics? I don’t know. Maybe I’ll go to grad school for something else; maybe I’ll become a journalist; maybe I’ll move to Africa; maybe I’ll become a monk. Maybe I’ll just find something that pays the bills, and stay in that the rest of my life. I don’t know who decided that life is something you are supposed to have a plan for…they’ve been drilling that lie into our heads since kindergarten, and I’ve had enough of it.

Response I usually give: Uh…uh….uh.

Question 4: What do you have to do to get a PhD in math? Do you have to come up with a new equation or something?

Standard response: No, actually math isn’t really mainly about equations. It’s more like…[as I try to come up with an analogy, people often interject with their own suggestion, to which I either try to twist around enough to apply it, or frankly explain that it isn’t really like whatever they suggested]…looking for patterns or trying to solve a puzzle! Have you heard of prime numbers? Yeah, well suppose you noticed that there seem to be an endless supply of them, and wanted to show this. This is true, but how can one prove it? Mathematicians try to come up with true statements, and then prove them–or disprove them if they turn out to be false. Or we try to show something, and then make the correct statement afterwords.

Remarks: The last remark often provokes a puzzled expression. I suppose they are wondering how you can show something without first knowing what it is you are trying to show. Since I haven’t really done any original mathematics yet myself, I’m not quite sure how this goes yet either. But perhaps it is helpful to think of it like a process of exploration, after which one gives a tidy account what was discovered.

I actually like, however, the answer a student friend of mine gives to this question better: “we just make shit up.”

Question 5: How long have you been doing this?

Standard response: [Varies, depending on when the question was asked.]

Remarks: The answer to this question can be quite shocking if the person has been assuming that I am merely getting a masters degree. Please never ask a PhD student this question.

Question 6: Do you like it?

Standard response: Sometimes I like it, sometimes I hate it. It depends on my mood and prospects, at the moment.

Remarks: This question, like “how are you doing,” is one that is hard to give a sincere answer to. Giving the truth on this is painful…I usually feel like I’m lying when I answer this question.

Question 7: So when do classes start back up?

Standard response: Classes? Start?

Remarks: Although PhD programs in mathematics are, ostensibly, organized around taking classes, and this follows the standard two-semester yearly fall/spring cycle, I usually do not think of things in these terms at all. It’s more about focusing on getting the thesis done.

Question 8: So, like, do you see numbers everywhere?

Standard response: (awkward grin)

Remarks: (none)

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  1. Rob
    August 29, 2009 at 12:28 am

    Hilarious! Stop denying that you are an INTJ though. Only an INTJ could have written this.

  2. August 29, 2009 at 5:40 am

    Great post, I enjoyed it, I am also a math student and its really surprising that many people think that math is only about equations. 😦

  3. August 29, 2009 at 7:42 am

    Thanks Robert; I think you’re right about this being an INTJ production. I guess I am one at heart…

  4. August 29, 2009 at 8:12 pm

    Thanks for visiting Manjil. Where are you a student, if I might ask?

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