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Math Picking math grad schools and postdoc placement rates

  1. Mar 24, 2009 #1
    I need some help picking which math PhD program to attend. My interests are Differential Geometry/Riemannian Geometry, geometric analysis, General Relativity (or Lorentzian geometry in general) and Mathematical Physics.

    I have been fortunate enough to receive some nice offers from a few schools and I've been waitlisted at 3 other schools, one of which is a top 10 school. I do not wish to name the schools for privacy concerns.

    (1) How important should postdoc placement rate be when determining what school to attend?

    (2) What is the most important factor in terms of getting a postdoc? One of the schools has made me an attractive offer and has a professor I really want to work with, but this professor is pretty young and has not had any PhD students. This person is considered an expert in their field however. Also, when I visited the school, I hit it off with with professor and we spoke about current math papers on his field.

    Now the top 10 school does not have exactly what I want, but it has advisers who dabble in fields related to what I want to pursue. For example they have some very good PDE people, some good mathematical physics people as well.

    (3) Related to (2), would you pick the school that gave you a fellowship, has a young adviser that is eager to work with you or would you pick the top 10 school with a TA?

    I'm just wondering what is the best path to get a good postdoc? I have researched some postdoc placements and no coincidence, most of the students got their PhD's from advisers that had multiple students.

    It seems it's better career wise for me to attend the top 10 school but it might be better for me, in terms of subject matter and support of the faculty to attend another school.

    What do you guys think? Anyone who is currently in a postdoc able to chime in?

    My goal is to land that Stanford postdoc and work with Richard Schoen or get the Columbia postdoc as they have some great geometric analysis people as well. Any good postdoc related to geometry and PDE.
  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 24, 2009 #2
    You probably have not read ZapperZ's "So you want to be a Physicist" ( https://www.physicsforums.com/showthread.php?t=240792 ) since it is not specifically about Math.

    BUT... the portion on picking a grad school and an advisor is just as relevant in Math as it is in Physics. You should read it.

    That being said here is my take:
    Picking an advisor will be the single most important step in your grad school choice. Your advisor is your connection and link to the professional world. You will likely collaborate with your advisor for many years after you leave grad school. You will most likely work for collaborators and colleagues of your advisor. The pedigree of your advisor and his professional contacts will go very far in helping you land a job.

    I have known people who had advisors in grad school that they just grew to hate. It made their years as a grad student unbearable. I have also known people who got along so well with their advisor that decades later they still collaborate with them.

    I am currently finishing up my first year as a postdoc (in physics). I am actually postdoc'ing with the same person that my advisor did his first postdoc with. It is an incestuous little group we have I suppose.
  4. Mar 24, 2009 #3


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    I can't offer any math-specific advice, but I can talk about post-doctoral work.

    (1) I wouldn't place a lot of weight on a school's current statistics for placements, since this kind of thing can change over time and your PhD project is going to be unique. I wouldn't ignore it completely either. You may want to investigate the level of collaborations each school has, the kinds of conferences that the potential advisors attend, and estimate the amount of networking opportunities you could expect, but I think this is a rather difficult thing for an undergraduate to assess.

    (2) Personally, I place far less weight on a school or supervisor's pedigree than it seems other people do. It sounds like you hit it off with a particular professor and that he is offering a project that you're really interested in. No school ranking can replace a good student-supervisor relationship. (Of course, that's not to say you won't develop the same kind of relationship at a higher ranked school).

    (3) An inexperienced advisor can be a concern, but consider these advantages:
    - as his first graduate student he will have a vested interest in seeing you do well
    - unlike supervisors with many students he will have more time to dedicate to you
    - he likely still remembers what it's like to be a student
    - most grad students ultimately report to a supervisor committee which can alleviate most issues that may arise out of supervisor inexperience
    - he may be more open to new ideas

    The disadvantages I can think of:
    - likely fewer networking contacts
    - he may not recognise it if you get off track, or may not be able to re-orient your work when you do
    - inexperience in navigating "the system"
  5. Mar 25, 2009 #4
    I have just finished reading ZapperZ physics thread and some concerns come to mind.

    (1) ZapperZ mentioned something about pedigree and how these postdoc positions are extremely competitive, so a good tie breaker is who their adviser was. I have researched enough into postdoc, potential advisers to know that there are only a handful of professors who have a large academic genealogy in my field. Other professors may have 8 - 12 students advised and still place their students in good position. Almost none come from a new adviser. I have looked up the current math postdocs at 4 or 5 of the institutions I am interested in.

    (2) It seems that choosing a graduate school has become an economic problem, not in terms of money of course but in terms of tradeoffs. Essentially the trade off is: great financial offer with lesser known advisers vs. well known advisers and TA-ships in higher than average cost of living cities. I am not at all averse to being a TA, I am currently a tutor and I like teaching, despite how frustrating it can be, but I'm wondering if I would be better served to be on fellowship my first year because my background in certain fields is spotty (I think the only reason I got into grad schools was because of my research experience and not so much my array of courses). The school that gave me a fellowship is considered a top 20 school, so it's not quite as bad as I portrayed it. But the top 10 school has very good recognition and lots of big name advisers.

    (3) How important is the quality of my thesis when determining postdoc and my overall academic career?

    Thanks for your replies. I am getting nervous because the April 15th deadline is coming up quickly.
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