Want the Low-Down on Grad School?

Story posted March 10, 2010

Her graduate school tuition is waived. She receives a full living stipend. And when she's not teaching undergraduate calculus, Tracy McKay '06 is steeped in her own research on graph theory at Iowa State University.

tracy mckay
Tracy McKay '06, a doctoral candidate in mathematics, gives Bowdoin students the skinny on grad school.

The Bowdoin alumna recently returned to the College to give a talk on her thesis problem, as part of the Mathematics Department's speaker series, Career Conversations with Mathematicians. Afterwards, she met with Bowdoin mathematics students to give them the skinny about life in graduate school.

An Inside Peek at Grad School

Which Bowdoin courses were most useful in graduate school?

TM: The courses that helped me the most were Intro to Analysis, Abstract Algebra, and Combinatorics and Graph Theory. Prof. [Bill] Barker's series on geometry taught me a lot about writing proofs in a kind of fun context. Computer science courses helped a lot. One thing I wish I had done differently was to have taken Complex Analysis earlier, because it factors heavily in the GRE subject test.

I took a course in Chinese Cinema at Bowdoin that actually helped me a lot. It introduced me to that culture, which is nice, since a lot of my fellow students now are from China. One thing I didn't really consider about grad school that I really like is that about half of students in our department are international, which makes it a much cooler place to be than if everyone is all alike.

What was it like when you got there?

TM: I was worried going from Bowdoin to Iowa State that I'd get lost in the shuffle. But in general, the classes have been relatively the same size, no more than 20. I was also a little intimidated. If you talk to other undergrads who are from larger universities, they tell you all these incredible graduate-level courses they've taken and how smart and well-prepared they are. You get into grad school and you realize, yes, you do have to work very hard. But they're no better prepared than you.

What is your workload like?

TM: Three courses per semester is a pretty typical load for a grad student. My first semester, I took two core courses that were intended to prepare me for the qualifying exams. Second semester, I took three core courses, which meant I didn't do a lot outside of school. When you get past the first two years, you stop taking classes. Once you get further on, you get to teach your own courses. I actually was a TA during my first year in business math, a Web-based course. I was really the only human being the students saw. After that, I got to teach my own college Algebra course, this year I'm teaching Calculus II. After the qualifying exam, you do research on your thesis. Right now, on a good day, I usually do a little for the course I'm teaching, a little for the research-based course I'm taking, then a lot for my thesis research.

How did you find a thesis advisor?

TM: I narrowed it by area, then looked at specific research that people were doing. Also, at personality types. It's important when you choose an advisor that you don't just take the big name in the research area. This is a person you will be working with for a long time, so you need to think about what personality type will work best for you. Definitely talk to their current advisees.

What are your thoughts on a gap year?

TM: I think there's a real danger in taking a gap year of never coming back. You just get caught up in things. And even in a year you forget stuff. You have to work that much harder to come back. I do know some people in my department who took a significant amount of time off: You can come back with some real maturity and appreciation for what you're doing. As far as applying to graduate school, if you are going to take some time off, remember that you'll still need references. You should probably ask while people remember you!

What's the financial situation?

TM: It varies from school to school. When you're accepted they tell you the aid they will offer. Typically, if you've applied to the Ph.D. program, they will offer you full support—which means you won't have to pay tuition. In addition, you will also get a monthly stipend for your teaching duties. It's more than enough to live on. If you don't want to be a teaching assistant or research assistant, then you will have to pay everything. But why do that? It's like shooting yourself in the foot: The teaching portion can really come in handy when you are looking for a job when you graduate.

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