Moving On Up: Graduate School Life After Williams, by Daniel P. Maes, Mathematics and Statistics ‘18

During my time at Williams, I was lucky to know from the beginning that I wanted to go to graduate school for something in the field of math. In high school, I had always done well in my math classes and found the content interesting, so I knew that would at least be my major at Williams. The only issue in my graduate school plan was deciding what kind of math I wanted to study. That was, until I took two courses during my sophomore spring that helped me determine that: Differential Equations with Julie Blackwood and Dynamics of Infectious Diseases with Lauren Childs (a visiting professor now at Virginia Tech). Taking an introductory differential equations course alongside another that relied on using differential equations to model real-world problems had a synergistic effect that made me fall in love with the field of applied mathematics. At the same time, I found that stats was another interest of mine, so I decided on double majoring in mathematics and statistics; both subjects helped me understand how to apply my knowledge to help the public. That year I was also fortunate enough to become a Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellow (MMUF). This program helped me better understand what a path to academia looked like, as well as providing me with research opportunities that culminated in me writing an applied math thesis—with Chad Topaz as my advisor—on developing models to help assess racial affirmative action policies in undergraduate admissions. All of these experiences helped to broaden my ideas and experiences with how we could use math and stats to help model real-world problems to in turn help drive public policy decisions.

This work all culminated with my decision to, during my senior year, apply to 15 graduate programs around the country for an applied math PhD. I was quite nervous throughout this process because I had a middle of the road GPA and my math subject GRE score was in the bottom quartile. However, the rest of my application, the help I received from the Office of Special Academic Programs (through MMUF), and my participation as an associate in the Institute for Recruitment of Teachers all helped me put together a set of applications that resulted in 4 acceptances and 2 waitlists. In fact, I was lucky enough to be accepted by my top two schools: UC-Davis and the University of Michigan. One caveat though was that Michigan admitted me into their funded master’s bridge program rather than their PhD program outright. Regardless, I took the opportunity to visit both schools and after a few weeks of tough decision-making, I chose to enroll in the funded master’s at Michigan so that I could make sure graduate school and academia was really something I wanted to do with my career.

When I first arrived at Michigan, I was not worried about the transition from rural Williamstown to a larger city since I had studied abroad at King’s College London for my junior spring. However, I was nervous about what the graduate courses would be like and how I would fair against my peers who came from universities that had curricula that allowed them to have a much broader knowledge of math than I was coming in with from a liberal arts college. Additionally, I was expected to work half time as a Graduate Student Instructor (GSI); a position where I was the primary instructor for an introductory level math course (either pre-calculus or Calculus I). This meant that I had to prepare to teach an Instruction Based Learning course of 15-18 students 3 times week for 90, hold weekly office hours, write/grade weekly quizzes, grade their weekly group homework assignment, and grade the three exams they had throughout the semester.

In my first semester, I decided to forgo any thought of research so that I could focus all of my time on the three courses I was enrolled in alongside my work as a GSI. This proved to be a great decision because I was definitely busy enough with getting used to the course work and teaching for the first time—I was never a TA or tutor while at Williams. I was happy to find that the course work was not very different at Michigan. The graduate courses I found myself in ranged from 10 to 40 students, so I was able to still get the attention I needed from my professors. The main difference I found was that in-class exams were pretty much the norm, whereas most of my upper-level math courses at Williams were take-home exams and a B and above was now only considered as a passing grade. Nonetheless, my anxiety about falling behind my peers because of my liberal arts background went away after that first semester. Additionally, Michigan provided so much support for their graduate students getting adapted to teaching for the first time. In turn, at the start of my second semester I reached out to a few professors to find a potential research advisor and ended up finding one in the Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology. I have been working in that lab since then and am currently working with my lab partner and that professor to put together a poster for me to present at the Ecological Society of America’s annual meeting and a manuscript to submit for publication to the American Naturalist. 

During my second year, I found myself cruising along happily. I was doing well in my coursework, having a great time teaching, and enjoying my research collaboration with the ecology department. Since it was the last year of the master’s, I had to get ready to go through the PhD application process again, but this time I decided on only applying to three schools: Michigan, UC-Davis, and Northwestern. Since I was enjoying my time so much at Michigan, my main goal was to stay there, but I applied to the other two schools to try my luck anyways and see what offers I would find myself with. I also decided to apply for a second time to the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP; I was denied in 2018) and to the Ford Foundation Pre-doctoral Fellowship Program (I received an honorable mention in 2018). In March, I found myself with acceptances from Michigan and UC-Davis and a denial from Northwestern. Michigan offered me up to another 5 years of guaranteed funding, with two of those years coming from a Rackham Merit Fellowship (Rackham Science Award). This alongside my positive experiences in Ann Arbor up to then helped me make the easy decision to stay in Michigan for my PhD. As for my fellowship applications, I received an honorable mention for the second time from the Ford Foundation, but was fortunate enough to receive the NSF GRFP! This meant that I would now have 5 years of fellowship funding at my disposal (if I end up needing to take that long) and that I could focus solely on research since I would not need to teach anymore.

Overall, I know that Williams helped provide me with a solid footing in my academic career that has now culminated in my current position as an NSF Graduate Research Fellow enrolled in Michigan’s Applied & Interdisciplinary Mathematics PhD program. Williams, the MATH/STAT department specifically, and Michigan have all helped provide me with the necessary opportunities and programming that undoubtedly helped me prepare well for this program and my future as an academic.

Daniel P. Maes, Mathematics and Statistics ‘18 (Current email address: [email protected])