Graduating students applying for graduate school in Mathematics
Informal Advice

Some informal advice if you are graduating this year or next year and wish to go in the research direction. I've set up this separate page for students intending to pursue graduate research work in Mathematics but much of the general graduating advice applies here. I'd read that page first.

Are you graduating? Please fill in your intent to graduate forms. You don't want to be told in your final term that you are missing a course for graduation. You may wish to have your picture taken for those collections of photos on the hallway in the Mathematics Building. You may wish to attend the graduation ceremonies (or your parents will ask you to attend!) but remember to fill in the various applications.

Advice for those pursuing Research Graduate degrees.

For a research degree in Mathematics you probably should have prepared for this through an Honours degree. MATH 320 is a useful barometer of your preparedness. This may sound harsh but research in Mathematics is very challenging. A majors degree without a few successful honours courses is not going to be sufficient. There are other career options to explore. There are levels of graduate schools but I would imagine at least 85% would be required for UBC (75% is the minimum for admission to graduate school but there is competition) but 80% with good letters should be plenty for some schools. Since typically research graduate students are financially supported by the supervisor/University, the supervisors/schools do not wish to take risks.

Choosing a research area:
It is easier for you if you have chosen a research direction. It would help you in selecting graduate schools and programs. It would help you in writing your application. But many students switch research directions both within Mathematics but also say to Statistics or Economics or Physics or back to Mathematics. Perhaps it is much more uncommon to have a strong idea while you are an undergraduate about what area you will be working in as a graduate student and then sticking with that. So don't be too worried if you haven't made up your mind about research direction today. You will have to do so at some time (e.g. when you choose a supervisor).

Letter writers

Graduate applications will require reference letters. Typically 3 letters for graduate school. Choosing letter writers is a challenge but also remember that you need to give the letter writers time and information to compose a letter for you. You should be handing your letter writers a statement of purpose and CV, a transcript (unofficial is fine) and arrange to talk with them. Creating lists of information and deadlines for them (and addressed stamped envelopes if appropriate) is helpful even in the new world where most letters are submitted online. You may wish to send reminders of important due dates or have some way to keep track of letters they have entered on your behalf.
Choosing writers: They should know you in some non-trivial way (e.g. USRA supervisor, instructor of courses in which you did well) and be in appropriate fields. If you are applying in Math, a Physics reference may not be the best. If you are applying in a subfield of Math (which makes your application somewhat more desirable) then some of the letter writers should be from that subfield if possible. The reputation of the letter writer (typically the research reputation but could be whether the writer is known to the school you are applying to) and the strength of the comments in the letter are crucial. Some of your potential letter writers may not know you that well so that is why you help them with supplementary information as well as visiting them and talking to them in person.
Comments on the newish phenomena of a coursework masters at a prestigious school to be followed by a Ph.D. elsewhere

American Graduate Schools
If you are applying to graduate school in the US you will probably need to write the GRE exam in Math Subject area. You will have to register early in the summer. Spaces fill up and you must write early enough (about October) in order to have results for early deadlines (some as early as Dec 15 I think). Universities vary but many American schools admit graduate students by taking the best qualified in the entire applicant pool whereas in Canada funding is different and typically students get admitted based on support from a supervisor. This is not a hard and fast rule.

NSERC Scholarships (for Mathematics typically)
Of course NSERC money is for the top students. UBC may get 3 or so in Mathematics. This has a very early deadlines in the fall! Get to it! Competition is fierce but such a scholarship can make going to graduate school much easier. You won't hear from NSERC about decisions until the following April, after the first offers have gone out but Canadian schools will sit up and take notice even if you have yet to receive a decision from NSERC.
If you are applying for an NSERC, then you will need to have many things done. In 2010 students would need documents and applications online by Sept 15 (2010 deadlines) (OFFICIAL UBC transcripts, 2 letters promised) and in fact the files went for department review after Sept 22 (2010 deadline). If you are applying then you will have noted that you should not press the submit button after entering your application but seek advice. The proposal should be prepared early and much editing should be done. The proposal should sound legitimate/believable. In the context of UBC selection it is probably advisable to prepare at least some of it in plain language that could be understood by a scientist (the nature of the UBC NSERC graduate scholarship ranking committee) and also include a few references. It may not be entirely what you work at but should be as close to what you imagine you'll be doing as possible. If you are very unsure as to your future research area in Mathematics, then the proposal reflects a POSSIBLE direction for your work. Any research you have already done will carry some weight.
You will need two faculty to write letters for your NSERC.


The deadlines for graduate schools vary but typically some are as early as early December. UBC likes to see the applications by the end of January but the official deadline is a little later. If you miss a deadline you can still try but schools are under no obligation to help you.

Personal statement/research objectives

I am struck by Farzin Barekat's advice to prepare the personal statement early then think about it and edit it over time. Also adapt it to the University you are applying to. Oren Rippel also followed this procedure. Take the application process seriously!
Farzin took the view that he could propose different topics for different universities, after all getting in would be the first objective. Given uncertainties about what field he would be pursuing this was not unreasonable. But of course if you are fairly definite about area this won't make much sense.
A boastful tone doesn't appeal to me but make sure you have discussed all your skills in a positive way. For example if you have presented a talk in some seminar you might mention that in passing. If you have a hobby where you have some significant accomplishments then it is wise to mention it. Your file makes you look more human and interesting. Moreover if the file shows that you are driven/hardworking then, because this is quite an important attribute for a graduate student, your file may be taken more seriously.

I have sample files in paper form for Farzin Barekat and Oren Rippel that you can view from 2009/2010. Given the students strengths, their applications are a bit daunting but they were successful.
  • Presentation by Kevin Luk at grad session March 29, 2011 power point presentation outlining this information in student language.

    Best wishes Richard Anstee