DiM Research Panel PART I – Students (Winter 2023)


1. Introductions: Name, Pronouns, Program+Year
  • April: currently 1st yr of MSc. Stats&CS McGill undergrad
    • Undergrad research with Adrian Vetta about fair algorithm design in game theory (SURA)
  • Antoine: currently 2nd yr undergrad in Honours Math
    • USRA with Eyal Goren in Algebra and Number Theory. Ramanujen graphs and generalisation
  • Sophia: last year in Honours Prob and Stats
    • SURA in probability and Numerics about Monte Carlo integration
  • Jean: did undergrad in Stats&CS, masters in Stats, currently a consultant
    • Research on max linear models in undergrad; masters on scaling climate fields. Also Prof. Fung in data mining research in undergrad

Getting into Research

2. Why did you get into research in general/your particular topic of interest?
  • April:
    • Didn’t like CS courses,
    • Inspired by Algorithm Design and reached out to prof.
    • Initially rejected because prof had no room, but asked prof what was needed to do research, she did it in the next year, then he accepted her the following year.
  • Antoine:
    • Knew some number theory
    • Was taking algebra with Prof. Goren and asked him if he had space because Goren teaches the number theory course. He stated his interest and background. Lots of back and forth on project selection, eventually settled on something
  • Sophia:
    • Prof in a course said if people are interested in the topic and get an A, to reach out at the end of the course. She did!
    • Prof and his wife are both math profs, jointly supervised the summer project.
    • She ended up liking the other prof’s research better and applied to be a masters student with her .
  • Jean:
    • Reached out to prof in CEGEP, he told him to get more background, so in 2nd year undergraduate he reached out again and got a position!
    • He also took GLM with Neslehova, a small but very difficult class and participated a lot (sat in front row), and worked very hard. At the end of the course, he asked if she was taking students, she said no, but one semester later she had space for him! They did research, and then she took him as a graduate student after!
  • Takeaways from intros:
    • You don’t need to know much to start. If you’re interested in a topic, try to take at least 1 course with the professor you are interested in, especially if the course is related to their research area. Often Analysis1 (and 2) are good starts (for mathematical maturity), but really any theoretical math course is good.
    • Reach out to professors soon (January/February). No strict deadline, but they often want to apply to funding (which are also prestigious awards) so earlier is better. COMP400 / MATH 470 / MATH 410 and other research courses are ways to do research without needing to win a research funding award (and can be done in summer)
    • Communication is key! Persistence, show interest, take feedback, don’t be discouraged
    • For NSERC/SURA, you need a professor already in order to apply. Priority is given to U2/3 (final year students). SURA is open to international students in science, ARIA for arts, NSERC for Canadians. Go to an information session even if you don’t have a project yet!
    • U0 is too early, focus on learning and taking classes
3. How heavy of a workload is it to do research during the fall/winter semester?
  • Not super intensive for MATH410/470.
  • It’s a different sort of work than coursework, more intense if there is a conference publication deadline
4. How did you “prepare” before reaching out to professors?
  • At least have some very basic knowledge of the topic, to show genuine interest.
  • If you don’t know enough to understand anything, maybe you need to google more, maybe you need more coursework, maybe reach out and ask! But no point in applying if you can’t understand enough to be interested
5. How much does GPA matter?
  • For NSERC/SURA: varies by year, CS might be less competitive? Don’t stress too much about this, strive to have good grades but they aren’t everything!
  • Canadian masters students get paid!
  • Profs really don’t care much, it’s more important to show interest
6. How late is too late to do a research project?
  • Literally never, people can go to grad school with no experience and also many switch topics
  • Advice is to try to do summer before last year of undergrad. Often difficult to do it before (but don’t let that stop you from trying)
7. What’s it like doing math full-time?
  • Masters: you sometimes do 8 hours of math a day, but it’s not bad! You talk to people and it is fun if you like the project! You may burn out a bit but Masters are short/intense. Often more fun than a standard 8hr workday. You are also TA-ing and taking courses and having meetings. You aren’t literally doing math purely for 8hr straight
  • Summer research: don’t usually do a whole 8h work per day, often much less (way more chill!).
  • A lot of time is also spent discussing and learning adjacent topics.
8. How do you know if you’ll actually like research?
  • It can be hard to tell! You probably just need to try it out
  • For finding topics, look into it on your own a bit. If you like it enough to read about it on your own, chances are you’ll like it enough to do a research project. The time commitment for a semester/summer is much less than a graduate degree, so not a huge waste if you dislike it
  • Summer research is a good middle ground for a shorter term commitment than semester/year
  • Sometimes a project grows on you! It gets more fun and interesting after the beginning
  • Enjoy the process, even if the project isn’t ideal, it can still be interesting and you can learn a lot!
  • Professor makes a huge difference! Communication/fit/style is a big factor in how much you’ll enjoy the research, even more than the topic.
9. How do you know when a prof is taking students?
  • Best way is to just reach out to them (email). You can even ask during Office Hours if you are in their course.
  • Some profs will list on their websites. Most don’t update their websites though
  • ALSO COME TO OUR EVENT ON FEB 2nd where you can ask profs these questions
10. What is DRP? How is it different from research? How do they relate?
  • DRP is not original work, it is a reading course with a graduate student. You get to deeply understand some concepts (you and your mentor will choose). Research is more original work, developing new things or generalising existing
  • They complement each other, they are different styles of learning / researching.
  • A great way to test out if you’ll like research / a topic! If you do, it’s also a great way to prepare more advanced knowledge for a research project later on
  • DRP is meant to help bridge the gap between courses and beginning research, they don’t consider GPA in applications. They open in November and take place during winter semester https://www.math.mcgill.ca/gsams/drp/ 
11. What if you get stuck on your project?
  • It’s ok if you don’t get results! In math especially, it’s kind of normal, especially for undergrad research.  Sometimes even for masters research!
  • Getting stuck you often take a break / read something else / bring it up at meetings with prof
12. How much does GPA matter for grad school?
  • Once you have a prof, basically not at all (don’t fail tho). It’s more about knowing the material and relationship with the prof
  • Matters way less than SURA/NSERC
13. How to know if a supervisor is a good fit?
  • Personality fit and working style is important. Easier to tell after taking course with them
  • E.g. April likes rigid schedule, so a prof with organised deadlines in a course is more likely to be a good fit than one who is lax
  • Profs who like to mentor students (as opposed to just publishing a paper) are usually good! They want you to learn and help you beyond the project
  • Some profs will not give you a specific problem and will let you figure it out (e.g. for Antoine with Prof Goren). But this may not be everyone’s style
  • Overall this is a subjective thing but very important to figure out for yourself
14. Collaborative research?
  • Doing research with someone else helps because you can talk and get unstuck. Communication is super important
  • Easier socially not to be lost by yourself, but you also learn a lot when this happens
  • Research in a group where individuals have different projects but you can “rubber duck” ask questions even though they can’t answer, it’s helpful to try and describe and troubleshoot to someone else
  • Regular research presentations (to a research group) help with learning communication and getting unstuck. SImilar to above point where they don’t know specifics but know general area
15. What does math research actually entail?
  • There are regular meetings; it is up to you to figure out what work style is best for you to get your work done before the meeting deadlines.
  • In the beginning (esp for summer), it is a lot of reading and exploration! Write up what you learned / did every week even if not super productive, just to have something to show and feel good and present on
  • Finding relevant papers and trying to read and understand them
  • Weekly presentations are super common! Figuring out how to summarise and present it. Having updates, whether something is working or not, what you’ve tried, what are your obstacles, what are your next steps.
  • Usually no hard deadlines, profs sometimes will say “read this / run these experiments by the next meeting”
16. MATH470
  • In honours math, required. Don’t worry too much until the end of 2nd year. Profs know that many students need to do these projects
17. Final advice / what you enjoyed:
  • With enough time, you can understand almost anything! It’s about spending time and determination
  • Communicating math is hard, practice before meetings if you get anxious!
  • Finding the right question is hard, finding good research directions can be confusing (there’s a lot of math out there!). Depending on the prof, there may not be a lot of guidance on this. Research lets you learn how to set reasonable achievable goals
  • You’ll realise just how much you don’t understand, and research lets you get comfortable with that and realise it is ok! You are not alone
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