Diversity in Math Research Panel Summary

(Facebook Event Link)

Date: October 25th 2021, 7:00PM – 8:30PM

Present: Sasha Bell, Gabriela Moisescu-Pareja, Ria Stevens, Shereen Elaidi, Gavin Barill, Anna Brandenberger, Maia Darmon

Getting a research position

  1. How do you know whether you want to do research?
    1. Classes are a great inspiration for this. If you are particularly in love with a class, and find that you want to go much deeper into the topics covered, this translates to asking research questions and wanting to find answers to them. 
    2. Other extracurriculars like the Directed Reading Program can also expose you to the research process. If you enjoy these extracurriculars, doing a research project is a natural extension to that. 
  2. How do you choose what field to do?
    1. It’s easy to get stressed out with “am I studying the right thing”. It’s a balancing act between liking it enough, and realising that the “perfect fit” is extremely rare. You’re going to hate your field sometimes, and like your field sometimes. That’s just how the research process is. 
    2. Be open to trying new things. Sometimes you stumble onto what you like to do with sheer dumb luck, and that’s just how life is.  
  3. How do you know which professors to reach out to?
    1. Think about what research area you might be interested in, and look at the professors’ interests on their websites. 
    2. If you’re interested in the subject matter covered in a particular class, reaching out to your professor is a wonderful idea.
    3. Be generally enthusiastic in your classes, and try to talk to your professors or instructors about your research interests. Sometimes when professors get to know your research interests, they can direct you towards their colleagues and help connect the both of you.
  4. How do you reach out to professors?
    1. If you’re an undergraduate, you absolutely do not need to have a project in mind, or an in-depth knowledge of their research. All the professor expects is that you’ve looked at a couple of their papers, to show that “when you say you have interest in my field, you actually know what I do and like it”. This also shows that you put in effort. 
    2. Talking to your professors after class about the class material or extensions of the class material is a good way to let professors know your name. 
    3. Add enough in your email such that it’s not a long story, but also make it more personal than a “mass email”. If you can replace the name at the top with some other professor and the email still works, you need to change something up. 
    4. Cold emails are generally much less effective than talking to a professor in person, whether it’s after classes or during office hours. If the professor does not know your name at all, getting them to accept you based on a cold email is not impossible, but very difficult. It also does take a significant amount of time to craft each cold email, which might not yield great returns. 
    5. You can also reach out to a professor’s grad students instead if you’re afraid of speaking to the professor themselves. This allows you to hear more about what research under that professor/in that field is like, and might also result in the graduate student recommending you to the professor. 
  5. What is rejection like when looking for research positions?
    1. Getting rejected isn’t personal. This is hard to hear, but more often than not, when you get rejected, it’s for reasons that are unrelated to you, whether it’s funding, or them already having students, or wanting to focus more on their own research. 
    2. One year, they can take in 6 students for a specific field, and the next year, they can take absolutely none. Research is just like that. 
    3. This doesn’t mean you can’t pivot into a different field. Many people in the panel had done this, and ended up liking the new field much more. Sometimes, it’s just about luck. 

What research is actually like

  1. What is your average day doing research like?
    1. Depends on the research project. The general structure is meeting with a supervisor roughly once a week, to discuss broadly about their progress and where they want to go next. In between these meetings is where you do “the work”, whether it’s reading and annotating papers, or coming up with proofs, or writing code, or writing up a report. 
    2. Research feels like you’re not doing a lot, even if you’re spending a lot of time on it. Sometimes you can “just be reading something”, and it doesn’t go anywhere. This is especially true when you’re just starting a topic. Every sentence is full of rabbit holes because you don’t understand the terminology or the context of the research field. It’s a lot of delayed gratification, where you only get the payoff when you reach the end. 
    3. It’s extremely hard to do a full 8 hour day of research. Graduate students aim for 4 hours a day, and that’s already a lot. Not counting emails, actually sitting down and doing research is difficult and mentally taxing. 
  2. How much prior knowledge did you need going into research?
    1. The biggest part of a research project is learning. You’ll be spending the first one or two months just reading papers and textbooks and discussing with your supervisors, just to learn the fundamental topics of your project. You have to enjoy the learning experience itself to enjoy research, 
    2. Generally, there’s a really big gap between what you learn in class and what is done in research papers, and professors understand that. The things that professors research are often so specific that even if you have all the prerequisites, you’ll still need to learn a lot.
    3. Don’t feel discouraged if you’re reading things and not understanding. Knowing everything is not the point of undergraduate research. Part of the professor’s job is to develop the next generation of students. When professors take on undergraduates, they’re not expecting anything novel. 
    4. If you’re interested in research, you can find a professor that gives you projects that suit you and your level of experience. Part of being a good supervisor is having the ability to know what is a “good project” that you can handle. 
  3. What do you do when you feel stuck or like you’re not making progress in your research?
    1. You’re inevitably going to get stuck. It’s not novel if you don’t get stuck. If you didn’t get stuck, you got extremely lucky that someone didn’t get your result first. 
    2. If you’re stuck, don’t keep staring at the problem. You have to know how to take breaks and let your mind rest and soak in the knowledge and the thinking. Sometimes you can suddenly get inspiration while doing other mundane things. 
    3. Talking to people is really important. Just vocalising your problem can give you new inspiration, because sometimes you just need to look at it from a different perspective. 
    4. Go on a walk or run, or just go to bed for the night. Waking up fresh makes you better at solving the problems. Sometimes you just have “one of those days” where you don’t get much done, and that’s ok. 
  4. Do you have any other general advice for research?
    1. Often papers are written very unclearly, especially if it’s not a paper your supervisor recommended. It’s not you, it’s them. You can ask your supervisor or graduate students for help. 
    2. If you get extremely stuck, it’s best to email the professor and schedule another meeting. Sometimes the problem is out of your depth, and that’s perfectly okay, especially as an undergraduate student. 
    3. Working with other research students can be more fun, because when 2 people or more are working on it, you can catch each other’s mistakes or just bounce ideas off each other. If you’re all stuck on a problem, it’s more likely that it’s something actually worth being stuck on. 

Funding

  1. How do you apply for funding?
    1. Applying for things is extremely important. There’s no harm in not getting something, so you should absolutely apply for everything that you can. The selection process is very opaque, so don’t take it personally if you don’t get an award. 
    2. Ask your letter writers far in advance. By the end of October, they should be contacted. If you know you want a letter from someone, you should go up to them in the beginning, so they know to keep an eye out for you. You’ll have to constantly remind them to get them in before the deadline too. 
    3. Get people to read your applications — no typos, etc. It makes a difference. 
    4. Some professors are cross-listed in departments, so you should ask where you would be better off to get scholarships, and apply there. 
  2. List of funding sources discussed:
    1. NSERC USRA (Canadian National Program)
      1. Need to find a professor who’s willing to do a USRA with you, and apply with that professor.
      2. Funding gets funding. If you got NSERC USRA before, you’re more likely to get it again, so the earlier you get started the better. 
    2. McGill ARIA (Arts Faculty)
    3. McGill SURA (Science Faculty)
    4. ISM Undergraduate Summer Scholarships
    5. IVADO Undergraduate Introduction to Research Scholarships (Statistics, Machine Learning, Data Science)
    6. NSF REU (American National Program)
    7. Professors can also directly fund you, if they have the resources and really want you