Advice for beginning AIM PhD Students

  1. Familiarize yourself with the requirements for the AIM Ph.D. program by clicking around our website. In the first 1-2 years there are a few main tasks. The most pressing is to pass two of the three AIM QR Examinations during the three attempts in the first 13 months. The material covers prerequisites for the AIM core courses and some material from the core courses themselves (e.g.  MATH 555, MATH 571). The problems range from straightforward to tricky. Try not to get discouraged if it takes two or three attempts to pass. The exams are not a great predictor of your abilities at research–many of the students who needed three tries ended up writing excellent theses. As with most exams, there is a good amount of randomness in the problem topics. Luck plays a role, but, “The harder I try (or study), the luckier I am.” Once you pass, life is less stressful, and you can move on to more enjoyable things.
  2. Another main task at the beginning is coursework. Most students take 3 regular courses per term, though you can consider dropping down to 2 if you are teaching and are getting overwhelmed. Most students start with the AIM core courses in semesters 1 and 2 and shift more towards cognates and more advanced courses in semesters 2 – 4. However, there is flexibility. Most grades in graduate courses are As and Bs; you need at least a B for the course to count towards the degree. Doing well could impress a potential thesis advisor, though advisors vary in how much they care about grades. Our courses cover the main areas of applied mathematics broadly and this is probably the last chance you’ll have to learn these topics thoroughly. Having a solid foundation gives you more options later on for research topics and possible careers in academia, industry, national labs, etc.
  3. Remember that you are also adjusting to teaching! Three demanding courses of your own is often too much for students teaching a new course (most of the students in their first term). Therefore it’s a good idea to have at least one of the three be something you’ve learned some of in the past. It’s a good idea to attempt three courses and consider dropping down to 2 during the term if you are teaching and are having a hard time keeping up with the coursework.
  4. In the winter term of the first year you should start thinking about summer research plans and potential advisors. The summer is about 16 weeks long, and without courses and teaching it’s a key time to move forward towards your thesis research–yes, already in the first summer, which starts at the end of April. You will want to spend most of the first summer doing research and studying for any remaining QR exams. However, it’s also important to schedule some breaks and vacations so you are feeling restored by the beginning of the second year.
  5. Between teaching, coursework, the QR exams, the AIM seminar course, AIM seminar, and ethics course, not to mention adjusting to Ann Arbor, the first year is quite busy. Getting a Ph.D. is like running a long distance race–it’s important to pace yourself and try not to get exhausted early on. One way you can manage this is to choose a course load that is manageable. Another is to resist the inclination we all have towards perfectionism, and yet another is to have a schedule each week that includes time for breaks, downtime, relaxation, exercise, plenty of sleep, and good nutrition. There are a lot of mandatory tasks in the first year, but sometimes you can politely say no to things. Seeing things in terms of reaching your larger goals for graduate school–some of which are probably completing a thesis, finding a job after graduation, and beginning to grow your professional network–can help you prioritize.