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Graduate Student Handbook

Welcome to the Department of Mathematics!

The most important piece of information in this document: if you need any help or advice, or if you just want to talk, we are here:

  • Isabella Novik, our Graduate Program Coordinator 
  • Sarah Garner, our Director of Student Services
  • Soumik Pal, the chair of the department’s Diversity Committee

Our goal as faculty members, staff, and fellow students is to help you succeed in the program.

If you are not comfortable approaching any of us, talk to your faculty advisor, or the instructors of your graduate courses, or (if you are a TA) the instructor for your calculus course, or the GSR (Graham Gordon), or the chair (Ron Irving), etc. No matter which of us you talk to, we will do our best to help. At your request, we will also keep everything confidential. (Unless state law or university code somehow inhibits confidentiality.)

  • If you have questions or concerns, or just want to talk about, issues of diversity (of any sort: race, ethnicity, gender, disabilities, religion, etc.), the people listed above are the natural ones to talk to. (See also the department's Diversity Commitment.)
  • If you want to discuss an uncomfortable interaction (for example harassment, sexual or otherwise) with a student or faculty member, talk to the GPC or Sarah Garner.
  • If you have any concerns about a course or instructor, whether one you are taking, one for which you are a TA, or one you have heard about from someone else, talk to the GPC, Sarah Garner, or the instructor. See also the Official Department Policy on Concerns About Instruction.
  • If you would like advice about wellness or issues of mental health, either for you or for someone else, talk to the GPC or Sarah Garner.
  • In general, all of us are happy to help with any issue, even if it is not part of our official duties. Discussions with Soumik Pal do not have to be restricted to diversity issues. 

Table of contents:

Before proceeding to the rest of the document, two questions for you:

  • How else can we help? Please come talk to us about anything at all.
  • How can you help? We would like this to be a grad student handbook. What is missing? What should we add? What would you like to contribute? Contact the GPC  with suggestions.

Mental health and sexual harassment resources at UW

Mental health

  • Counseling Center. Stop by 401 Schmitz Hall to make an appointment. Counseling is free.
  • Crisis Clinic: If you are experiencing a psychological crisis and cannot wait until the counseling center is open, call the crisis clinic at 866-427-4747.
  • Mental Health Clinic at Hall Health: Services include individual counseling and therapy, crisis counseling and intervention, medication evaluation and management, group therapy and support groups, campus outreach services, mindfulness meditation, and after-hours care. Billing for these services goes through your insurance.
  • All of the above tend to focus on short-term care. Long-term mental health care is more likely to be done off-campus; if you are looking for long-term care (for example, regular meetings with a therapist) you should be able to get some advice from Hall Health, the Counseling Center, the Crisis Clinic, or a primary care physician.

Sexual harassment

Sexual harassment is defined as sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature when:

  • Submission to such conduct is made either an implicit or explicit condition of an individuals academic, work, living environment or participation in a University community.
  • Submission or rejection of such conduct is used as the basis for a decision that affects an individuals academic, work, living environment or participation in a University community.
  • The conduct is sufficiently severe, persistent or pervasive that it could reasonably be expected to create an intimidating, hostile or offensive learning or working environment, or has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individuals academic, work, living environment, or participation in a University community.
  • The UW has a sexual harassment web page. You can also contact the Health and Wellness Advocate for support at They can assist you in arranging for counseling, reporting the harassment, etc. Finally, consider reporting the harassment to the UW or the police. The above website has some information about this.

The first year

The first year in our program will challenge many students.

  • Some students will find the mathematics more difficult than what they’ve done before.
  • Some will find the pace or the workload very heavy, perhaps overwhelmingly so, especially when combined with TA duties.
  • Some are living in a new country for the first time.
  • Some will believe that they are struggling more than everyone else, doing worse than everyone else, that everyone else is sailing along without any difficulties.

Let’s address these.

  • The mathematics may indeed be more difficult than what you’ve seen before. It will only get harder as you go through the program. If it’s not hard, you’re not doing it right.
  • The pace may indeed be overwhelming and may require some new time management skills. If TA duties seem to take too much of your time, try to limit the days and hours during which you perform those duties. If one class is taking a disproportional amount of your time, is that the best way to spend that time? If you want to go into field A and you are taking core courses in field A and field B, then spending a huge amount of time on the course in field B may not be the best choice. Consider spending less time on it, settle for a grade of 3.3, and instead spend more time on the mathematics that will be more directly related to your PhD research.
  • If you are new to living in the US, this can be exciting but it can also be stressful. Our department’s graduate student population is very welcoming, so try to get to know your colleagues in the department. Talk to the International Student Services Office (https: // to see if they have suggestions. Seattle is also a big city and the UW is a big university, so there may be others who moved here from your home town, and you might want to seek them out.
  • It is okay to struggle. Math is supposed to be hard, as we already said. If you think that you are struggling more than everyone else, talk to your instructor about it. They know the material, they know what students tend to struggle with, they know what students are actually struggling with this quarter, and they can put everything in context. Maybe your struggles are just par for the course, something that almost everyone goes through, but maybe you are missing some background material, and they can suggest where to learn it.

General advice for first-year students:

  • Collaborate on homework assignments. Talk to your classmates. Different ones of you have different mathematical strengths: some know the background material really well, some are very good at making interesting connections, some excel at nailing down all of the details. You can learn something from every one of your fellow students.
  • Talk to your instructors. Go to office hours if you’re confused about something or if you’re excited about something. Chat with them at tea. Our goal as faculty members is to help you succeed in the program.
  • Go to our departmental seminars and colloquia. You may not understand much, but it is still valuable.

You should spend the summer after the first year here, studying for prelims. In the past when some students have gone away for the summer, they have tended to not do as well on prelims. The pace during the academic year can be fast, so summer is a great time to reflect on all of the material from the previous year’s core courses. Participating in the prelim prep courses helps to give structure to this reflection.

The second year

The top priority for a second-year student is to find a research direction and an advisor. (If you are not done with prelims, you also have that hanging over you.)

  • With this in mind, you should take Math 600 every quarter. If there are several faculty members you would like to get to know better, research-wise, then take Math 600 from all of them, either at the same time or sequentially.
  • Let faculty members know early on that you are looking for a thesis advisor. Then if (for example) they are going to be on leave the following year, they can let you know. If they cannot currently accept any more students, they can let you know. The earlier you know about obstacles like these, the earlier you can explore other options.
  • Each faculty member has their own advising style – how often do you meet, how much time do students spend on background before starting a research project, do you need new results before doing your general exam, etc. – and if these are important to you, you should ask about it. (Ask the faculty member directly, and if they have other students, ask them, too.)
  • Go to our departmental seminars and colloquia. You will understand more than you did in your first year.
  • If you are done with prelims, consider taking another core course, or at least one or two quarters of another core course, to expose yourself to the material. You don’t have to put full effort into the course (since you don’t need a course pass and you don’t need to learn enough to pass a prelim), and you probably shouldn’t: you should be taking Math 600 and trying to figure out who you want to work with. By the way, if you do this, let the core course instructor know the situation so they won’t be concerned if you don’t turn in all of the homework or if you don’t do well on the final exam.
  • If you are not done with prelims, having only passed one written exam, is there a core course that you haven’t taken which would fit with your research direction? If so, try to get a course pass and be done with prelims at the end of Spring quarter, so the summer is free for research-related activities like Math 600.

The research years

By the end of Winter quarter of year 3, you need to sign up with a PhD thesis advisor. After this, you will be working closely with your advisor, learning the relevant background, getting started on a research project, making some progress, writing down the results, applying for jobs, etc.

  • Talk to your fellow students about your work. Some groups of students organize student-only seminars in their areas, others don’t. If your fellow students in area X do not organize a seminar, consider starting one. You could meet for lunch once a week to talk about your work. Or just drop by your colleague’s office to talk about something you’re excited about or somewhere you’re stuck.
  • This may be harder to do, but talk to faculty other than your advisor about your work. First, they may have helpful suggestions. Second, you may want to ask for a letter of recommendation, and the more you’ve talked to them, the more informed the letter can be.
  • Go to our departmental seminars and colloquia. As your research progresses, you will get more and more out of these talks.
  • Travel to conferences. Give talks and present posters about your work. Meet experts in your field.
  • Get internships during summers. These are especially valuable if you are considering non-academic employment after you finish, but anyone can potentially benefit from this.