Sunday November 14th

The Maths Commune and Other Thoughts

I had a really unfortunate incident

  • For those of you who know me, I’m often incredibly busy. There are lots of people I just may never have the ability to grant a response (even though I try, and I’m sorry! I might find time to do this over break). This recruiting season has been really hectic for me, and it led to my deciding not to pursue some really great opportunities. I’m going to be a bit more specific and explain what I mean by that; what I’m saying is that on paper, these opportunities seemed really great, and I’m sure lots of people would love to be contacted by these companies, but this season, I was looking specifically for how the companies treated candidates, and I have to say that even (or especially) on some of the more prestigious opportunities, it’s been disappointing. I’m writing this because I hope it will get better, but who knows.
  • I came into the recruitment season thinking about how I could begin to value myself more, because I started out by turning down a return offer. So this meant that I came from a place of power, rather than a place of “begging” (hoping?) for an opportunity (a first for me). And that really informed how I began to think about what companies had to offer, and how I might be a fit. And I wish that more candidates would see that they are bringing something to the table too; they’re not just begging for a chance to be a part of insert large corp name.
  • In fact, to be honest, it is frustrating to a PhD student when recruiters approach PhD student recruiting in this way, like PhD students are begging for a gig at large corp. This isn’t ego-driven; it is because for many PhD students, their choice to forego making money (especially in CS!) and have these academic pursuits says something about their character; they aren’t driven by money or the prestige of your tech company name; they’re driven by problems-in-research opportunities. And I think that there is a gap with respect to this for University recruiters. A handful of recruiters got this, and those places immediately made me fall in love with their culture, company mission and the people. Of course, there are students who come out of PhDs saying “I hate research”, and I do have quite a few friends like this, but they will always be explicit about this.
  • I also tried as best as I could to give some recruiters feedback about what I thought about their process. Certainly, as a PhD student, I think recruiters should be a bit more cognizant of the fact that PhD students don’t need to do an internship unless they aren’t being paid a stipend for the full-year. This should inform the way they recruit PhD students. My best experience of this in the past has been with the recruitment at PLDI in 2018; the companies set up booths and showed what they had to offer that might intellectually interest students (prospective and current PhDs), showing them the kinds of problems that the company does, etc. One company in particular (that was later acquired by a larger company, that was acquired by a larger company haha a lisp!) probably had one of the most compelling hiring strategies; they were actively working out problems at their booth when I met them, and they were so fun and interesting that I was fascinated by what their company had to offer, and we struck up a conversation.
  • I’m not sure how this can be done other than a terrible process at larger companies where they pick students (which also goes horribly wrong because they just pick name school and choose students from there, which is a terrible way to do this because inbreeding), but something like an environment for my proposed Pure Maths commune might work. Unless there is a need for money by specific students, PhD students will gravitate towards companies with intersting problems or colleagues that they respect moreso than the company name.

A what?

  • I’ve been thinking about how much I’ve loved my grad school time lately. I don’t want to over-analyze it, but one of the things I’ve been thinking about is a space where people can take a break and just do Pure Maths and hang out with other mathematicians whenever they’d like. I really like the culture of the pure Mathematicians, and strangely realize I’ve hung out with a lot of them throughout my life without knowing it, and that there is kind of this need for a space where persons can think deeply and make friendships and take a break from everything. There are spaces like MSRI and ICERM that exist for this, but there is a need for funding and that can be super-competitive, and it’s still within the bounds of Academia. So it would be really cool to have a space where people built polytopes (like the hexayurts of Mars College), where there are blackboards everywhere and people could just do proofs and things like that. But I’m not about to start a cult, I swear. I’m just looking for a space away from a lot of this nonsense of rank, prestige, financial judgment as moral judgment. And there would be no oglibation to do research or anything like that, too.
  • I like the format of Mars College, as well, which is to have persons talk about problems, or work together in groups and teach each other. So persons leave with a cross-pollination of ideas and inspiration, regardless of what institutions (or not) they came from.
  • This week, I was so in shock that one of the PhD Mathematics students, in my extremal graph theory seminar, turned to me and said “isn’t it n choose h as an upper bound?”, as though he was working out the question in his head while speaking with me, that I shook my head and said “I don’t know I don’t know”. And he repeated it, and I finally thought for a bit and said “that makes sense”, and understood what he was saying, as he explained his thought process to the rest of our group, too. I realized afterwards that I had been so used to not being asked and valued as someone whose technical expertise mattered, that I was in shock that these students did value my intelligence, and what I had to contribute. Could you imagine if there was a giant space like that, where people could expect that you, too, could contribute, without first wanting to find out “which school are you from” or “what major are you?”. I’ve unexpectedly found that, and in my deepest of dreams I wished everyone could experience that. After years of being a technical person in filmmaking, and being constantly nudged aside or ignored by recruiters at booths at tradeshows. Or overhearing that “she isn’t serious” because I didn’t start programming when I was 10. Or being used as a prop so someone could get an ego trip because “she probably doesn’t know anything, or isn’t technical at all”; (yes, while I’m standing there, as though I can’t hear you!). To be seen. As one of my Pure Maths professors says; she likes persons with enthusiasm because they tend to be the persons who push through problems and eventually get very good at them. Imagine giving people the opportunity to succeed and achieve their goals. Imagine that in space where everyone is treated with dignity and respect, and given an opportunity to fail, learn, and improve and “git good”.
  • One of the wonderful things that I’ve enjoyed about working with Mathematicians, and working with chalk and blackboards, is that they really do work away at a problem, and push its limits, in a length of time that (unfortunately) many Computer Science persons might have long given up on. They can sit with a question for hours, or come back in weeks, or change their entire thoughts about the contraints of a problem with one new detail. And I think that that’s lovely. If anything, in the same way that I really think languages like Haskell or C++ help you to spend time on and invest in learning, I really am enjoying that you have to sit with and wrestle with problems in this space and take the time to think deeply. You have to be patient. Sometimes in my workshops, there will just be silence, and everyone is just looking, thinking about the problem. There is no need to speak, or to give up in frustration. Just to think. I think especially today, spaces and opportunities like that are super important.
  • There are some places that kind of do this for Computer Science, but eventually, they either become clouded by the issue of rank and prestige, and I’m not sure how to make sure to democratize those kinds of issues. So it becomes a mark of privilege to say you “got in” or whatever, which I think is a bit silly. I’ve enjoyed my time in grad school this past year so much just because it’s been a bunch of people who just really find joy in Pure Mathematics, and there is a culture of helping and engaging with others in a non-judgmental way. And problems are done for the joy of working on them.
  • Also; blackboards and chalk. I don’t think I ever want to see a white board ever again. Tablets are cool, and I might get one, and mathematicians really seem to like them. Blackboards and chalk are best, though. I swear; I tear up after each lecture on a chalk board. It’s so beautiful!
  • So based on this model, it looks like I might have to work on myself first, though, because monetization. Or I could find a way to fund it, but that puts things in the hands of your funders, which isn’t ideal. And there is no way this is going to turn into some insert Silicon Valley hackerspace name that ends up being a cleaned-up, corporate leg of FAANG. No thanks. The first thing they’d want is to take away the chalk and the blackboards! sadface.

You sound like a theoretician

  • I was having a conversation with a mentor (tenured Professor at institution) and they said, out of the blue, “you know, you sound like you might be a theoretician”. Until then, I hadn’t really thought about it, but it might actually be true. I’m still processing this, and I feel trolled by grad school. It’s felt like I somehow crawled from being very applied to finding out I really enjoy theoretical stuff. That’s really funny. My first hint should have been that in my mathematical cryptography class, I found myself staying up until 4am and then getting up at 7am to work on things. And when I was talking to some people who said they had projects for me for internships that seemed very applied, my thoughts would start drifting. Often I would feel like, I guess this is kind of cool and I would do it, I guess, and there’s money I guess, but I wasn’t super excited. A PhD really does teach you a lot about who you are.

This week

  • So this week, I’m heading into Thanksgiving break. I have some cleaning to do, since I’m probably going to be gone this Christmas break. As a grad student, it often feels like you’re swimming from one break to the next, so I often don’t know what’s going on in the world until there is a break.
  • I’ve found myself lately procrastinating on everything else in favour of studying Abstract Algebra stuff, which is funny (and unfortunate).
  • If I didn’t do your thing, unfortunately this semester it’s probably because at some point in time, I opted to do Pure Maths things instead, and I’m sorry and that makes me a bad person (sorry!). I’ve been making excuses for not getting other tasks done, but making time at all hours for Abstract Algebra instead. As my programming languages researcher friend once told me “I too like useless things”. And I’ve committed to working through a Real Algebra book during Christmas break. I get to pick classes for next semester this week, too! I am so gloriously happy!
  • My time so far has been so enjoyable, I’ve seriously been considering going back to do a Master’s in Pure Mathematics somewhere afterwards, but everyone else around me says that’s a bit unnecessary. However, right now, if I can delay dealing with the curse of bad recruiters, then how is that a bad thing? Perhaps the right opportunity might convince me otherwise.


  • I have a bunch of work to do, and I have the goal of finishing it so that I can do more Abstract Algebra (haha).
  • Some topics this week: Splitting fields and Galois Theory, Rainbow-free graphs (learned about folded cubes and broom tree graphs, caterpillar graphs).
  • Oh, I ended up signing up for classes next semester. So far, I’m taking Fields and Ring Theory, Random Probabilistic Graphs and Elliptic Curves. I am ecstatic. Oh, and I’m sitting in on a Number Theory course, and I’ve even been offered that I can sit in on a Topology course, too, because they’re all so nice! I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy ever in grad school, or in life! I can’t wait! Grad school is ah-mazing! does a fancy dance.

And that’s it

Written on November 14, 2021