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Pity the math grad student.

Whatever the discipline, graduate students generally face lengthy, challenging regimens of research, coursework, teaching and exams. Often feeling overworked and underappreciated, they tend to grumble a lot, but those complaints are rarely taken seriously. It's all part of the grad-school experience they are told, a legacy handed down from one generation of scholars to the next.

In the case of mathematics, however, someone is starting to pay attention to students' concerns. In a study sponsored by the Board on Mathematical Sciences for the National Research Council, a panel of mathematicians investigated doctoral and postdoctoral programs at 10 universities to get a sense of how successfully such programs prepare students for research mathematics and other pursuits beyond graduate school. Panel members found considerable discontent and uncovered evidence that too many talented students were failing to complete their degrees. They also identified program characteristics that appeared to increase the likelihood of success.

"This experience [of conducting the study] completely changed my perspective on graduate education," says panel member Karen Uhlenbeck of the University of Texas at Austin. She discovered that her own success many years earlier in a typical graduate program was the exception rather than the rule. "In most places, students are unhappy," she notes. "The actual percentage that succeed is quite small. It's a tremendous waste of a lot of talent."

Although the panel report comes at a time when mathematicians educated in the United States have an enviable international reputation, it reflects renewed concerns about the relatively small number of U.S. citizens, especially women and members of minority groups, who manage to earn a graduate degree in mathematics. The panel recommends that mathematics departments evaluate their graduate programs to identify shortcomings, keeping in mind that the "standard model" of graduate education, aimed at training research mathematicians for academia, may not be appropriate for every institution or student.

Successful programs, the panel suggests, tend to focus on realistic missions aimed at a variety of career paths for mathematicians with graduate degrees, including employment in industry and government. They also provide positive learning environments -- for example, by encouraging group interactions instead of letting students work largely in isolation, or by providing "hands-on" experience with mathematical research early in a program.

"It sounds very simple and pretty obvious, but it often doesn't happen," says panel chairman Ronald G. Douglas of the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

"We are doing some things right; we're also doing some things wrong," Uhlenbeck says. "I'm very convinced it's worthwhile to think of creative ways to start changing things."

The National Research Council plans to publish the report, titled "Educating Mathematicians: Doctoral and Postdoctoral Study in the United States," next month.
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Author:Peterson, Ivars
Publication:Science News
Date:Jan 25, 1992
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