MathOverflow is a question and answer site for professional mathematicians. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

Not sure how to tag this one so feel free to edit and add tags.

When I initially started graduate school my choice for an area of study was quite nebulous. I had only figured out enough to know that I wanted to do some work involving a lot of category theory. So when I applied to schools I figured I could find some interesting topic to work on since almost anything involves category theory. Now I'm a bit more mature and I have a much better perspective and a much better idea of what I would like to do. My question then is how do I go about finding an adviser working in an area I would like to specialize in and if this person is not at my current school what are my possible courses of action?

share|cite|improve this question
up vote 13 down vote accepted

I strongly recommend finding a good advisor (someone who you get along with, who has compatible understanding of how hands-on the advisor will be, who will keep you funded, who can get you a postdoc, who actually wants a student etc.) over choosing a particular subfield. There's too little correlation between what you learn about a subject as a starting graduate student and what it's like to do research in that field for you to make decisions on that basis. That said, it's reasonable to narrow your search to broad fields (say "I want to do algebra") because that still allows a huge range of subfields to work in. As long as your tastes are reasonably broad (and if they're not you should work on broadening them) you and your advisor should be able to find something that interests you both for you to work on no matter what your advisor's particular speciality.

share|cite|improve this answer

Also, I'd be very careful about being sure one knows what one wants to work on. It may seem like that now, but a lot of people do a lot of bouncing around in grad school, keep an open mind, and remember that almost everyone drifts a little bit in their area of specialty. Having an advisor who doesn't do exactly what you want to, even if you do your thesis on their kind of stuff, doesn't mean you'll have to do that forever.

share|cite|improve this answer
Certainly, it's not like I've not thought about this but starting to work in analysis and stochastic equations will make it much harder to move to another area like model theory and logic since the fields are pretty far apart. – davidk01 Dec 1 '09 at 16:24
Are analysis and stochastic equations your only options? – Ben Webster Dec 1 '09 at 17:25
@davidk01: Probably for every subfield of mathematics X, there is a subfield Y such that starting to work in X will make it harder to move to Y. True, some subfields are more "central," but that doesn't necessarily make them a better choice for you. If you love stochastic equations, then go for it! – John Goodrick Dec 1 '09 at 19:08
@Ben: No, I was just trying to demonstrate that I have thought about work I am semi-interested in. – davidk01 Dec 1 '09 at 21:50
@John: Of course, I would prefer to work on something I find exciting, central or not. It's just it seems to me that the choice of adviser and thesis topic is more constricting than I would like it to be and I think I'm just really delaying the inevitable fact that at some point I must specialize. – davidk01 Dec 1 '09 at 21:52

Here is some advice that my department wrote some years ago for our undergraduate math majors that might be relevant. It takes a rather extreme stance, but this was done purposely to provide counterpoint to the advice usually given to Ph.D. students in math:

Choosing a Ph.D. program or advisor

share|cite|improve this answer
The website you link to was unresponsive when I tried to follow the link. – Alison Miller Dec 3 '09 at 3:48
Yes, unfortunately it appears to be down. – Deane Yang Dec 3 '09 at 15:06
Interesting but not the kind of advice I was looking for. – davidk01 Dec 3 '09 at 15:48

One thing to keep in mind is that if there is no one at your school, you can often either have a local advisor and an advisor elsewhere, just an advisor elsewhere, or have a local advisor who will sign things while you're really talking to someone else.

As far as finding an advisor at your school, go to talks! Professors (at least here at U. Penn) give talks fairly regularly about what they're working on, and if they aren't, you can often email them to ask if they can talk to you about what they do, and then if what they do is like what you're interested in, you can talk to them about being your advisor. Another way to do it is to talk to professors who've taught classes that you've taken, and try to do a reading course with them.

share|cite|improve this answer
Thanks, I wasn't sure about the local-elsewhere advisor setup. I'm guessing it is not very common. Are professors resistant to such a setup or are they in general ok with it? – davidk01 Dec 1 '09 at 16:15
I am quite curious about how the local-elsewhere advisor setup could work. If your advisor is quite far away from where you are, then how can the supervising process work? – Ho Chung Siu Dec 1 '09 at 16:19
I'm not doing it, so I can't go into much detail. Everyone I know who has done it has their elsewhere advisor at a nearby school (in particular, the main example I'm thinking of was in Boston, and so were both of his advisors, just at different schools). As for how resistant profs may be, I would assume it varies wildly from prof to prof. – Charles Siegel Dec 1 '09 at 16:43
It also helps to have two schools in very close proximity; I'm guessing the example Charlie is thinking of involves people at Harvard and MIT, which are about two miles apart. – Michael Lugo Dec 1 '09 at 17:04
These days, with the telephone, email, and skype, you can definitely work with a remote advisor, if you don't need constant guidance. My recommendation is to start by establishing email contact and asking for informal guidance ("what should I read if I want to learn...") from someone appropriate. If you develop a good rapport, then you can ask if that person will be your advisor. The most successful example that I know of this is Curt McMullen, who was a graduate student at Harvard, but somehow became a student of Dennis Sullivan, who had joint positions at IHES and CUNY at the time. – Deane Yang Dec 1 '09 at 17:05

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.