In the spring and fall 2004 semesters, the USC Department of
Mathematics introduced several new activities into its graduate program.
The Mentoring Triplets program
triples up a faculty member, senior graduate student, and new graduate
student. The three meet on an informal basis approximately once a month
to discuss mathematics, degree progress issues, teaching strategies, or
whatever else might come up. The idea is for the faculty member to
mentor both students and for the senior graduate student to mentor the
new graduate student and to help him or her integrate into the
The Tuesday Lunch Bunch
works this way. Every Tuesday, all interested faculty, graduate
students, and staff have a bring-or-buy-your-own-lunch in one of the
University's cafeterias. We use it as an informal opportunity to
discuss mathematics, teaching, students, departmental business and
politics, national politics, sports, general gossip, etc..
In August 2004, we inaugurated our Graduate Qualifying Examination Preparation Sessions,
with sessions geared toward 4 of the department's 8 exams (with plans
to expand the program to include all the exams). Each of the weekly
sessions is facilitated by a senior graduate student who is currently
assigned to be a grader for the corresponding courses this semester.
For students planning to take the exams in the current or future
semester, the sessions provide an opportunity for them to work together
on old exams, review relevant material, become familiar with the kinds
of problems that typically appear on exams, and to receive pointers on
studying and preparation skills.
As of Fall 2003, we have implemented a new weekly graduate seminar, Current Developments in Mathematics,
as a year-long, for-credit course required for all first-year graduate
students. The course is designed to expose them early on to current
research being conducted within the department as well as mathematical
research in general.
In Spring 2004, we introduced Seminar Mentoring
in the department's Analysis Seminar series. Instead of the traditional
invited speaker setting, participants of the seminar are asked to
present a research paper that is in direction of their research but has
considerable general interest (papers of great impact). The seminars
are presented by senior and junior graduate students, as well as
several faculty members. Participation of audience in form of questions
and comments from the audience is encouraged. Additionally, students
are required to ask a question at least once during every presentation.
External speakers are also invited to give a standard research talk
every three weeks or so.
Finally, the department devotes a portion of its Departmental Colloquium funds to sponsor two or three graduate students at our regular dinners in honor of the week's Colloquium speaker.
More Details about Fostering Intellectual Community
Mentoring Triplets, Tuesday Lunch Bunch for All Weapons of Math
Instruction, and Graduate Students Departmental Guests at Colloquium
Goals for Advising
primary purpose of all of these activities is to foster an intellectual
community of faculty, senior students, and junior students. The
activities provide mathematicians with opportunities for communicating
and learning the necessary skills to complete a Ph.D. program
successfully and reach their full research potential. The introduced
activities are designed to enhance different aspects of critical
thinking, promoting the sharing of knowledge and improving the research
atmosphere. They are a way of making the students feel that they are a
part of something larger than a student body that simply attends
classes, takes exams, and does research; in particular, it is an
opportunity to share in and belong to a departmental "family" and the
mathematics community as a whole. These activities give faculty,
students, and staff a chance to get know each other and to engage in
intellectual exchange in settings other than classrooms and offices.
Mohammed Ziane, Faculty: The
Department of Mathematics at USC offered a seminar class for new
graduate students. The seminar goal is to introduce students to
"research." The seminar speakers in the first three weeks were faculty
members of the mathematics department, as well as faculty from outside
departments, such as the Engineering and the Physics Department. The
seminar format consists of a biography of the faculty and historical
reasons for their choice of a research topic, followed by an overview
of their research field, collaborators, and open problems in the field,
and finally the students were strongly encouraged to ask questions. The
next couple of weeks, post-doctoral fellows at the department presented
their research, and it was followed by finishing graduate students, who
were given a chance of a friendly audience to present their thesis.
Finally, the important part of seminar consists in the active
participation of students in the seminar. This was done in the
beginning of the semester, when faculty members were asked to suggest
easy-to-read papers. The new graduate students had six weeks to study
the papers and present them in the seminar.
seminar experience was a great success. Students were very enthusiastic
and active participants of the seminar. They learned about the various
interests of faculty research.
Jessie Coe, Graduate Student: Beginning
graduate school can be an intimidating experience, especially without
any connections to one's department. The Mentoring Triples program is
one way in which the USC math department aids new students in
developing these connections. Mentoring triplets consist of a faculty
member, a senior graduate student, and an incoming graduate student,
with the goal of providing the new student with a forum in which to ask
questions about his/her program of study and receive guidance in
working towards the Ph.D goal. While I was still getting my feet wet in
the math department, my mentoring triplet met for lunch. It was
reassuring to hear both an established professor and a senior graduate
student share anecdotes about their trials and tribulations during
their respective first years of study. The knowledge that they were
once in the same position as me-- with the same concerns I was having,
and yet made it through, and could now look back on that time and
laugh--provided perspective and a much needed confidence boost, with
the added benefit of a free lunch.
Asher Shamam, graduate student:The Mentoring Triplet Idea was fully implemented department-wide during the past academic year with varying degrees of success.
personal experience has been a positive one. The mentoring triplet I
was a part of consisted of a tenured faculty member, a senior PhD
graduate student (myself), and an entering PhD student. We met for
lunch on an irregular basis, somewhat infrequently. I believe the
reason for this infrequency is that people tend to spend their lunch
with peers who are at the same place along the programs, and perhaps
more importantly peers who are from the same cultural, and or share the
same mother tongue.
However, despite the substantial cultural differences present--I am
Israeli, the entering student is German, and the faculty member is
Ukrainian-- I consider my triplet to be functional one. The basic
reason is that through the little time expended, our short informal
meetings, and even hallway interactions, a sense of belonging was
fostered for the benefit of the entering student. Tips for success in
the program were offered (to the entering student), and in addition, in
my case, exhaustive notebooks that I compiled for each of the four
screening exams were shared with the student. The screening exams pose
the first major hurtle in our program, and are probably one of the
important factors related to the attrition rate in the Doctorate
program in the USC mathematics department.
triplets were dysfunctional! That is there was no meaningful exchange
of information and very little or no interaction. This may stem from
various causes, not the least of which, is the availability of time,
cultural differences, as well as the desire or lack there of, to make
the triplet functional.
have not formally assessed the effectiveness of the mentoring triplet,
and it is not clear to me how we might do this. Perhaps one way may be
in the form of a questionnaire with some specified numerical response
range, much like a typical course or instructor evaluation
questionnaire handed out at the end of the semester.
is interesting to consider ways of improving the selection of the
triplets so that their chance of being functional is maximized.
Probably some major obstacles in this challenge are the
unpredictability of human relationship dynamics and the vast cultural
diversity that exists in most mathematics departments.
Evidence of Progress:
have been indications that some combination of the ideas implemented
has made a real difference in the success of graduate students in
recent years and enhanced the atmosphere in our department. There has
been a huge improvement in performance on screening and qualifying
exams. The attendance at colloquia, seminars and other department
events has increased, with more students and more faculty becoming
involved. This in turn encourages faculty to bring in more
distinguished speakers and enhance the overall activity and visibility
of the department. The students' participation in department activities
has increased as well.
Faculty: Francis Bonahon, Igor Kukavica, Gary Rosen, Mohammed Ziane
Email addresses: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com
Graduate Students: Jessie Coe, John Mayberry, Asher Shamam