Feeling intimidated by math

If you knew me in high school or undergrad, this wouldn’t have been something you’d expect that I’d talk about. You might even have tried to explain to me how you had felt intimidated in some math class, and thought that I couldn’t possibly understand. Well, I think I’ve met my match here in grad school, at the research level.

This thought struck me a couple of weeks ago while I was sitting in a seminar organized by my advisor and three other professors. Two of them were discussing some problem, referencing results by memory from papers they both knew in the literature, and I was completely lost. I began to feel like I was wasting my time being there, I would never be able to discuss anything like that, and why was I even trying to get better at this whole grad school thing if I had no chance of becoming a professor…

If you’ve been to grad school, in math or probably most other fields, this story is probably one you have experienced time and again. I remember one grad student telling me several years ago that you spend undergrad learning more and more things, but grad school realizing just how little you know. At the time, I thought this was just a humble admission, like being impressed with the work of others that you understood, not like feeling completely helpless because you don’t even know where to begin to be able to think like that.

Like that. This is where I caught myself. What am I doing comparing myself to others again? Besides, a part of me spoke, you’re comparing your present self as a grad student with less than two years experience in this field to their present selves as professors with a decade or more experience. And have you ever looked back a year, let alone five or six years, on yourself? You’ll change in ways that you don’t ever imagine.

So I continued going to the seminar. Most of the time, I’m still lost. But one week near the end, one of the professors mentioned a topic that I recognized. He talked about a recent paper that I had actually read last semester for the little reading half-class that I took, which none of these professors happened to be involved with. I had presented that paper before the seminar, literally the only classwork I did last semester.

So I woke up (sadly, almost literally) when he mentioned that problem, and how he’d be very interested if we could improve a particular technique on this problem. I noted it and the next time I saw him a couple days later, asked him more about the details. I also talked about it with my advisor, and now it looks like the three of us and a couple more are going to meet up to talk about the problem later this week. Exciting!

This side project is still just in its infancy, but I wanted to share this story with anyone who might be discouraged in grad school. No, you might not feel as smart as the professors, but you really just shouldn’t compare.

4 responses to “Feeling intimidated by math

  1. Luke March 9, 2015 at 10:37 pm

    But Sam, if everyone knew the emperor has no (or very thin) clothes, grad students might not try as hard to achieve standards which are simply impossible (until you've been in the field for years).


  2. Timothy Johnson March 10, 2015 at 12:47 am

    Haha, yup, this is so true! My theory group has an informal weekly meeting over tea and cookies where we talk about problems. And frequently it ends up being a discussion between the prof and the oldest grad student in the group, with no one else being able to contribute anything.


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