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Pursuing a Graduate Degree in Mathematics

It was a regular school day in the fall. I attended classes as normal, adhering to the stringent high school schedule. I was generally happy, but what usually made my day was second period--math class. I had always liked mathematics, but in my senior year of high school, I realized that above all other subjects, mathematics was the one in which I was most interested. I had developed a desire to learn the science of mathematics in depth.

A number of factors went into my decision to attend graduate school. Some of these came up before I even set foot in my first undergraduate classroom. But once the decision was made, there were many things that I had to do as an undergraduate to prepare for my graduate school experience. In this article, I will discuss my preparation for college, the importance of conducting research, and my experiences pursuing a graduate degree in mathematics at the University of Maryland, College Park.

As a high school student, I was told by many of my mathematics and science instructors that I had a gift. My gift was my natural ability to comprehend and do mathematics as well as relay it to others. It was fun and I loved to do it. Because of my love for the subject, I began to do peer tutoring, and I continue to tutor students from the 6th grade and up today. I currently tutor for the Progressive Learning Center in Bowie, Maryland. Working with these youths is one of the highlights of my week. I am fulfilled personally when I can see a student excel in an area that they had struggled in before. Helping students understand math confirmed that I wanted to pursue a higher degree in mathematics.

On to College

As I began my undergraduate career in fall 1993, I knew what major I wanted to pursue. As I wrote "mathematics" in the block next to the word "major," I was confident that I would be challenged and fulfilled. To this day, my college experience has been nothing short of what I initially expected--and, in fact, much more.

As a high school student, in preparation for college selection, I needed to find an institution that would be the first steppingstone in my preparation for graduate school. Clark Atlanta University ( CAU) was my choice. It offered a variety of accelerated classes as well as graduate courses that would prepare me for my next collegiate step. As well as being a prestigious Historically Black College or University (HBCU), there were other reasons I chose to attend CAU. Being a very family-oriented person, my loved ones' opinions about selecting the right institution really mattered to me. Both my parents as well as my two older sisters attended (then) Clark College and Atlanta University (now CAU). Growing up as a baby "Panther," I was almost destined to go to their alma mater. But my parents always made it clear to me that it was my choice and they would support me regardless of my final decision. With the love and support of my parents, sisters, family, and friends, CAU became my ultimate decision for my undergraduate education.

Upon my acceptance at CAU, I was awarded a 5-year B.S./M.S. Office of Naval Research Scholarship in mathematics. This scholarship allows the student the opportunity to take advanced courses in mathematics and gain research experience beginning in their freshman year of college. During the summer, the students participate in the Program for Research Integration and Support for Matriculation to the Doctorate Program. In this program, I learned how to conduct research and design experiments. And I learned how to properly analyze and document research results.

This program was invaluable because one of my ultimate goals is to receive a Ph.D. in mathematics. One of my visions is to return to my undergraduate institution and educate other young scholars and teach them the significance of minorities in this field. In addition, I want to develop a solid research program that will allow students to gain valuable research experience under my tutelage.

Gaining Research Experience

Research is a major focus of graduate study. To prepare myself for graduate research, I was involved in two major research projects as an undergraduate. One project was carried out at the GTE Laboratories in Waltham, Massachusetts. This summer internship was designed to give students in the sciences an overview of GTE Labs and get hands-on experience with industry research. The department I worked for was the Network Management Department, Software Systems Lab. The main duty of this department was to observe incoming calls and track flow problems. When problems occurred, the researcher analyzed the problem and corrected it by rewriting or replacing programs or software that make the calls go through. Ongoing research was being done to determine more efficient ways to process calls.

My next research assignment was one that ultimately became my master's thesis. This opportunity became available when I was selected as a UNCF/Andrew Mellow Fellow. This fellowship is designed for students who are interested in ultimately receiving a Ph.D. in selected underrepresented fields and then in teaching in academia while doing research. This program requires that research be conducted on a specific topic for at least 2 years. My research was with Dr. J. Ernest Wilkins Jr. (see box) and was entitled "Errors in Numerical Quadrature Schemes." My research involved finding explicit error formulas for certain specific numerical quadrature schemes that have not been recorded in the elementary textbooks or math handbooks.

A Special Mentor

Working with Dr. J. Ernest Wilkins Jr. was an experience that I will never forget. At age 13, Wilkins entered college at the University of Chicago and at 16 received his B.S. in mathematics. At 19, in 1942, he became the seventh African American to obtain a Ph.D. in mathematics. Wilkins was a very caring and gracious mentor. I learned from him not only mathematics but also many valuable life lessons. The stories he would tell about his life during classes and weekly sessions were ones I looked forward to at every meeting. I was honored to work with such a wonderful and nurturing person.

There are many other advantages and skills you acquire by conducting research. First, you can present your research results, which allows you to improve your oral presentation skills. I did several presentations focusing on these research topics at my home institution as well as at science and mathematics conferences. At these conferences, it is very important to network and establish professional relationships with experts in the field as well as other students. I learned about different graduate programs and what school would be best for me, given my background and my area of interest. You can also find out about research and employment opportunities at these conferences.

On to Graduate School

It was during my senior year at CAU that I realized what I wanted to do with my mathematical background. I decided to take an elective course in operations research (OR). A new world was opened up to me. During World War II, British military leaders asked scientists and engineers to analyze several military problems, including the deployment of radar and the management of convoy, bombing, antisubmarine, and mining operations. The application of mathematics and the scientific method to military operations was called operations research. Today, the term operations research (or, often management science) means a scientific approach to decision-making, which seeks to determine how best to design and operate a system, usually under conditions requiring the allocation of scarce resources.

Throughout college, I enjoyed math and always wondered what field I could apply this to. Identifying a way in which to apply my math skills, analytic techniques, and decision-making skills to a real world situation thrilled me, and that spring semester, I found my solution--OR!

My choice to attend the University of Maryland (UMD) was made after meeting several students and a professor from UMD. It seemed to be a perfect fit for my newfound interest in OR. When entering UMD, I chose applied mathematics as my major. This allowed me to choose OR, which is housed in the business and management department, as my applied field. After taking several courses in this area, one professor and his research really sparked my interest. Dr. Brice Golden is one of the leading researchers in the field of OR. He is currently my research advisor and we are working on the analytic hierarchy process.

Throughout my undergraduate and graduate experiences in research and extracurricular activities, I have acquired the knowledge for graduate school and research fundamentals. Moreover, I have enhanced my ability to communicate ideas effectively and gained a greater understanding of and appreciation for the contributions my field has made to society. These are the basics in preparation for excelling in a graduate program. Being aware of these things as early as possible will make you a successful graduate student.

My experiences through high school and college sealed my wish to attain a higher degree in applied mathematics. In high school, I was happy when I was able to go to math class, but now in grad school, I am on cloud nine because I have the opportunity to work in the area of mathematics all day long. And I love what I do!

Joycelyn Wilson is currently a mathematics graduate student at the University of Maryland, College Park. For further information, please e-mail her at

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