The Null Space
Mathematical rambling to the void.
Things I wish I knew as a first-gen academic.
When my mom found out I wanted to switch my major to mathematics, she didn't talk to me for a day. The silence treatment wasn't out of anger, I think. She needed time to find the right words to - without discouraging me - describe her gloomy image of a math major. This was a difficult task for her. For once, she had never met a successful mathematician, and more importantly, I would be heading into uncharted territory: academia. My dad is the first one in his family to obtain a Bachelor's degree right after the Vietnam War, and I'm the first one in my family to obtain a Master's degree. Additionally, my family was living under the Ontario poverty line, so I would have no safety net if this whole math thing didn't work out. We all thought the only career path for me was to be a professor - I wasn't looking at jobs. I just knew I liked numbers and funny-looking greek letters.
Luckily, with the help of many people along the way, it ended up working out okay. While I will always pride myself on "figuring it out" by myself, the whole process felt like throwing things to a wall until something sticks. So here I am, giving out big-sister advice to no one on the internet, in hopes of making academia a little more accessible to someone out there.
Plans change all the time, but always come equipped with plans B and C. Try to diversify your coursework earlier. I wish I had done another major. Mathematics is a powerful tool, while another subject (finance, marketing, etc.) provides contexts in which you can use that tool.
Be selective with who you surround yourself with. Being a minority in mathematics, it was inevitable that I ran into some ignorant comments such as "I didn't think you are smart until I saw your grades" and unsolicited opinions about my appearance. It's easier said than done, but ignore them. Don't be afraid to leave. Don't be scared of being alone. Having the right people and a good support system improves your studies significantly - it just takes a little bit of time to find them.
Do an internship. Not everyone goes into academia after a math degree. In fact, not a lot do. An internship would have made job-search much easier for me. Another example of why you should diversify your interests.
Graduate school at the Master's level is what you make it to be: Before you let some internet ranking decides where you study for graduate school, think about what you want out of the program. Ideally, you would like to be as productive as you can be: getting internships, publishing papers, etc. Will your supervisor help with that goal? Does the program have the right kind of support for your research interests? Do you work better in a small lab or a big lab?
That is it for now - I will update this list when I have more ideas. My Master's degree was a privilege that wouldn't have been possible without my parents, friends, and my supervisor. The odds were not in my favour - but they made it possible. I am forever grateful for this experience.
Are you also a first-gen academic? Feel free to connect with me, and for more resources, check out the lists below!
Resources for current Western students.
Natural Sciences and Engineer Research Council - Undergraduate Student Research Award (Summer research scholarships - paid)
Western Undergraduate Student Research Internships (Summer research scholarship - paid)
Directed Reading Program (During the year - unpaid)
Global Undergraduate Awards (Thesis competition)
Fields Undergraduate Summer Research Program (Summer research - unpaid)
Philippa Fawcett Internship Programme (Summer research - paid)
NSERC CGS-M (1-year scholarship for Masters' students)
OGS (1-year scholarship for Ontario graduate students)