Advice for First Year Graduate Students in Mathematics

This document contains advice for first year students in mathematics. For rules and regulations, see
the web page

New Students

It is advisable to arrive on campus at least two weeks prior to the start of classes in order to get yourself
established and comfortable in South Bend. However, if you are involved in a summer program
elsewhere, this may not be realistic. Frequently we run bridge programs to help new students adapt to
graduate school, and these may start as early as mid-July. The Graduate School runs orientation
programs the week before classes start. Some students may enroll early and do some work in their
research area the summer before classes start with permission from the DGS.

Course Requirements

As it says in the rules and regulations, all students must be registered for at least 9 credits each semester
to maintain full-time status, and must complete at least 6 basic three-credit one semester courses in the
first year with a grade of B or better. The most straightforward way to complete the basic course
requirement is to take 3 (or more) basic courses each semester of the first year. However, some students
do not need to take 6 basic courses. A basic course can also be completed by placing or testing out of
the course (see below). Students who place or test out of basic courses typically register for more
advanced courses (topics courses), or for a directed readings course with a professor in order to achieve
the 9 required credits.

The most common course load is 9 credits, but some students take more credits, and this is allowed and
does not require additional payments by the student or department. A course load of 4 courses is not
unusual. Note that the deadline to add a course is the 6 th day of classes, but the deadline to drop a
course is roughly 2 months into the semester. For this reason, for students who are unsure which of
several courses to take, we advise that they register for all courses that interest them and fit in their
schedule, and drop courses later when they know which courses they want to complete.

Note that all students must complete Roll Call by the 6 th day of classes. This is an easy routine
procedure that tells the grad school you are present, and if you do not complete this procedure, the
University will not pay your stipend.

Placing or Testing out of a Basic Course

Graduate students can place out of a first semester basic course by meeting with the instructor (or
designated substitute) to discuss their background and answer some questions about the content of the
course. To place out, the student must convince the faculty member that the student has mastered the
material on the syllabus. These meetings typically last 30 to 45 minutes. Placing out of a basic course
entitles the student to consider that first semester course as a completed basic course provided they take
or test out of a subsequent second semester basic course (e.g., Algebra II is subsequent to Algebra I).
A grade of B or better is needed to count each semester as complete; a grade of B- means that the first
semester course has not been completed. To illustrate, a student who places out of Algebra I and tests
out of Algebra II has completed two graduate algebra courses as part of their basic course requirement.
See the web page for a list of subsequent courses.
Testing out of a basic course requires taking a written exam given by the instructor of the course (or
designated substitute) which is roughly equivalent to a two hour final exam for the course. The rules
allow for taking multiple attempts to test out of a basic course, but the student should clarify whether
the professor will allow multiple attempts. If you are considering placing out or testing out of a basic
course, we advise you to do so early in the semester so that if you are not successful, there will be time
to address the issue, either by taking the course or doing some additional work. Placing or testing out
of a basic course allows the student to advance further towards research, and we encourage doing so for
students with the appropriate background. However, this is a personal decision and some students are
better served by taking the corresponding first year course in order to strengthen their background.
Most Basic Courses are numbered 60xxx. However, Introduction to Algebraic Geometry (60710) is
not a Basic Course, and Lie Groups and Lie Algebras (70220) is a basic course.

Getting Help/Outside Activities

It is not unusual for students to struggle with first year basic courses. If you are struggling, we advise
talking to the professor to get help, talking to other students to get help, or talking to the DGS to get
extra help. In appropriate circumstances, we have provided struggling students with tutoring help.
Struggling during the first year is often more of an indication of the level of the student’s previous
courses than of the student’s ability to succeed in our graduate program. Some of our more successful
students struggled during the first year because of the level of math taught at their undergraduate
institutions, but thrived later when they transitioned to research.

We encourage you to find enjoyable things to do with your time outside of math. Very few
mathematicians can work productively 12-14 hours per day, so if there is a sport you enjoy, or you sing
or play a musical instrument, or you are part of a faith group, then it is a good idea to continue those
activities in graduate school. Some people take courses in other departments. This is most often to
acquire a skill, but can be done just for general interest. The university does offer a course to help
non-native speakers of English improve their ability to speak and write English.

Graduate school can be a stressful time and this can affect your health, including your mental health.
We encourage you to take care of yourself physically, and if you need someone to talk to outside of the
program, consider reaching out to University Counseling Services.


The Director of Graduate Studies assigns each new student a first-year adviser. The first-year adviser
is typically the faculty member who interacted most with the student during the recruiting process.
There is no requirement or expectation that the first-year adviser will be the PhD adviser, and on
average, about half of our students end up working with someone besides their first-year adviser.
Toward the end of the first year, each student should select an adviser to work with for the oral
candidacy examination, which is typically taken by spring break of the second year. In most cases, the
adviser for the oral candidacy examination is the PhD adviser, but this is not true in every case. With
the approval of the DGS, it is permissible for a student to work with several advisers for the oral
candidacy examination, and in a typical year, several students do this.
Some students are certain who they want to pick for their adviser, but others are uncertain. To choose
an adviser, we suggest students talk to faculty members in their area(s) of interest, talk to more senior
graduate students who are working with these faculty, and go to Topics courses, seminars, and take
reading courses in their area of interest. Once the adviser is selected, please inform the DGS and the
Graduate Administrator.

Summer Registration Requirement

For the summer after the first year, students must register for their program’s zero-credit “Independent
Summer Research” section. Registering for this course will ensure proper classification for tax