Thinking about Graduate School? Consider Mathematical Computer Science at UI Chicago!

It’s that time of year where senior undergraduates are considering whether to go to graduate school. And I wouldn’t be surprised if many students were afraid of the prospect, perhaps having read that popular genre of articles these days that tell you graduate school will turn you into an emotional wreck and that only a psychopathic masochist would put themselves through it.

The problem with these articles is they’re usually written by both outliers and those who put themselves in situations with no other options. I’ve felt my time at UI Chicago, however, has provided me nothing but options and excitement! So if you’re thinking about graduate school in mathematics or theoretical computer science, here’s my pitch for

Why you should come to UI Chicago and study theoretical computer science

We’re social.

In fact, UI Chiago’s mathematics department is the most social of any math department I’ve ever heard of. I think this is the biggest benefit for me. On my first day here, I was surprised that everyone was totally normal and not the typical weird antisocial stereotype one associates with people who like math. Our department has a huge list of seminars going on every day of the week, and a small party every Friday called “Tea” that has a large attendance. We often go out to bars and restaurants, and have other outings. We even have a Facebook group (for grad students only) and a ping pong league that the professors sometimes join. We currently have over 150 graduate students in our department, and I know around 70 by name.

We have world-class faculty.

Some of my colleagues came to UIC specifically to work with David Marker on model theory, or Lou Kauffman on knot theory. At least one researcher here has over two hundred publications! We have big names in algebraic geometry, hypergraph combinatorics, dynamical systems, low-dimensional topology, and a very active logic group. Our theoretical computer science group (mixed with our combinatorics group) is small but vibrant and growing fast. We just got three new mathematical computer science students this year, and I’m doing everything I can to convert some of the other students over to our side.

We’re in the middle of a thriving intellectual community.

Chicago is the center of the Midwest US, and there are a ton of universities not only in the city but within a few hours drive. There are regular seminars and colloquia at the University of Chicago, Northwestern, and other smaller institutions like the Toyota Technical Institute (which has very strong researchers). Then there are the universities of Wisconsin, Indiana, and Michigan which all have strong theoretical computer science groups (and of course other mathematics groups) and we get together for conferences like Midwest Theory Day.

Our department is not cutthroat competitive.

I hear rumors about top mathematics and computer science programs that (unintentionally) pit students against each other for the attention of a few glorified professors. That simply doesn’t happen here. Everyone is friendly and people regularly collaborate. You can approach any professor and ask to do a reading course with them or ask them what kinds of open problems they’re thinking about, and most of them will gladly sit down with you and explain all the neat ideas in their heads. Even the hardest, most sarcastic professors genuinely care about their students. I think, along with being social, this makes our department one of the friendliest and most stress-free places to get a PhD.

We’re in a great city.

Chicago is really fun! I don’t know what else to say about this.

Our department staff is very supportive.

Our director and assistant director of graduate studies are extremely helpful at getting new students situated and ensuring they have funding. It’s not uncommon for students who start in the PhD program to decide after one or two years that a PhD is not right for them. Usually they will stop with the requirements for a master’s degree, and there are no hard feelings. Students who do this are even encouraged to return if they decide they want to finish their PhD later. In the mean time, our department guarantees tuition waivers and stipends to all of its teaching assistants (and there are alternatives to teaching as well), so you can focus on your studies and not have to think too much about money.

And even more, if you decide to study theoretical computer science at UI Chicago you get a whole bunch of other benefits:

You get to hang out and do research with me!

(Okay maybe that’s not a serious benefit to consider)

Your post-grad school job opportunities widen.

Jobs are hard to come by for the purest of pure mathematics researchers. Research positions are in short supply, and unless you want to go into industry with an applied math degree the remaining option is to teach at a 4-year institution. But if you study theoretical computer science, now you are qualified to do all kinds of things. Work at industry research labs like Microsoft Research, Google Research, or Yahoo! Research. Work at government labs like Lincoln Labs and Lawrence Livermore National Labs, both of which I interned at. You can shoot for a professorship or do a postdoc like a regular mathematics PhD would. If you’re hand with Python you could go into the software industry and get a high-demand job at any major company in cryptography or operations research (both of which depend on ideas from TCS). And you always keep the option of teaching at a 4-year.

You have many options for internships during summers.

I, my colleagues, and even my advisor did research internships during the Summers at various research labs and industry companies. This is a particularly nice benefit of doing mathematical computer science in grad school, because it augments your normal graduate student stipend by enough to live much more comfortably than otherwise (that being said, for extra money a lot of my pure math colleagues will tutor on the side, and tutoring comes at a high price these days). It’s not uncommon to receive additional funding through these opportunities as well.

You get to travel a lot.

The main publication venue in computer science is the conference, and that means there are conferences happening all over the world all the time. In fact, I just got back from a conference in Aachen, Germany, earlier this year I was at Berkeley and Stanford, I am helping to run a conference in Florida early next year, and I am looking at conferences in Beijing and Barcelona next Summer. All of the trips you take to present your published research is paid for, so it’s just pure awesome.

You enjoy the breadth of problems in computer science.

Computer science is unique in that it connects to almost every field of mathematics.

  1. Like statistics? There’s statistical machine learning and randomized algorithm design.
  2. Like real analysis and dynamical systems? There’s convex optimization, support vector machines, and tons of computational aspects of PDE’s.
  3. Like algebra or number theory? There’s cryptography.
  4. Like combinatorics? There’s combinatorial optimization.
  5. Like game theory? I just got back from a conference on algorithmic game theory.
  6. Like geometry and representation theory? There’s a Geometric Complexity Theory program working toward P vs NP.
  7. Like logic? You might be surprised to know that the cleanest proofs of the incompleteness theorems are via Turing machines.
  8. Like topology? There are researchers (not at UIC) working on computational topology, like persistent homology which we’ve been slowly covering on this blog.

The list just goes on and on, and this isn’t even mentioning the purely pure theoretical computer science topics which have a flavor of their own.

Programming options exist, but you aren’t forced to write programs.

Some of the greatest computer science researchers cannot write simple computer programs, and if you’re just interested in theory there is plenty of theory to go around. On the other hand, we have researchers in our department studying aspects of supercomputing, and options for collaboration with researchers in the (engineering) computer science department. Over there they’re studying things like biological networks, machine learning and robotics, and all kinds of hands-on applied stuff that you might be interested in if you read this blog.

So if you’re interested in joining us for next year and have any questions, feel free to drop me or the professors in the MCS group or the director of graduate studies an email.

10 thoughts on “Thinking about Graduate School? Consider Mathematical Computer Science at UI Chicago!

  1. I already chose to apply to UIC in part due to following your blog 🙂 But I don’t know that I’d end up working in theoretical computer science (aside from programming projects for math research, I haven’t done much computer science, I’m leaning more towards topology.)

      • Yes, UIC has many foreign students. From such places as Iran, China, and many others. Being fluent in English helps, but to my knowledge you apply just like any other school. It probably helps if you establish a correspondence with a professor doing what you want to do.

  2. Um, I have a quite involved question involving a recurrence relation I’ve been trying to solve on and off for the past few months. Which of the lecturers/professors would you recommend contacting for help?

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