What Does It Feel Like to be a Math Student in College?

If you didn’t know, I’m about to finish my mathematics education. Finally, I decided to write about what it’s like studying mathematics at a university. Of course, I can only talk from my experience. Still, in general, most of the mathematics courses and the structure are very similar. So, I think we can generalize a little bit.

Before I started my course, I didn’t know what to expect. I was trying to avoid thinking about my education and future at the beginning. However, if I read any information about studying mathematics in advance, it would have been helpful. I wish I would be more prepared and know what I was getting myself into before my high education had started.

First of all, Mathematics is challenging, and people know that. That’s why almost anyone you meet will tell you that you are smart when he/she learns that you study mathematics! It will put you in an awkward situation because you will never really know what to say to people who consider something other than mathematics. You will feel very one-sided and say, “Oh, cool!” That’s the first thing you need to get used to as a mathematics student.

The primary thing to say about mathematics is there is a lot of work. It’s going to be a step up from what you were doing in your high school. There will be so much work to understand what’s going on. For instance, as much as you think that mathematics just numbers, most of the notes you will write in lectures will be very wordy.

Mostly the instructors have a paper that they’ve written with theorems, proofs, and examples. They rewrite them on the board for you in the lecture, and you copy them down. That’s how professors do a typical math lecture.

Definition, theorem, proof, maybe an example!

Definition, theorem, proof, maybe an example!

Of course, professors are brilliant people, but during the lecture, their job is just writing down stuff that they’ve already written for other students in the past. They don’t bother themselves to update their notes. The lectures are so abstract or theoretical rather than using actual numbers, and they take a lot of work to understand each lecture. Unfortunately, there’s no time in lectures to grasp the main idea because you need to keep writing the lecture notes on the board. Otherwise, you’re not going to have lecture notes. That means there needs to be a lot of independent study time to understand what’s going on.

For most math courses, the majority of the assessments are exam-based. For me, the exams and quizzes’ weight was 80%, and the rest of it was homework. I often got quite a lot of exercise sheets, such as a sort of assessed homework. You will get them weekly, and each one’s worth almost 1% of the module, but they all add up. Also, there will be some projects. They sound like a big thing, but most of the time, either they’re not that difficult, or the lecturers are lenient with the marks. For instance, I have had one group project so far, and then I have had two statistics ones where I analyzed some data and wrote a paper about it. It was all pretty basic stuff.

In my first year, I had tons of homework. I did four modules per semester, and since there was a weekly homework sheet, I had four homework each week. Mostly each homework took one or two hours, and I was spending 8 hours only on homework. I just had no time, and I was continually doing these sheets. I always felt like everybody else was going out on having a great time, and I left out because of the homework I had to do. I didn’t know how I managed my life during the first year.

I have had between 18 and 22 hours a week, which doesn’t sound a lot when you compare it to high school, but at the university, that is a lot. In my last year, now I have 12 hours; however, if I participate in each class, I still have about 18. So I do four modules at a time, and each one has three hours of lectures per week.

We also have the occasional computer lab to learn how to use the computer programs you need. They’re not very often, and they’re also not compulsory. The final two hours are for maths workshops. That sounds ridiculous, and it makes me think of Santa.

The great thing about studying mathematics is that we have our own Student Center. The Mathematics Department encourages you to spend your free time there. Our student center is an excellent place to work and hang out because everyone from mathematics comes there for the same reasons. You can find a lot of support at the student center. For instance, if you’re struggling with a homework question, you can go and ask someone else because there will be someone in your year, and they might have done it. Or there are a few years above you and did that a couple of years ago. My point was that in the student center, people are ready to help you. You can ask them questions, and they can help you with any coursework or homework you have to do.

Just because of the nature of a mathematics degree, it’s pretty useful to have one place where all those people can go in and mingle. We don’t need to use the library because we have our place to study.

Also, we don’t need to get books. That’s another tremendous positive about mathematics. There’s no required reading, there’s no having to buy hundreds of pounds worth of textbooks, and there are no essays. That is like my number one positive about studying math; no essays!

I feel like I’m missing out on what many people get out of universities is everyone doing degrees in social sciences and humanities. They’re continually referring back to real life and things that are happening right now. I’ve read the news headlines, and I know what’s going on in the media. I have no philosophical views on anything, and I have no sort of critical thinking skills. All that I’ve got is that I can do fancy adding and think logically. I suppose what I’m saying is that mathematicians are stuck in their own maths bubble and protected from the real world. Nothing comes in; nothing goes out.

We are off studying fields and graph theory and vectors, and none of those are real things. They just came out of our brains, and we decided that they mattered. But do they matter? Everyone else in the world is learning about a real thing. Are numbers real? Numbers are a construct; we made them up.

Some people take further mathematics; some people don’t. So, everybody is coming in at different levels. The first year aims to get everybody to the same level as the basic knowledge for their degree. Everybody does the same. We didn’t get any options at all.

In the second year, we got a bit of freedom. We got to choose between applied mathematics, statistics, and pure mathematics. I wanted pure and statistics even though I’m not too fond of statistics. We also got one optional thing between stochastic processes, which I have no clue what it is, and algorithms, which are operational research of decision mathematics. Then the third year, I picked everything. Everything else it’s up to you.

Again, in the first year, we all did the same modules; we were all in the same lectures together, we didn’t see anybody from any other subjects. I know everyone studying Social Sciences had to take the same statistics for the Social Sciences module. Everyone from all those different disciplines was in the same lectures. You have a chance to meet other people doing various courses.

Meeting new people, seeing different people’s perspectives on things are broadening your horizons. However, math students don’t do that. Also, not many people come into mathematics to take that as an optional module.

Hopefully, this blog post has helped some of you if you are interested in studying mathematics.

I found tons of books in Argentina!

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