Enrolling in a new Master's program?

I am currently completing my first quarter of the MS Statistics program at Portland State University; I earned my BS in Math there earlier this year. I’m not sure how well I like the Stats program so far - I keep going back and forth on it. I had a final this morning that I can say with 95% confidence I failed miserably, so at the moment my feelings are in the “don’t like” camp. :slight_smile:

When I got home I got an email from the graduate department, which was a forward from Ohio State, who are apparently looking for graduate students to apply for a couple of new MS programs. The one that’s kind of intriguing me is their MS in Mathematical Biology. I have an interest in all sciences, though I have to admit that I’d be a lot more stoked if the concentration was in physics or chemistry.

So anyway, I have a couple of things I’m looking for opinions on. First, should I be weary of the fact that this is a brand new program? Or, if I were to switch schools, would I be better off with a program somewhere that is already established?

The other thing is… if I were to do this, I’d need to go the TA route for funding, since I’d be from out of state. I didn’t do this at PSU, for two reasons:

  1. They only offer a stipend of $1000 a month, and don’t allow outside employment. I suppose I could have tried surviving on that, had I forgone little things like food and electricity, but I elected not to.

  2. The very idea of standing up in front of a class and attempting to teach it scares the piss out of me.

Item #2 is what I’d like to hear about. I am not an outgoing person; quite the opposite. A year ago I had to do a presentation for a class - with two other people - and leading up to it I thought I’d hyperventilate myself to death; of course, once it was over with, I thought “meh, that wasn’t bad.” Is there anyone out there like me, who went through with teaching? How did you overcome your fear? Do you get so used to it that it doesn’t bother you anymore?

Brand new programs may not have all the bugs worked out yet. I’d be especially concerned about whether some of the faculty may jump ship(always a risk in graduate school). Brand new programs also don’t give you a whole lot of ability to make contact with people who used to be in the program and now are out in industry or somewhere else in academia-- that networking thing you may have heard of.

I’d be wary of switching programs from one you aren’t sold on to another you aren’t sold on–grad school sucks enough without that kind of ambivalence.

(Signed the person who dropped out of grad school once, went back in an unrelated program and has been un or underemployed ever since. Ok, the common denominator might be me.)

Are you sure you’d have to TA? No Research Assistant type positions at all?

When I TA’d, it was for a lab, and I took attendence, returned homework, answered stupid questions and directed non-stupid ones to the professors. I didn’t even have to grade homework, and I certainly never gave lectures. But there are other TA positions where the TA was the Teacher for the course.

Best wishes.

I’d be more concerned about your ambivalence about statistics at present. What makes you think you’ll like the out-of-state program any better than your current program? Since a master’s program is usually just a year or two I don’t think the newness of a program matters. You’ll be in and out before you know it. The real question is really do you want to continue doing stat. Maybe you should find a program that would really get your juices going.

I can answer more about the second item, although in a different context. I teach adults in a professional context (software company) and have done for about 15 years. I’m also doing a Masters, although we don’t seem to have the same TA idea here, and I have had to do presentations/teaching sessions as part of that.

When I first started teaching I was terrified. I also got pretty mediocre feedback (not bad, just … meh) from my students for the first few months. I came very close to quitting. What saved me was that I decided that if I couldn’t bear to do it, I could at least pretend to be someone who could do it! It became a case of ‘fake it till you make it’ essentially. After a while I realised that the penny had just dropped. I’ve observed the same thing happening again and again with new trainers, at some point it’s palpable that it’s just clicked for them. So, generally, I’d say - give it a go, assume you can do it, and it may well just gel for you after a bit of practice.

I realise that’s borderline comforting, but of no real help. I believe it helps if you concentrate on controlling the mechanics of your teaching, which will help you become more comfortable with it. So here are some more concrete tips which I’ve learned, feel free to use what’s useful and ignore the rest (or all of it, if none of it’s new to you):

  1. You know more than they do, believe that and act like you do and you’ve won half the battle. I’m not suggesting arrogance, but don’t believe that your ignorance will be obvious. They’re not out to trip you up.
  2. Actually, in some senses they are out to trip you up! What I mean by that is that confidence, or the appearance of confidence is all. Don’t give them any chances to think less of you, they’ll take them. Specifically, a lot of people, particularly women, in my experience, use self-deprecating humour as a defence mechanism in normal life. It’s socially acceptable and and very useful. Don’t use it when teaching adults. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen a presentation begin with some throwaway putdown the speaker uses about themselves: ‘sorry about this slide, don’t know what I was thinking’ ‘you probably know that already’ ‘sorry it’s a bit wordy’ etc etc. In this situation you’re just inviting the students to agree that you’re shite, and subconsciously they may well do so. However tempting it is, it is NOT going to get them on your side.
  3. Have a story - a good presentation, whatever the subject, has an internal narrative. It’s the only way you will get people to follow you to the end, IME.
  4. Lots of people like to rehearse, so if it works for you, do so, in front of a friendly audience if you like. I don’t, I’m a fairly haphazard type of person, plus I hate teaching people I know, it makes me feel that my control of the situation is compromised.
  5. I’d recommend against a script per se, but notes may help you until you’re very experienced.
  6. Presentation and teaching/lectures are different - decide which one you’re doing. Teaching/lectures are about imparting more concrete information IMHO and you need to be checking for understanding and encouraging discussion.
  7. Physically: don’t talk to the board, talk to the group; make eye contact but not in a creepy way; smile but don’t grin like a buffoon; double the energy you think you should be using, to keep them engaged; don’t pace but don’t sit down or stay rooted to the spot; don’t grip a lectern or a desk or use it as a barrier; don’t fiddle with coins, keys, clothes or anything else.

After this long, I still have an adrenalin rush when I teach - I think the day that goes I’ll stop, it’ll be dull after that. One last point - I think it’s a fallacy to assume that only outgoing people enjoy this job. In my experience my colleagues and I are actually a mix of massive ego and real shyness. We’re all quite nervous of normal social situations, but see the classroom - that’s YOURS. It’s your own little domain and the success or failure of a session is yours and yours alone. Actually we’re all massive control freaks :slight_smile:

Good luck! Hope you come to love it.

Not all TAs jobs involve teaching a class. Sometimes you’re just grading and doing office hours. Or if you’re in front of a class it’s a weekly discussion section where you’re going over practice problems (so you’re not preparing new material). At a large state school you’ll do more of the later but I’d be pretty surprised if they took someone with no experience who didn’t want to teach and put them in charge of a lecture.

But I agree with nivlac, you don’t really sound that excited about this program, it’s more that it landed in your inbox and you’re willing to look at it. If you’re more interested in chemistry and physics then do a full search and find schools that work on those areas. If you’re not sure what interests you then spend some time reading books and articles, and just go talk to your professors and other grad students doing research and find out what they’re doing and what appeals to you.

Interesting. At PSU all “TAs” are really lecturers (in the Math/Stats department, anyway), so I assumed it was the same everywhere. Though come to think of it, when I went to San Jose State, I don’t remember there being any TAs in any capacity. It’s been 12 years since I left there, though, so my memory could be faulty.

Yeah, I’ve been thinking about it, and realized this program is appealing to me because it focuses on Differential Equations and Numerical Analysis, which I enjoy a lot more than things like Real Analysis or Abstract Algebra. I’m sure I could find programs elsewhere that would fit my tastes, but hunting them down seems like such a daunting prospect…