Good Times for the Graduate Program
The UW graduate program in mathematics seems to be in high demand among graduating college seniors these days, judging from our large and growing pool of talented applicants from all over the world. It hasn't always been this way, though. In the mid-1990's, the number of applicants to our graduate program (and most others in mathematics as well) experienced a steep decline. From a 1992 high of more than 200 applicants, the pool plummeted to 110 in 1998. Nobody knew exactly why this was happening, but the best guess was that college students were responding to the joint pressures of a poor academic job market and a booming private-sector economy.
While some math departments responded to these pressures by downsizing their graduate programs, the UW Math Department responded with a combination of strategies designed to increase the quality and quantity of our applicant pool. Those strategies included improving our web site and publicity, incorporating more preparation for industrial and teaching careers into the program, and developing a support plan that supplements our TA offers with a variety of fellowships and cash recruitment awards. Due to some combination of our efforts and changes in the global economy, over the past five years the outlook has changed from dismal to downright rosy, and 2003 has been our best graduate recruiting year in almost a decade.
The first sign of improvement has been a steady increase in the number of applicants in each of the past five years, culminating in almost 180 fee-paying applications in 2003. But more importantly, the quality of the applicant pool has also increased. Each applicant to the graduate program is evaluated by our admissions committee, and those with the top rankings get our first offers of admission and financial support. The applicants in this top group also typically receive offers from other schools, though, often with significantly higher financial inducements than our TA salaries can provide. To attract these students to our program, we developed a comprehensive support plan to supplement the base TA salary. The plan became fully operational with the entering class of 2002-2003. We now offer five-year ``Academic Merit Awards'' to as many as possible of our top applicants. Funding this plan has not been easy in this time of tightening state budgets. To do so, we have to call upon all the sources of funding available to the Department, including Microsoft Scholar Awards, VIGRE fellowships, ARCS fellowships, ``Top Scholar Awards'' from the Graduate School, and departmental endowments.
Our approach appears to be working. Back in 1999, the top group contained 24 people. After seeing steady growth in this top group for the past four years, in 2003 we found ourselves with a top group numbering over 40, and for the first time in memory, we had so many top applicants that we were not even able to make first-round offers to all of them. In the end, we filled up our entire entering class with top-notch applicants, barely touching the waiting list. This bodes well for the success of this year's entering class, which has a total of 20 incoming graduate students: 14 Ph.D. students, 5 Master's students, and one visiting exchange student; 8 women and 12 men; 11 US citizens and 9 international students (from Taiwan, Hungary, Hong Kong, China, Germany, India, and Canada).
Of course, the process of judging applicant files is an art, not a science, and we can never be sure to what extent the living, breathing human beings who join our department will match our assessments of them. But our high hopes for this class are already being borne out - five of the fourteen incoming Ph.D. students passed one or more prelims before the start of their first year in the program, the highest percentage who have done so in recent memory. And the ``buzz'' from the instructors of the first-year graduate courses suggests that this is a very strong class indeed.
Attracting talented and successful graduate students is crucial to the success of the department as a whole, because it affects the atmosphere in our courses, the job satisfaction of our faculty, the success of our job placement efforts, and our ability to recruit first-rate new faculty members. If the recent trend is any indication, there are good times ahead.