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I am a junior graduating May 2021 with a double major in physics in math, and I will be applying to commutative algebra (math) graduate programs this upcoming fall. I was recently offered an unexpected but very promising commutative algebra research project, but because the research is time sensitive and needs to be completed by May, I would need to withdraw from my graduate complex analysis course to complete it. I am wondering if it would be worth taking the 'W' on my transcript in order to gain a (very likely) publication. I've been mulling the decision over for over a week now and am desperately seeking some advice. Here is some background:

  • I am enrolled in 5 graduate courses (4 math, 1 CS) and a thesis writing class.
  • I have participated in math research and presented it at conferences, but am not currently published.
  • I have completed 4 graduate math classes in the past.

I tried cutting other commitments to avoid withdrawing from a class, but discovered that I just don't have enough time for my classes and research. Basically, I'm trying to gauge whether one more graduate math class or one more research project (albeit with a 'W' on my transcript) will make me appear more competitive to graduate admissions boards. Complex analysis is currently my largest time commitment – I am not confident that I can withdraw from anything else and still make enough time for research.

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  • There’s absolutely no question: a paper is far better than one more graduate course. Assuming you do manage to publish it, it’s a fine reason to get a ‘W’.
    – knzhou
    Feb 18, 2020 at 2:33
  • @knzhou Thanks a bunch, that's what I suspected, but needed reassurance. There is, of course, inherent risk involved with publishing, but that's a risk I'm willing to take. Thank you!
    – LéKitty
    Feb 18, 2020 at 2:36
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    What does your thesis advisor say? Their advice is likely to be better informed than ours. Feb 18, 2020 at 3:07
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    Be careful taking advice from non-mathematicians (like knzhou). Undergraduate research plays far less of a role in math PhD admissions than in the other sciences. This kind of question cannot be answered in the abstract, so you need to talk it over with a mentor who knows your situation in detail and also knows a lot about math grad school admissions. Feb 18, 2020 at 4:05
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    I'm very confused about where the May deadline comes from. Is this for a CS conference? Feb 18, 2020 at 6:12

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Well, it's certainly far too late to help the OP, but if future readers are wondering about the relative value of undergrad research vs grad level courses, here are some things to keep in mind.

  1. Research and writing always take MUCH longer than you think. It's essentially impossible to start a research project in February and have the final draft of your paper in May. Math research doesn't work well with hard deadlines.

  2. When someone "offers" you a research project, it's easy to get swept up thinking this is a great idea and everything will fall perfectly into place. That never happens. Instead, obstacles arise the deeper you go into the research project and take more time to address than you expected.

  3. You can pretty much always put aside a research project and pick it up later when there is more time.

  4. In terms of admission, there is not a strong expectation from PhD programs that undergrads in math will have published research. However, success in graduate-level courses (and the resulting letters of recommendation) matter a lot.

Though it's too late, my recommendation would be to stick with the courses. A three month delay on a research project in math is very minor, and makes a lot of sense so that students can stick with their courses (the primary focus of undergraduate studies). If the post doc really wants to work together, you can do that by email during the summer or in some future year. You cannot, however, take an idea the postdoc gave you and then bring it to some other mentor, without the postdoc's permission. The best case scenario would be if the student and postdoc identified some professor (perhaps the postdoc's mentor) who could supervise the student in carrying out the research plan laid out by the postdoc, and then all three could be on a paper together.

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    Thanks for the answer David! I was splitting hairs back in 2020 and didn't have a ton of perspective as an undergraduate. Though I did end up dropping the class and the "research project" turned out to be reasonably successful, in general I think sticking with the coursework is more valuable, at least in mathematics. Looking back, I wish I had placed a greater emphasis on truly understanding foundational concepts rather than rushing ahead for the sake of "appearing more competitive" in graduate admissions -- I'd be further along in my Ph.D. now had I done that back then.
    – LéKitty
    Apr 30 at 1:02

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