I'm a prospective PhD student who has had little to non-existent experience in formal/theoretical research. As an engineering student, the workflow I am used to is to test an experiment, then to debug to see what works and what does not and explore workarounds, if needed.

I've been browsing Math Overflow recently, interested in it being a site for "professional mathematicians." I myself am interested in doing work with provable guarantees in wireless communications using techniques from optimization and information theory.

Unlike Math Overflow, I would expect that you get to interact with less people in person. My question is: how close/different is the Q&A interaction in Math Overflow compared to in-person interactions with a theoretically-oriented research group?

  • 1
    Depends on the research group... You only have to read on here to find out how research groups vary.
    – Solar Mike
    May 21, 2020 at 7:12
  • 3
    It's certainly not representative, as MO (and SE) is a Q&A site, with threads focused on a single specific question. It is not a discussion site. How close are any of the SE science sites representative of in-person interaction in your area?
    – Kimball
    May 21, 2020 at 14:09

1 Answer 1


Your questions seemed begging for an experiential answer so...

I would say that the MO experience is incredibly different from in-person theoretical research experiences. MO seems to blend the feeling of everyone's eyes being on a topic/question of a large conference, with the thoughtful and deliberate answers of emails or letter writing. In my experience that is not the same as how research works "in-person".

For me research in person is a lot less formal, more forgiving, but yes you also have fewer brains to bounce things off of.

The good news is that no one is stopping you from using MO while you are working with theoretical mathematicians in person :)

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