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I'm finishing up my B.S. in mathematics right now, and I was approached by a former professor with whom I've kept a good relationship, and she asked if I would be able/willing to help her and another professor in a research project they are working on.

My role is pretty purely computational, basically just implementing their mathematical work in code, but she said that it's enough to have me listed as a coauthor on the paper, considering that things don't go south (which, they aren't expected to).

Besides having Erdos number 4 (hey, pretty good for a fresh bachelor's degree), are there some actual benefits that would go along with having my name on a publication?

Just to be clear, this is not an undergrad research opportunity or project, nor do I think(?) it is considered a graduate paper. They are both published professors working on this as a team.

Could this help me get into a better grad school (rather-- master's program) than I would otherwise be able to (pretty average GPA, to be honest)? Help secure some funding? etc

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    In a word, yes. Contributing to an actual research paper, and getting a mentor to say good things in a recommendation letter about your role in the project, is the single best thing you can do for your grad school application. – user37208 Feb 25 '16 at 4:23
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    @user37208: I have to disagree with your comment. Having some research under your belt certainly counts positively, but just having your name on a paper -- especially one coauthored with faculty members who will not be able to point to critical intellectual contributions made by the student -- need not be a game-changer. The single best thing a math graduate applicant can do is to have taken the right array of challenging courses (including courses which cover graduate level material) and to have performed excellently in these courses -- ideally, compared to actual graduate students. – Pete L. Clark Feb 25 '16 at 5:48
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    @PeteL.Clark I take issue with your use of the phrase "just having your name on a paper" -- presumably the student will have their name on the paper for a reason. It's the work they did that is (or isn't) the game-changer, not the name on the paper. – Dan Romik Feb 25 '16 at 6:27
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    ... The bottom line is that we don't admit students primarily on the basis of the recommendation letters from their research experiences...which are invariably glowing. – Pete L. Clark Feb 25 '16 at 6:45
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    I'm not trying to denigrate your work or be discouraging, by the way. That you understood the math and had the programming skills to contribute usefully to a project is a real plus. It's just that -- in my own direct experience, anyway -- that is not the most important part of your application. – Pete L. Clark Feb 25 '16 at 7:00
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Could this help me get into a better grad school (rather-- master's program) than I would otherwise be able to (pretty average GPA, to be honest)? Help secure some funding? etc

Yes, it can help you with all those things and more (including non-academia-related things like applying for a job in industry). Generally speaking, being a coauthor of a published paper in mathematics says good things about you and your math/STEM/academic/research abilities in any context in which someone would care about those abilities.

However, it's important to take things in perspective and understand that "just" the fact of your being a coauthor on a single paper will not make a huge difference in and of itself. E.g., a grad school or fellowship candidate with no publications can easily "beat" a candidate who has a publication if the former has other good things going for them (a better GPA, better recommendations etc) that the latter doesn't. What I would say matters a lot more is not just being a coauthor, but what you actually did to deserve being a coauthor. If you do an unusually good job on the project, this can translate to excellent recommendations, which will carry a far greater weight in a grad school application than the mere coauthorship line on your CV. If you were just a code monkey who did low quality work, the coauthorship would still be of some value but would overall not be worth very much.

Finally, I should mention that you seem to think that work that's "pretty purely computational" is less important or creative than other sorts of math research, but that is not universally true (although it may be true in specific instances). Even in a computational project there may still be a lot of room for creativity, and a chance to excel in all kinds of unexpected ways. Who knows, you may end up having an idea for a cool optimization that would extend the computational range of the algorithm enough to enable you to discover an amazing new phenomenon your collaborators did not even suspect existed (such things have happened many times). Besides, understanding complicated mathematical constructions well enough to translate them into code can be a highly nontrivial challenge. You would also get to experience the thrill of doing mathematical research and taking a part in the discovery of new knowledge, learn about working collaboratively with others, and probably derive many other benefits from the experience. So, to summarize, I would not scoff at the opportunity to take part in such a project. Doing it just for the paper coauthorship would probably be a bad idea, but doing it for the experience and knowledge you will gain, plus the chance of a coauthorship, seem like excellent reasons to me.

  • I agree 100% with this, by the way. – Pete L. Clark Feb 25 '16 at 7:01

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