We spoke to Zain about the benefits of taking a break before starting a PhD. He shared his tips on the application process and how to pick the right university for your research.
When applying for a PhD in Mathematics, most universities want to see that you have completed a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree, but entry requirements don’t generally give a timeline of when these studies should have been completed. So why do so many of us think that taking a break from our studies will have a negative impact?
We spoke to current PhD student, Zain Kapadia, about why he decided to take a break before starting his PhD and how it has helped. He also shares his tips on applying for a PhD and how to cope with the transition from taught programmes to self-directed research.
Tell us about yourselfHi everyone! My name is Zain, I'm from London (born and raised), and I'm in my first year of a Mathematics PhD at Queen Mary. Nice to meet you :)
What did you do before coming to Queen Mary?I did an MSci in Mathematics at Imperial College London. It was an "Integrated Master's" so I spent 4 years doing my Bachelor's and Master's all in one go. I graduated in 2019, then did a PGCE for a year, so I'm qualified to teach secondary school mathematics. During lockdown I worked at home, with a company called Come On Out and a Japanese company called Toshin, to develop the Global English Workshop.
Why did you decide to take time out between your Masters and your PhD?During my undergraduate studies I struggled with my mental health, so I decided that I wanted a break from academia. I decided to do a PGCE because I was already involved in a lot of outreach work as an undergrad, and I thought it would align with my goal of being a lecturer. After that, I decided to work online for a year during the pandemic, so that I could apply for PhDs to (hopefully) start in person.
What were some of the most valuable skills you learned during that time and how have they prepared you for a PhD?Working in a school really helps you to develop the ability to stick to a strict schedule and manage your time around it. Working from home across multiple time zones really helps you to manage yourself when you're on a more flexible schedule - both vitally important skills when doing a mostly self-led PhD!
What’s been hard about the transition to research?As an undergraduate, you're surrounded by other people doing the same course as you. You can rely on each other for help and support with the work, but a PhD is your work, and there might not be another person at the university - besides your supervisor - that understands what you're doing. It's important to be able to manage these feelings, and find ways to interact with people despite this.
Is there anything you wish you had known before doing a PhD?There are a LOT of opportunities available at university, even (sometimes especially) as a PhD student. Try to take advantage of these opportunities and keep as many doors open as possible. Also, lots of people don't know that you can (and should) get paid to do a PhD!
Do you have any tips for people applying for PhD programmes?My main tip is to apply to as many places as you can! You have no idea beforehand which places will accept you, or which places have funding available for you. My secondary tip is to look into the supervisors and the researchers in the department, not just the ranking of the university. For a PhD, it's less about what university you're at, and more about the supervisor you're with.
Tell us a bit more about your area of research?Mathematicians love studying how larger "things" can be broken into smaller "things". Numbers can be factorised into a product of prime numbers, polynomials can be factorised into a product of linear expressions, and so on. In particular, it can be nice if, after breaking things down, you end up with distinct pieces. I'm looking at breaking down very particular abstract objects which has lots of symmetries.
In highly technical terms, my current project is "looking at which Specht modules are multiplicity free over characteristic 2", but don't worry if most of these words mean nothing to you.
Of all the different areas of maths, what made you choose pure maths?Pure mathematics is all about being able to prove theorems using other previously-established results. In a lot of ways, it feels like I'm completing a large jigsaw puzzle, or solving a sudoku. I have various pieces of knowledge and I know how some things fit together, and it's like being a detective trying to see what results I can deduce with the information I have.
What are your plans for the future?After completing my PhD, I intend to continue into academia, research, and possibly lecturing as well. I love the idea of spending some time researching an interesting mathematical question and spending some time teaching and raising the next generation of researchers.
You recently joined the School’s Equality Diversity and Inclusions committee, why is EDI important to you?Personally, I never felt excluded in the environments that I grew up in, however, I understand that many people did. I think it's important to work towards a future where people can enjoy mathematical research without worrying about the environment that they'll work in.