A lot of our advice here with peer advising is about how to make the best use of your time as a math major here in Berkeley, but for this blog post I thought we’d look a little past the top floors of Evans. In particular, I wanted to talk a bit about studying abroad as a math major. I’ll try to answer questions that I myself had and that I’ve encountered before. This isn’t going to be so much of a travel blog or a really detailed rundown of my time abroad but more of a general overview of what’s available for math majors at Berkeley.
What are my options?
I would say there are two well-traveled paths for studying abroad as a math major. The first and most intuitive is through the UC system’s study abroad programs, UCEAP (http://uc.eap.ucop.edu). This is what I ended up doing, and there are a lot of advantages to going through a system aligned with the school. The other well-known alternative is one of the two math-focused programs: Budapest Semesters in Mathematics (https://www.budapestsemesters.com) and Math in Moscow* (http://www.mccme.ru/mathinmoscow). I’m pretty sure it’s possible to go outside of these two routes, but it might make for some administrative pains and less of a support system in general. That being said, if there’s some other special program I haven’t heard of, definitely talk to staff/faculty/peer advisors about it!
I’m really into math…do I have to go to Budapest or Moscow?
One thing that I want to make clear: there are rigorous math classes offered through UCEAP. Just being interested in math does not mean that either BSM or MiM would be ideal for you. I personally wanted to take high level math courses and assumed by default I would end up in Moscow or Budapest, so I checked out the courses offered at each program in the past. I would encourage any interested student to do this, because it made me realize the courses at these programs didn’t really appeal to me.
With a little extra research, I was able to find programs through UCEAP that offered advanced math courses in the subjects I was interested in. You won’t be quite as immersed in math as you would at another program, but I still found the coursework engaging and challenging.
What was your experience like?
I ended up in Lund, Sweden, again partially because it offered courses that seemed comparable to Berkeley classes with unique topics not always available here. I also decided to go there because I had never been to Scandinavia, it seemed like an interesting place in general, and it was a convenient enough location from which I could easily visit family and travel in general. These non-academic concerns are important to keep in mind. This may seem obvious, but when you’re scrolling through the options and looking for a place with advanced math courses, it’s sometimes easy to lose sight of this.
I agonized over what classes to take but I ended up with three courses. The first was on calculus of variations, a topic which is sometimes covered in Berkeley’s Math 170, but not always. It was a fun class with two large problem sets and a final presentation. I also enrolled in a Biomathematics course. It was mostly focused on applications of dynamical systems in biology, giving it a slightly different focus than Berkeley’s Math 127. There was some coding and a pretty difficult take home final, as well as an oral exam that I was pretty worried for. A week before the exam I got an email saying I did well enough to not have to take the oral exam, which was a little jarring but definitely welcome.
As you might be able to tell, the classes were way less strict on deadlines and grading than at Berkeley. I had heard this before and had thought it would reduce stress, but I ended up worrying more about my grades than usual since I didn’t really know how I was doing throughout the whole semester. This comes down to personal preference though, and I think it’s a good experience to get exposed to other ways of doing things.
Probably the bulk of my time was spent on an independent bachelor project where I worked one-on-one with a faculty member on a problem in his research, which was a great experience. I saw the option listed on the website and emailed some faculty to see if there was anything available. While it was surprisingly easy to arrange, I did run into a few administrative hiccups here and there, but the staff in general was very helpful and it worked out in the end.
Any general advice?
The main piece of advice I would give to people considering study abroad is to be careful but not fearful. There are a lot of forms and processes to go through to get the experience planned out and approved, and the less issues you have the better. Be especially particular if you’re trying to get major requirements satisfied abroad. That being said, don’t be afraid to go after what you’re interested in, even if there’s not really a precedent for it. Basically, go for it!
*For a good rundown of a Cal student’s experience in MiM, check out https://guide.math.berkeley.edu/2016/04/04/from-russia-with-love/