Math Department plans to propose new PhD program

November 29, 2012

Georgetown’s Department of Mathematics and Statistics is planning for a new PhD program, a proposal for which may be formally submitted for approval by the University as soon as the fall of 2013. Currently, the Math Department is the only science program at Georgetown that does not support a PhD program.

The department had previously offered a PhD program, but it was dissolved by the University the late ‘70s. “It was a small program,” said Dr. James Sandefur, Chair of the Mathematics Department.

The University discontinued the PhD program, along with the master’s program, in part because it was so small and focused on the less practical field of pure mathematics. “There were not that many jobs available,” Sandefur said. “Right now, if you get a PhD in pure mathematics, you would have difficulty getting a good job.”

In the years since the program’s closure, the Math Department has refocused on applied mathematics and statistics, especially since the master’s program was reestablished in the fall of 2006.

“What has changed is, when we started our master’s program, we hired three statisticians, and we added a fourth one this year,” Sandefur said. “So we didn’t have the statistics component, which is where a lot of the jobs are, and since our programs were previously cancelled, over that time period, our department has been evolving more toward applied mathematics.”

The department has been encouraged by the growth of the graduate program over its six years and sees it as a model for how the PhD program could be implemented. “The master’s program has been extremely successful,” Sandefur said. “It’s much larger than we initially expected. We were hoping to have like 20 or 30 students and now … we have between 70 and 80 students.”

Like the master’s program, the PhD program would either offer a degree in Mathematics and Statistics or two separate degrees in either Applied Mathematics or Statistics. “All of the [graduate students] that have wanted to get a job have been able to get good jobs,” Sandefur said. “Many of them have been getting more than one job offer, so, in this economy, these master’s students have been doing quite well.”

The Steering Committee for the Math Department’s graduate program has been organizing the planning for the PhD program so far. Although the department has considered proposing a program in years past, Director of the Math master’s program Ken Shaw says the committee is serious in starting it up again this time around.

According to Shaw, the Math Department’s self-study last year reestablished the motivation to create the program. “In the process of self-study, I think, people realized how interested people are in having a PhD program and we included a lot of language about a possible PhD program in the self-study,” Shaw said. He says the department is still in the process of determining the “critical issues” that would have to be resolved before the program is officially proposed.

“Those are some of the big issues: what kind of program it will be, how many additional staff do we have to have, how many students we’re going to recruit, how we’re going to support them, and, more generally, how we’re going to pay for the entire thing,” Shaw said.

Georgetown has only recently begun to make major investments in the sciences. Any program would be expensive, and it is unclear whether the University would approve the funding. To this point, there has been no formal communication between the Math Department and the administration.

The earliest any formal proposal could be submitted, according to Shaw and Sandefur, would be the fall of 2013, and the earliest the program would begin enrolling students would be the fall of 2014. The proposal would require approval from a number of University offices and bodies, including the Dean of the College, the Provost, and the Board of Directors.

Although the establishment of a Math PhD program would have barely any effect on undergraduate life as a whole, the program would provide students with more access to research opportunities and advanced course offerings.

“I always recommend that students switch schools if they’re going for a PhD, just to get a different exposure, different faculty, different ways of teaching,” Sandefur said. “But by having one here and having some good courses that our top students can take, they would be better prepared to go into some of the top PhD programs around the country.”

Although no announcements have been made yet, many master’s students have shown interest in continuing their math education at Georgetown. “I definitely see an interest among my peers in establishing a program here,” said Nicole Huret (GRAD), a math master’s student.“It would be a huge benefit to have PhD students available in terms of teaching certain undergraduate courses, as well as just to have around to benefit the general discussions that occur on a daily basis.”

Connor Jones
Connor Jones is the former editor-in-chief of the Georgetown Voice. Before that, he edited its blog, Vox Populi and the features section. He was a double major in mathematics and economics and is from Atlanta, Ga. He can be reached at

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