The letter below, written by Dr. Dawn Lott, is a written version of a verbal presentation she made to graduate students at Northwestern University. I believe it to be useful by graduate students everywhere, mathematics or not. This article can also be found at

Scott Williams
February 22, 2003

20 February 2003

To my brothers and sisters at Northwestern University,

I say to you that the relationship you have with your spouse, is by far the most important relationship you will ever be in other than your relationship with God. And it is my prayer that God (in whatever form you worship him) is the center of the relationship. How you relate to your spouse is a testimony of how you handle a precious gift that God has entrusted you with. This relationship is sacred and nothing should be allowed to come between the two of you.

But all of you know the strength and dedication that is required of you and you alone in the pursuit of a doctoral degree. At times, you must be so focused on yourself and what is asked of you, that it is difficult to focus on the needs of your spouse and the joys you should be experiencing with him or her. Everyone would love to have a spouse who is completely understanding of the long nights studying or the never ending thoughts of the next step in the equation, the algorithm, the technique, the analysis or whatever it is that never leaves your thoughts. And when all is said and done, God first, spouse second, academia third (unless you have children: next section).

You will have to maintain a balance between loving your spouse and loving yourself. That time that you devote to working on your dissertation should not be considered as time or attention away from your partner. It is without a doubt time that you are developing yourself and equipping yourself with the right tools to live your dreams. It will be incredibly difficult at times to be able to make choices but you can not let the lack of a choice make a choice for you. I tell my students all the time that one must find balance in their life because your teeth, your money and your spouse will all leave you if you neglect them. Make your pursuit of a Ph.D. not only be your goal but an interwoven goal for the both of you to be happy. Learn to say no to your spouse. "No, Eric. We can not go to the movies this evening but lets schedule it for Tuesday, after my D12 exam." Learn to say no to your advisor. "No Alvin, I will not be in tomorrow evening because it is my anniversary and Eric and I are going out to dinner." And learn when and how to make the appropriate choice between the two. Realize that marriage lasts forever but a dissertation is clearly a terminal pursuit. If you and your spouse have this understanding and you continue to love him/her in the midst of the mania, you will have a future with both your spouse and your degree in it.

We must accept the gifts that God has given us. I am so thankful for my ability and love of mathematics. I know that it is a part of me that defines me and makes me manage the activities of my life in an orderly and systematic manner. I, of course, seek to develop younger mathematicians but I realize this is my dream. Another may not understand what drives me. It is my hope that with a spouse, understanding and acceptance come hand in hand.

If you think the pursuit of a doctoral degree is difficult, I can honestly say I agree. I have given birth one time, to my blessed son Samuel. And I can honestly say that I would have nine more children before I would ever work on another doctoral degree. But, the degree is not the biggest challenge you will face. Your biggest challenge will be staying married to the same individual for the rest of your life. So realize that the degree is doable, is obtainable and it tangible for he/she that seeks it but it is not the cross you must bear in life, even if it feels like it.

Many of you know that my spouse and I came to Northwestern, together, as graduate students but did not leave together. But the demise of my marriage was not a direct casualty of my graduate pursuits, although our personal goals and achievements at times, did make it difficult for us to focus on each other. Why? We were each trying to "get ours." The Ph.D. is yours, not your parents, not your children, not your advisors and certainly not your spouses. It requires a major bit of selfishness to carve out you own time to devote to your studies and to your research.

You are required to be selfish with your time, your activities, and more important, your thought processes. Therefore you must make priorities. And remember, your spouse and your dissertation must be at the top of the list. There maybe times when the dissertation comes first. This was difficult for me because of my belief that my spouse should come first after God. But, when it came down to preparing for the preliminary examinations, the qualifying examinations and the defense, I had to focus my light on me just so I had enough illumination to get me through the dark tunnels. And as supportive as a mate can be, he nor she is there in the room with you when you are defending the one thing in life you have done uniquely and solely by yourself. It is your accomplishment. You did it yourself. Despite what anyone may think, it was me, Dawn Lott, who held that chalk and expounded on three or fours years of my own past energies.

Love and relate to your God. Love and relate to yourself. Love and relate to your spouse. You may have to make daily choices between your spouse and your pursuits. But they should not be lifetime choices. A doctoral degree is much more rewarding and fun when you have your mate to share in your joy and self accomplishment.
To God be the glory.

To my brothers and sisters with children:

By the time I was 26, I was married, I had one small child and I was "all but dissertation." How could I have been so blessed to have so much? I can honestly say that having a child in graduate school was not easy and if I had to do it all over again, I would still choose to travel the path I so familiarly remember.

Again, we are faced with choices and no one can look into the face of a child and place him/her second on your "to do list". Samuel means God's messenger and truly, my Samuel is a messenger of God. Throughout my graduate program, Samuel suffered continuously from respiratory distress, pneumonia, heart problems, growth delays, and abusive medical treatments which involved x-rays, biopsies and surgeries. In the midst of my own academic responsibilities, my marriage to a graduate student who also had academic responsibilities and parenting responsibilities, I do not know how I went to bed each night with peace in my spirit. Well, many days I did not have peace. I was faced with the reality that I might have to someday make a choice and prioritize the three most important entities in my life, Eric, Samuel and school. It was clear to me that my child deserved to have a mother who would sacrifice her life for him. And as I looked at his tiny, little frame each day, I always knew what I had to do, if necessary. I would postpone school and care for this gift that God had entrusted me with, without any reservation. For some of you this may seem to be an obvious decision. It is not. I can not tell you how difficult it is to be successfully progressing in a graduate program, nearing a defense, and think that someday a doctoral degree would b se a dream unrealized.

I am thankful that I never had to make that choice and I was able to do what I had to, to meet the needs of myself, my mate, my child and my academic program. I know that at any given time, one, two or three of these had to suffer in order to for me to focus on the one. These challenges made me stronger. A graduate program is difficult and raising children is even more difficult and together they may feel like your world is closing in. But I had to have it all and with God, I did.

To my brothers and sisters with outside funding:

Joy and grief comes with having lots of money or in being in need of it. When we are blessed to have outside funding, it alleviates one of the many stresses a graduate student experiences. However, being "independently wealthy" can make one independent from the department. Be sure to make your department accountable for you and your progress. You should be included in all activities involving graduate students, not just the ones the department is supporting financially. Since the department is not funding you, its investment in your education is somewhat different. Force yourself to stay in the loop. You are working just as hard, if not harder, than the other students, and you need the same guidance and advice, as well.

To my brothers and sisters making the choice of an advisor:

I can not equate the choice of an advisor equal to being given the opportunity to pick your own parents but it is your advisor who will shape you, mold you and provide for you the basic tools you will need in this doctoral pursuit. The benefits and repercussions of your choice depend on who your advisor is and how you relate to him or her, what you advisor is able to offer you in terms of guidance and boundaries and how much of yourself you are willing to commit to your own goal and to the student/advisor relationship. First and most important, your advisor does not have to be a person of color. He or she must be someone who believes in you and your ability to carry through to the end. Your advisor should be someone who is top in his/her field and has a carved out an area of that field for his/herself. Your advisor should be someone who will push you until you can not be pushed any farther and be able to recognize that you have reached your daily limit and all else must continue tomorrow. The relationship between you and your advisor should be one of respect, dedication, motivation and a mutual yearning to learn more.

The Department of Engineering Sciences and Applied Mathematics has a wealth of phenomenal individuals to choose from to help make and shape your career as an
applied mathematician.

But in the midst of these wonderful, educated individuals, I was very clear that I wanted to work with Dr. Alvin Bayliss because of his area of expertise and what I saw was a researcher, educator and more importantly, a humanitarian that I wanted to emulate. It was with great anticipation that I asked him to be my advisor and immeasurable joy, growth and inspiration I experienced under his direction. And I knew that he had so much faith in me and my abilities I was sure not to let either of us down.

Many of you are now being pressured to choose advisors very early in your program. No one would choose their parents or their spouse in such a short amount of time. But faced with the time constraints placed upon you, you need to do your research so that your choice will bring fruitful collaborations in your future. Let the professors in your department know that you are eager to excel in your program and you are willing to go the distance. Perform well in your classes. Make sure you are visible in the department. But most of all, familiarize yourself with the research interests of the department. Look on the websites of the professors, ask them for reprints of their papers. Get to know the people in the department who will participate in your doctoral process. Imagine if we were asked to choose our parents long before we knew what we would learn from them. The choice of an advisor is one of the few decisions you will make yourself during your tenure as a graduate student. Make it wisely. If so, you will have a lifetime collaborator, confidant, mentor, supporter and friend.

To all of you:

I can not impress upon you how much my four years at Northwestern shaped my life. And with each return, I am reminded by my home department and my friends that I truly am at home. I know the challenges and the despair you may feel in the midst of this degree. But, remember, you are giving birth to something new, something you have done, something you are contributing to make a difference in your field. This process is a growing process which can be painful at times. I experienced many manic moments when I could not solve the equations that modeled my problem. It was miserable when the 6000 line program I had written did not give me the correct output. But the problems you figure out and the solutions you come up with are rewarding for they came from the very depths of your soul and your efforts.

Prepare your mind and your spirit for the dissertation writing process. You must be mentally and physically and spiritually fit. Keep negative forces at bay. Also prepare your family and your friends for the time when you must disassociate from all but the dissertation. Try to think in line with or ahead of your advisor. That is, start the writing process before he/she requests you to do so. The writing will also reinforce what it is that you already know. The day Alvin told me I should start writing up my problems and the results, I handed him 75 typewritten pages which I later called chapters one and two.

You may receive support and camaraderie with your fellow students of they may be the very ones who engage you in a competition you did not know would ever exist. You will be mad with your advisor and he/she will be mad or disappointed in you. These things will come. Love your God and yourself first, stay focused and determined, be true to yourself and your goal and all else will fall into place.

May we forever be siblings in the Northwestern experience.

God Bless,

Dr. Dawn Lott
Department of Mathematical Sciences
New Jersey Institute of Technology



Return to Special Articles

Since opening 5/25/97, visitors to

The website MATHEMATICIANS OF THE AFRICAN DIASPORA is brought to you by

The Mathematics Department of
The State University of New York at Buffalo

created and maintained by
Dr. Scott W. Williams
Professor of Mathematics

CONTACT Dr. Williams