Advice to a Young Mathematician from Sir Michael Atiyah


Mathematicians vary widely in characteristics such experience, personality and style of work and you should follow your own instinct. You may learn from others but interpret what you learn in your own way. Originality comes by breaking away, in some respects, from the practice of the past.



A research mathematician, like a creative artist, has to be passionately interested in the subject and fully dedicated to it. Without strong internal motivation you cannot succeed, but if you enjoy mathematics the satisfaction you can get from solving hard problems is immense.

The first year or two of research is the most difficult. There is so much to learn. One struggles unsuccessfully with small problems and one has serious doubts about one’s ability to prove anything interesting. I went through such a period in my second year of research, and Jean-Pierre Serre, perhaps the outstanding mathematician of my generation, told me that he too had contemplated giving up at one stage.


Because of the intense mental concentration required in mathematics, psychological pressures can be considerable, even when things are going well. Depending on your personality this may be a major or only a minor problem, but one can take steps to reduce the tension. Interaction with fellow students—attending lectures, seminars, and conferences—both widens one’s horizons and provides important social support. Too much isolation and introspection can be dangerous, and time spent in apparently idle conversation is not really wasted.

Collaboration, initially with fellow students or one’s supervisor, has many benefits, and long-term collaboration with coworkers can be extremely fruitful both in mathematical terms and at the personal level. There is always the need for hard quiet thought on one’s own, but this can be enhanced and balanced by discussion and exchange of ideas with friends.


The Role of Curiosity

The driving force in research is curiosity. When is a particular result true? Is that the best proof, or is there a more natural or elegant one? What is the most general context in which the result holds?

If you keep asking yourself such questions when reading a paper or listening to a lecture, then sooner or later a glimmer of an answer will emerge—some possible route to investigate. When this happens to me I always take time out to pursue the idea to see where it leads or whether it will stand up to scrutiny. Nine times out of ten it turns out to be a blind alley, but occasionally one strikes gold. The difficulty is in knowing when an idea that is initially promising is in fact going nowhere. At this stage one has to cut one’s losses and return to the main road. Often the decision is not clear-cut, and in fact I frequently return to a previously discarded idea and give it another try.


At the start of your research your relationship with your supervisor can be crucial, so choose carefully, bearing in mind subject matter, personality, and track record. Few supervisors score highly on all three. Moreover, if things do not work out well during the first year or so, or if your interests diverge significantly, then do not hesitate to change supervisors or even universities. Your supervisor will not be offended and may even be relieved!

Once you have successfully earned your Ph.D. you enter a new stage. Although you may still carry on collaborating with your supervisor and remain part of the same research group, it is healthy for your future development to move elsewhere for a year or more. This opens you up to new influences and opportunities. This is the time when you have the chance to carve out a niche for yourself in the mathematical world. In general, it is not a good idea to continue too closely in the line of your Ph.D. thesis for too long. You have to show your independence by branching out. It need not be a radical change of direction but there should be some clear novelty and not simply a routine continuation of your thesis.



In writing up your thesis your supervisor will normally assist you in the manner of presentation and organization. But acquiring a personal style is an important part of your mathematical development. Although the needs may vary, depending on the kind of mathematics, many aspects are common to all subjects.


We refer to read more in the book so-called “The Princeton Companion to Mathematics” edited by Timothy Gowers. 



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