Skip to main content

Alumni Q&A: Kevin Miller on Preparing for a Math PhD

By Chris Hair on December 16, 2020

Kevin Miller
ACME Class of 2017
UCLA, Applied Mathematics PhD


  1. Research opportunities and internships are important as you prepare for graduate school
  2. Forming relationships with professors while at BYU is critical
  3. Don’t underestimate the importance of your math GRE score for your application.

Chris Hair: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and where you’re at now?

Kevin Miller: I am currently starting my fourth year of my PhD in applied mathematics at UCLA. My advisor is Dr. Andrea Bertozzi, who is the director of applied mathematics at UCLA. My research is in what’s called active learning for graph-based, semi-supervised learning methods.

Chris Hair: How did you end up at UCLA?

Kevin Miller: While I was in ACME I did an internship for undergrads called an REU at UCLA. I had heard about this from a friend-of-a-friend who was in the program. His advisor was Dr. Bertozzi and I had been emailing him, asking him about UCLA. I heard really good things about the PhD program there and he had mentioned my name to Dr. Bertozzi. Out of that came a new opportunity to do this REU at UCLA. That was right before my last year in ACME and I went off to do this research experience. I got to check out UCLA and it was one of my top school choices when I was applying for PhD programs. That last year at BYU I applied for a number of different programs. I got into UCLA and basically, once I got into UCLA, I knew that’s where I wanted to go. I have had a really good experience here.

Chris Hair: When you were in ACME, did you know that you wanted to get a PhD? What helped you decide that grad school was something you wanted?

Kevin Miller: The year before I did the REU at UCLA I did an internship at Lawrence Livermore Labs over the summer. I took five years at BYU, so that was between my third and fourth year. It was kind of like an REU experience at Lawrence Livermore. I was a computational science intern, but the stuff I was working on was more like research–kind of an introduction to what research would be like. I mean, I can’t say I was doing actual research, but it gave me a really cool opportunity to work with some academics there at the lab and get an idea of what research is like. That summer really convinced me I wanted to do something past my undergrad. That’s when I started considering doing a PhD.

When I came back, I remember talking to Jeff Humpherys and Jeff said, “Yes, you should get a PhD!” When I came back after Lawrence Livermore, I got to do research with Jeff and Wayne Barrett. It just so happened that the research at Lawrence Livermore directly connected to this new research that Wayne Barrett was starting up with Jeff. So it naturally flowed into doing research at BYU as an undergrad. That’s really what convinced me to do a PhD: getting that first research experience and then, that next year at BYU, seeing that I enjoyed reading what other academics have done, and constantly learning new things. I was intrigued by that.

Chris Hair: Would you recommend to most ACME students that they should try and get involved in research?

Kevin Miller: I would say it really depends on what you want to do after. If you want to do a PhD, definitely do research. If you’re looking at getting a job straight out of undergrad, I would say internships are a little more important because they give you specific experience with coding and whatever type of job you want to do. If you want to be doing a research-based degree past your undergrad, definitely do research.

Chris Hair: Do you have any advice on how to get involved in research while at BYU?

Kevin Miller: BYU is cool because of the amount of opportunities for undergraduate research. Being at UCLA has actually made me really appreciate the undergrad research experience I had at BYU. UCLA is a top-tier research university, but the undergrads really don’t have too much of an opportunity to do research. If you’re interested in trying to do research while at BYU, or getting a flavor for it, you’re at a unique place. There’s an emphasis on undergrads at BYU that I don’t see in other places.

I think one of the best things for me was getting close to one of the professors–Jeff. He had a lot of good advice and pointed me to opportunities. That’s actually one of the pieces of advice I give just in general for maximizing your time in ACME. If you want to go to grad school, get close to two professors. Number one, you’re going to need letters of recommendation to get into grad school. And number two, they’ve gone through the whole process of doing a PhD and doing research. They know what it’s like. There were a lot of conversations with Jeff and Jared Whitehead that I had that were very formative and insightful for me and helped me decide what I would do after my undergraduate.

Chris Hair: What else was needed when you applied for grad school?

Kevin Miller: The general GRE and math subject GRE. You’ve got to kill it. You’ve got to do well on the math subject GRE. I remember while I was at the UCLA REU I was talking to a PhD student about applying to UCLA. My advisor at the beginning of the REU said, “I know a lot of you probably want to do your PhD here at UCLA. But most of you are not going to get in.” She was trying to be straightforward. So I was asking this PhD student what he thought helped. He said that he had been talking to a professor and knew about the admissions process. The first thing they were looking at were your GRE math subject scores. That was the thing they looked at to see what sort of echelon you were in. That score was really important. I heard that from Jeff and I heard that from my mentor at Livermore Labs as well.

Chris Hair: Do you have any other advice for current ACME students who are looking to go to grad school after they finish ACME?

Kevin Miller: The ACME course work is actually really, really good for preparing you for grad school if you take advantage of it. There’s a lot of work. A lot of the homework problems were proofs. I remember sometimes feeling overwhelmed with my schedule and I would just try and brush through and get the answer. I think the times that better prepared me for graduate school were when I was really sitting down and trying to understand the logic of the proof and the inner workings. My experience when I got to grad school was you had to do that. A lot of graduate homework has been difficult proof problems. But I don’t have a cohort of people where everybody is working on it nor are the teachers always as available as the teachers were for ACME. I had to do a lot more on my own. I think the times that I was really trying to make sure I understood what was going on were the most informative and important for preparing me to be ready for coursework in a PhD program.

Chris Hair: Thanks Kevin for your interview and your advice!