Computers for Grad school

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geoth
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Computers for Grad school

Postby geoth » Sun Jan 09, 2011 12:51 am UTC

I may be going to grad school for econ or math, and if I were to go what sort of computer should I invest in (hardware)? How much would I use my personal computer to run programs and simulations as opposed to lab computers? Is it preferable to use a personal computer as opposed to a school? What were you expected to do with computers in grad school?

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Qaanol
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Re: Computers for Grad school

Postby Qaanol » Sun Jan 09, 2011 1:27 am UTC

I presume you mean applied math. Odds are you’ll be using software similar to what you used as an undergrad: Mathematica, Maple, Matlab, and so forth. I don’t know economics software packages by name. If you’re concerned about certain software only running on certain operating systems, talk to the professors and current grad students at the schools you’re considering to find out what software they use. In all cases you’ll want a computer you enjoy using. If there’s a specific OS you like best, get something that runs that. At worst you’ll end up using school computers for specific tasks, or investing in a cheap secondary PC for running certain programs.

As for hardware specs, that’s pretty much up to how much you want to spend. If you’re going into image processing, you might want a nice graphics card. For intensive calculations you’ll want a lot of RAM. But beyond that, I don’t see grad school as particularly demanding on computer hardware, unless you’re doing intensive physics simulations. If you like being able to carry your computer with you, get a laptop.
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geoth
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Re: Computers for Grad school

Postby geoth » Sun Jan 09, 2011 1:51 am UTC

Qaanol wrote:I presume you mean applied math.


I don't really want to go into applied math, although to be honest I haven't really seen any math, other than econometrics, that has applied to econ. I'm probably going to do one or the other, I haven't decided yet.

Odds are you’ll be using software similar to what you used as an undergrad: Mathematica, Maple, Matlab, and so forth. I don’t know economics software packages by name. If you’re concerned about certain software only running on certain operating systems, talk to the professors and current grad students at the schools you’re considering to find out what software they use. In all cases you’ll want a computer you enjoy using. If there’s a specific OS you like best, get something that runs that. At worst you’ll end up using school computers for specific tasks, or investing in a cheap secondary PC for running certain programs.


As far as econ goes, most of the programs use windows. I'm thinking of switching back to windows, because it allows me to have more control over the hardware, plus I have access to more programs. I plan on keeping my Mac laptop, because it has mathematica on it. I've never had a problem with it, but I've done pretty easy computational stuff, e.g. checking vector cross products for problems. My math professors have stated that some grad schools are becoming more computer intensive, but because of our facilities our math professors don't have access to computers.

As for hardware specs, that’s pretty much up to how much you want to spend. If you’re going into image processing, you might want a nice graphics card. For intensive calculations you’ll want a lot of RAM. But beyond that, I don’t see grad school as particularly demanding on computer hardware, unless you’re doing intensive physics simulations. If you like being able to carry your computer with you, get a laptop.


I'm thinking of going with a desktop and spending anywhere from 1k to 3k on it, depending on how much money I have available. So are computers more used for messy computations to save time?

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silverhammermba
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Re: Computers for Grad school

Postby silverhammermba » Sun Jan 09, 2011 2:39 am UTC

Speaking as a math grad student, I almost never use computers. It really depends on what you're focusing on. AFAIK, most professors do not assume that every student has a copy of Mathematica that they know how to use. In my department, computers are used almost exclusively for research purposes. No class requires a computer, let alone certain software, and if you happen to need a computer for something there a public computers with all of the software you need.

In short, unless you're planning on doing math research that will require lots of intensive calculation, pretty much any computer will do. You should probably go with Windows though. I've never heard of any mainstream math software that is exclusive to Mac or Linux.

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Qaanol
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Re: Computers for Grad school

Postby Qaanol » Sun Jan 09, 2011 3:30 am UTC

In pure math you probably won’t have cause to run any software for your classwork. If anything, just LaTeX for typesetting your papers or homework, but even that won’t likely be required. I can’t really speak for econ though.

I have a Mac laptop and have never regretted it.

Personally, and this is entirely subjective, if I were shopping for a new laptop now, I’d go with the 13.3" MacBook Air with 128GB flash memory and 4GB RAM. I already have a monitor, external hard drive, keyboard and mouse on my desk, so I’d just need to pick up an optical drive. That way at home it’s a full-size computing experience, and when I’m out and about it’s small and light to carry. That’s $1,339 with the education discount for the computer, and $1,418 if I get the SuperDrive from Apple too.

If I were shopping for a new desktop, I’d go with the 27" iMac with a 3.6GHz i5 and 8GB RAM for $1,959. If you only want the 21.5" screen it’s $200 cheaper.
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Re: Computers for Grad school

Postby skeptical scientist » Sun Jan 09, 2011 6:25 am UTC

silverhammermba wrote:Speaking as a math grad student, I almost never use computers.

...except for writing your thesis, I assume?

I agree with the above: by far the most important piece of software for math is LaTeX, which will run on any platform. But honestly, these days it doesn't really matter that much what computer you get, since a PC can run *nix and a mac can run windows. (There are very few applications that require mac-specific software, and those tend to be graphics/art/film-related uses.)
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Jyrki
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Re: Computers for Grad school

Postby Jyrki » Sun Jan 09, 2011 7:19 am UTC

Chiming in. If your graduate education and/or research requires you to run simulations, then those are usually best run on a dedicated server/grid/whatever computing resources your department will provide. The difference (to undergrad work on a CAS or whatever) is that research simulations are usually so computationally intensive that a personal computer is quite the wrong choice. I mean you don't want to dedicate your PC to run a sim that takes up to a few hundred hours (or longer) of CPU time, do you?

Having said that I have run several smaller programs on a PC to aid my research. As long as the program runs its course overnight that is doable. However, for that kind of work you code the program yourself, so choice of hardware and program IDE is really a matter of taste. For most kinds of math you are unlikely to need to do that.

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Tinyboss
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Re: Computers for Grad school

Postby Tinyboss » Mon Jan 10, 2011 2:25 pm UTC

May or may not apply to you, but I'll share something specific from my experience: when I was an undergrad, I carried my entire academic life around with me all the time in a backpack. When I started grad school, I made sure to get something that was very portable. But now I have an office (okay, a desk in a giant room), and that computer just stays on (or locked in) my desk, and I wish I'd gone with something bigger/heaver (and therefore cheaper/more powerful).

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Re: Computers for Grad school

Postby achan1058 » Mon Jan 10, 2011 5:34 pm UTC

I got a relatively decent computer, partly because I want to run hand made programs that "count the number of objects that has property X, where such number is in the billions", and partly because I want to play video games (SC2 on ultra ftw). The computer is Windows/Ubuntu dual boot. Anyways, whether you will actually use your computer for computing stuff depends both on what project you are pursuing, as well as what kind of computer the school has.

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Re: Computers for Grad school

Postby skullturf » Mon Jan 10, 2011 8:46 pm UTC

This is just my two cents, and thus may not be worth more than anyone else's two cents, but:

I have a PhD in math. I didn't do an enormous amount of computing as a student (I took intro to programming and numerical analysis as an undergrad, and did a fair bit of experimentation using Maple as a grad student), but I wish I had done more. I've since taught myself a bit more programming (Perl and C++) but have a lot more to learn.

For part of my time as an undergraduate, I was a bit of a "pure math snob". I've chosen a more academic career path where I don't do a lot of programming, but remember that (1) your tastes may shift over time, and (2) jobs that are "purely academic" can sometimes be hard to come by, and it can be useful to have a more "marketable" skill like programming.

So, speaking generally, I recommend that math students should learn to program, even if they consider themselves "pure math" types who don't really have to know it.

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Re: Computers for Grad school

Postby stephentyrone » Tue Jan 11, 2011 5:48 am UTC

If you have a mac and you like it, keep it. It'll run everything that is actually relevant to life as a math grad student (LaTeX, mostly, but other stuff too). As an aside, I don't know of any interesting mathematical software on windows; everything of interest (to me, at least) either runs on *nix or is cross-platform.

If you discover that you need/want something newer and shinier once you're actually taking the classes / working on the thesis, invest in something new. Ideally, there will be some equipment money in a grant somewhere and you won't actually have to pay for it yourself.

If I had money burning a hole in my pocket before starting grad school, I'd save the money for beer. If I were required to spend the money on a computer, I would personally buy a macbook air. It's nice, you can carry it around and work in cafes (I got all my best work done in cafes as a grad student), and you have a mac now, so it'll be familiar. If you actually need more computational horsepower for something in your program, it'll be available to you.
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