The Grad School Wrap-Up Post

This is the post I’ll re-read when I want to remember my five years at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education.

Why Grad School

My first year at Stanford was almost my last. A talk I had given right before I arrived at Stanford rolled past one million views. That opened up a lot of opportunities outside of Stanford, very few of which I declined. During what was supposed to be a perfunctory first-year review, my advisers invited me, with as much grace as I could expect of them, to leave Stanford, to return when I had more focus. I stuck around but I think all of us knew then I wasn’t really cut out for R1 university work. Still, I figured I’d work with teachers in a preservice program somewhere and a doctorate wouldn’t hurt my employment odds.

Two years later, just before my dissertation proposal was due, I received a job offer that was really too perfect to pass up, from people who didn’t care whether or not I had a graduate degree. They were nice enough to allow me to defer that offer until this summer.

All of this is to say, I had every incentive to walk, to join the ranks of the ABD. Here’s why I stayed, why I’d do it again even though my new employers don’t care about the letters after my name, and why I’d recommend graduate study to anybody who can make the logistics work: developing, proposing, studying, analyzing, and writing a dissertation works every single mental muscle you have and forces you to develop a dozen new ones. It’s the academic centathlon. I know how to ask more precise questions and how to better interrogate my prior assumptions about those questions. I know many more techniques for collecting data and statistical techniques for answering questions about those data. I know how to automate aspects of that data analysis through scripting. My writing is stronger now. My presentation skills are more polished. My thinking about mathematics education is more developed now, though still a work in progress.

It’s certainly possible to develop all of those muscles separately, without the extra overhead of a dissertation. (Michael Pershan seems to be making a go of it on Twitter, with Ilana Horn as his principle adviser.) But tying them all together in the service of this enormous project was uniquely satisfying.


If you’re thinking about grad school, take advantage of your tools:

Papers to manage references. Dropbox to sync them across machines. iAnnotate PDF to read and mark them up on an iPad. Google Scholar for everything. Scrivener for writing anything with more than five headings. Google Docs for writing anything else. I couldn’t survive grad school without those six tools.

Google Tasks for scheduling to-do’s. Boomerang for scheduling emails. I couldn’t survive professional life without those two tools.

The Last Five Years

  • Wrote two books.
  • Foster parented three kids.
  • Buried my dad.
  • Traveled around the world with my wife.
  • Learned from the best.
  • Collaborated with great people on interesting projects.
  • Traveled to a bunch of states and several countries, meeting basically all of you at one point or another.
  • Keynoted a couple of big-ish conferences.

Opportunity Cost

  • Never presented at AERA, PME, or ICMI.
  • Never attended AERA, PME, or ICMI.
  • Never gave a poster talk.
  • Never gave an academic presentation of any kind until my dissertation defense.
  • Never taught a course.
  • Never TA’d a course.
  • Never supervised any of the promising new teachers in Stanford’s teacher prep program.
  • Never connected with the people in my research group as much or as often as I would have liked.
  • Attended only a small fraction of the lunch talks and job talks and colloquia and dissertation defenses from the great thinkers passing through Stanford.
  • Heard “Oh — do you still go here?” way too often.


  • You guys. I thanked you all in my dissertation’s front matter and I’ll thank you here. The difference between a happy and sad graduate school experience often cuts on whether or not you like to write. In our conversations here, you guys made me, if not a great writer, someone who likes to write. As much as some of you drive me crazy, our back-and-forths made my arguments sharper and easier to defend in the dissertation. There was also that time that I asked on Twitter for help piloting assessment items in your classes and dozens of you helped me out. You have no idea what that kind of support is worth to a grad student around here.
  • I never got sick of my dissertation. I didn’t enjoy some of the logistics of its data collection. I didn’t always have the time I wanted to work on it. But I never got tired of it, which is some kind of gift.
  • Michael Pershan. My codes needed interrater reliability, the stuff that says, “Someone else can reliably see the world how I see the world, whether or not that’s the right way to see the world.” I hired Pershan onto my research team (doubling the size of my research team) when my time was crunched. He coded a bunch of data as fast as I needed and also changed “how I see the world” in some important ways.
  • Desmos. I had some of the area’s best computer engineers and designers building my dissertation intervention. I got very lucky there.
  • Jo Boaler. Jo was my principal adviser for all but my first year of grad school. There were a lot of great reasons to ask for her mentorship, but one of the best is that I never had to hide from her my lack of ambition for a tenure-track research job. As those ambitions faded, a lot of advisers in her position would have waitlisted me, focusing their efforts (rationally) on students who stood a chance to carry their research agenda forward. She invested more in my work than I had any reason to expect and I’ll always be grateful for that.

So that’s that. On to the next thing.

I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. He / him. More here.


  1. Congratulations, Dan! While you were taking on this enormous project, you also challenged me and so many other teachers to rethink our lessons and make them better for our kids. Thank you. Best to you, Dan.

    (Good time to switch college football teams though.)

  2. Beth Andrews

    June 8, 2015 - 6:57 pm -

    Congratulations! And thank you for continuing to take advantage of the opportunities that walked across your path. In doing so, you have positively changed the way math is taught in many classrooms. Even though current and future students might not ever thank you, it must be pretty awesome to know you have played a significant role in the beginnings of a math make-over.

  3. What Fawn said… except for the football jargon.

    Endless thanks from me, the students I’ve taught, and teachers I’ve worked with. Because of your inspiration to help reshape my teaching practices (and others), we’re all better off, and then some! Thanks amigo!

    Best to you and your new adventures.

  4. Sharman Howes

    June 9, 2015 - 3:48 am -

    Dan – You have greatly impacted the way many teachers look at mathematics .You have made a lasting impression on the many teachers I have referred to your work and those who have has the pleasure of hearing you speak. Thanks for the opportunities you accepted because we gained from them.
    All the best and look forward to hearing about your new adventures.
    – from a Canadian teacher

  5. Bravo Dan ! Directly form Quebec, Canada. All the stuff that you shared with us over the years is humongous. And for that, all the math teachers here are greatful.

    Good luck with your new projects and congratulations for your dissertation.

  6. Mikkel Nielsen

    June 9, 2015 - 5:27 am -

    Congratulations from Denmark.

    I’ m grateful for your:
    – three act tasks
    – discussions on the ladder of abstraction
    – work with Desmos
    – work with Dave Major (too bad the online tools are not available anymore)
    – enthusiastic sharing and discussion of ideas

    The above will certainly influence my teaching for years to come

  7. Congratulations, Dan! You continue to inspire me and countless others through your transparency, questioning, and quest to improve the world of education. Best wishes on your next colorful adventure!

  8. Dan, congrats again- I’m enjoying reading through your dissertation as someone who has thought about that before. Where will you be working? I didn’t see about it on Twitter at least. Desmos?

  9. Careen Talavera

    June 9, 2015 - 6:46 am -

    Congratulations Dan! You are a true inspiration to all teachers, regardless of the subject they teach. Your materials make my 6th graders (and myself) really think about math in such fun ways. When my students are excited about 3 Act Math…I get excited! Thanks and continued success to you!

  10. Tom Webster

    June 9, 2015 - 7:35 am -

    Hey Dan, much props for sticking it out, even in the face of what must’ve been the most tempting of offers.

    I am hopeful that we now have one of us (teacher) in the machine (those with the letters after their name) that can be a guiding force for good in the ever-changing landscape of mathematics education.

    People like you, Eli/the gang at Desmos, contributors here and others, make this 18-year-teaching veteran energized for what the future holds, despite the rampant negativity that is unfortunately overtaking both our profession and the court of public opinion on educators in recent years.

    I hope you take some time to enjoy yourself and your family. It is well-deserved. All the best to you and yours!

  11. Dan Nechodom

    June 9, 2015 - 7:51 am -

    I’ve appreciated your work since I saw your initial TED talk. You are possible a good two decades my junior, yet I find myself looking up to you in many ways.

    My respect for you took an even greater leap forward this morning as I read your post. Fostering children can be rewarding and agonizing at the same time. I know, from several years of experience, that it can be all-consuming for a family.

    Thank you for all you do on behalf of kids.

  12. Dan,

    I second Dan Nechodom’s thoughts as you are probably around my son and daughter’s age. Yet, I’ve followed your blog and use your initial TED talk each year on the first day of my secondary math methods class. One year when I and some of my methods students attended an NCTM regional conference; the students who remained behind asked to find a topic on your blog and share with the rest of us when we returned.

    Like you, I am a practitioner at heart and would rather follow best practices than conduct research on my own. As you mention, there is a lot of value going through the dissertation process.

    Some of my colleagues in the Service, Teaching, and Research (STAR 2010) program mentioned how much more influential and powerful blogs such as Fawn Nguyen’s and yours are than some research studies that usually take two years or more to make it through the submission/acceptance/publication process.

    Congratulations again and keep up the great work. When I heard you speak at CPAM in April, I messaged my students your words considering problems: You can always add, but you can never subtract… Such a powerful statement!

  13. Congratulations Dan! Persistence certainly pays off. You have change the way I conduct things in my classroom as well, for the better obviously. So, what’s next?

  14. Karen Fonkert

    June 9, 2015 - 1:10 pm -

    I’m amazed how clearly you were able to lay all that out so soon after finishing. My head was still reeling, and I couldn’t say I would do it again, until a few years later after the pain had subsided. The advantages you listed for finishing the dissertation resonate with me–I now realize those as well.

  15. Well done, Dan!

    I am so impressed with your work output and how easily you seem to write challenging, fascinating posts.

    I, too, used your TED video with my mathematics education students here in Australia, year after year. My students got tired, I think, of my frequent mentions of you and your work.

    My mind is exercised almost daily on how to truly engage elementary aged students with math the way you have done with older students. Thank you for your uncompromising stance on getting kids to buy in, to care about the math they are learning, to actually “get it”.

    I consider myself blessed to have bumped into you briefly at NCTM 2014. I look forward to the next opportunity to be in a room with you, probably in a keynote somewhere.

  16. Dan – a big thank you from those of us across the pond in the UK. There is a growing cadre of teachers who use your model as a way to drive teaching and learning of Mathematics and long may this continue.

    Keep up the good work!

  17. Dan,

    Thanks for all you do and we are looking forward to you coming to Boise Idaho!

    I am beginning to get task overload as well (and it’s summer). Do you do anything more with Google Tasks than just have a massive list? Any organizational strategies there? Once I get past 10 tasks, it seems like Google Tasks is losing its effectiveness. I know you’re busy, maybe there is a link you can point me to as I know you’ve loved having it.

    Thanks and congrats!

  18. You know, Dan, this blog post is pretty darn fantastic. You come up with a lot of creative stuff. Your 3-act idea has probably engaged thousands, if not millions of kids across the country. You’re funny off-the-cuff during presentations…
    Given all of the awesome stuff that gets churned out of, THIS post has inspired me the most to keep striving to be a better educator tomorrow than I was today. Thank you for all you’ve given to the online math community and congratulations on a tremendous accomplishment.