A student’s toolkit

Here in the Southern Hemisphere, our academic year is ending and with the jacarandas blooming, the weather heating up and the smell of ripe mangoes pervading the markets, our thoughts turn to summer. In my case, summer usually entails supervising an undergraduate research project, and this year John and I are supervising one student each for the six-week project.

In the past, I have often forgotten that students are not likely to be familiar with all of the “tools of the trade” for a working combinatorialist, and promise myself that I will write up a list of the basic resources necessary — a student’s toolkit if you like, to which I can point the students on Day One. Given that our students start on Monday, I’ve left it to the last minute (as usual) but on the “better late than never” principle, here goes.



Navigating the literature is a fundamental skill for any discipline. Mathematicians, and especially pure mathematicians, are especially fortunate in this regard, largely because almost all of the relevant literature appears in mainstream international mathematical journals, which have been indexed since 1940 by American Mathematical Society (also Zentralblatt). Most of these journals are completely indexed, many of the papers have short descriptive reviews, and the more recent papers have their citations both forward- and backward-linked.

Coverage of mathematical papers in non-mathematical journals (e.g. mathematical physics) is much less complete.

UWA Library

Of course, once you’ve identified the papers and books you want to read, you need to get hold of them. Newer articles are almost always available online, and  our library has reasonably good subscriptions. Books and older articles are in the library, where again the collection is reasonable, though not great. Much older books and articles, dating back to the early 1900s are in storage, but can be requested. And any item not in the collection can be requested through inter-library loan.

Google Scholar – scholar.google.com

The ubiquitous Google has turned its search and information management skills to academia and here you can find a mixture of pretty much everything. Often it will turn up a preprint of a paper that the library doesn’t have a subscription for, or citations to your articles from unexpected sources. If you want to add citation counts to a grant application, make sure you use Google Scholar counts not MathSciNet!


As combinatorics is essentially about counting and structures that are discrete and finite, it is an ideal domain for computational exploration, and so an awareness of the available tools is useful. In particular,

Mathematica and/or Maple – general purpose computer algebra systems for symbolic manipulation of mathematical expressions. Extensive, powerful, but need licenses.

GAP – computer algebra system focussed particularly on groups and related structures, with its own language. Free.

Magma – commercial program with similar scope to GAP, but with some important algorithms much faster than GAP.

sagesagemath.org – somewhat haphazard mash-up of open-source code and numerous pre-existing packages (including GAP),  glued together (loosely) with a Python-based interface. Enthusiastic community of developers.

nautyhttp://cs.anu.edu.au/~bdm/nauty/ – Brendan McKay’s package of graph generation and isomorphism routines is a must for anyone serious about graph theoretic computation. Very limited user interface, so mostly useful as powerful routines for your own C programs.
And there are numerous other programs for more specialized needs (though many of these can be accessed through Sage if you know the right incantation).

Of course, programming and data collection is relatively easy, lots of fun and gives a satisfying feeling of progress, so it’s easy to lose yourself for weeks or months perfecting your program. Just be careful to remember the old proverb:

A week’s programming sometimes saves a day’s thought!

Web resources

Three web resources stand out:

Online Encyclopedia of Integer Sequences – oeis.org – your program has just told you that there are 1, 1, 1, 3, 7, 24, 93, 434, 2110, 11002 graphs on 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 vertices with some property you are interested in. Is this a known class of graphs? Is this a known property? Type the sequence into oeis.org and if anyone has previously encountered it and deemed it worth recording, you’ll found out.

MathOverflowmathoverflow.net – A place to ask research-level questions and have some of the world’s best mathematical minds consider them; at least, provided the question is interesting, carefully phrased and shows that you’ve given it serious thought. Use sparingly unless you frequently come up with fascinating questions.

math.stackexchangemath.stackexchange.com – A place to ask lower-level mathematical questions, not necessarily open research questions, but just where you’re stuck on something, or can’t find a reference, or can’t figure out exactly which parts of a conjecture are still unsolved etc.


Once you’ve read the literature, computed your data, proved your results, its time to write it up and present it at a conference. You’ll need

LaTeX/TeX – No more WYSIWYG word processing from now on.

Mathematics is universally typeset using a typesetting program called LaTeX (or TeX). This was written by the brilliant and notoriously perfectionistic computer scientist and mathematician Don Knuth, and uses sophisticated algorithms for the very precise placement of both mathematical and non-mathematical elements in a document. A complicated mathematical expression can be written quickly in a linear text-based fashion, and then it is parsed by the program and each element placed properly.

(more on TeX later)


2 thoughts on “A student’s toolkit

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  1. Under web resources, you also need to instil a healthy sense of skepticism. Especially re wikipedia. They also need to know about the arXiv, even if they might not get a whole lot of use out of it as undergraduates.

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