Can I get into grad school in math?
October 14, 2009 8:31 PM   Subscribe

Can I get into a funded Math Master's or PhD program? I'm graduating from a 4-year college with my B.S. this Spring, and I'm in my mid-30's. I have good GPA at this school (about a 3.6, up to about a 3.8 in math courses specifically) and good GRE scores (720 V / 780 Q), but I have dropped a lot of courses (I've worked full time over the years while getting my degree), and back in the mid-90's I flunked out of the first university I went to.

Are there graduate math programs that would accept me and give me a TAship or RAship with stipend and free tuition? I have one publication (a not very good one in Computer Science from a regional conference) and will have decently good recommendations, but I haven't done anything brilliant.

I'd like to get a PhD but I'm certainly open to getting a Master's first. Is there an obvious way I should proceed here?
posted by tamaraster to Education (12 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Talk to your professors ASAP about programs. They know way better than we do.

What exactly do you want to study? You'll want a program that is strong/good in that area.

As usual, I recommend visiting LiveJournal's applyingtograd community. Much better and focused feedbsck in there.
posted by k8t at 9:12 PM on October 14, 2009 [2 favorites]

I just started teaching at the University of Alaska Fairbanks in the math department; their graduate program is primarily masters but does have a potential PhD program also. I don't have a good sense of what precisely they look for in qualifications for graduate students, but I would encourage you to check it out, anyway---it seems like it might be accessible.

In general, you should look at programs which seem to have professors who you think you would like to work with, as in they do interesting mathematics. It doesn't hurt to actually e-mail professors who you think do interesting stuff: they might even decide to put in a good word for you with the acceptance committee!

I had a very good experience being admitted into a masters' program and then transferring into the PhD program after my first year. It was great: I got to take an undergraduate course my first year to fill in some holes from my liberal arts background, but I was still treated like other graduate students (had a TA position) and graduated in 5 years with my PhD.

In general, it can't hurt to apply places; as with job applications, here's where having a good cover letter and good recommendation letters would make all the difference. I would expect any place that accepted you would also give you a TA and pay for tuition, although I don't know how the disasters that are many states' budgets have affected things over the past 7 years since I graduated.

Please feel free to MeFiMail if you have specific questions I can help with!
posted by leahwrenn at 9:15 PM on October 14, 2009

A lot of schools have really tightened admissions during the recession. My program (not math) admitted 8 students last year, down from an average of 25, and is planning on admitting just a few this year. Meanwhile, the number of applicants is up since it's harder to get a job. So if you don't get in this year, try again when the economy is back to normal.
posted by miyabo at 10:26 PM on October 14, 2009

Those grades and GRE scores certainly pass muster for PhD admissions at even top-tier universities. Now the keys will be 1) your recommendations and 2) finding professors whose research goals fit with yours and writing that up into a home-run personal statement, especially the latter. Then, meet those professors personally and talk to them. Discuss your shared research interests. Explain why you want to work with them (because a PhD is practically an apprenticeship). And tell them about you academic history but that you've persevered and you're ready to join the ranks of academia. Because really, the '90s are a long time ago.
posted by The Michael The at 4:27 AM on October 15, 2009

If you're looking at a mathematics Ph.D program, they're almost certainly going to want you to have taken the mathematics GRE subject test as well; have you done this yet? If not, and you're trying to get into a program that starts next fall, you may need to move on this ASAP -- they only offer the test (this year) on 10/10/09, 11/07/09, and 04/10/10, and have already closed registration (but I think you can try to take the test standby; call them and find out, if you're in this situation.)

Apart from that: while miyabo is right in that a lot of programs have tightened their admissions, there have been a few programs in good financial situations/that have lots of research grants that have been using this recession to grab up some good students. So while it is harder to get into a program this year than it has been, you're not looking at the impossibility-levels that prospective humanities grad students are right now.

Finally, just seconding k8t's suggestion to talk to your professors -- they will know what departments you'd be a good fit for and where you should apply. they are your best resource out there. good luck!
posted by Chionophilia at 4:30 AM on October 15, 2009

I am a PhD student in mathematics at a tier II school in my 6th year (finishing in March/April).

OP: Are there graduate math programs that would accept me and give me a TAship or RAship with stipend and free tuition?

There certainly are! My program probably would. You can mefi-mail me if you want more details about my school.

Those grades and GRE scores certainly pass muster for PhD admissions at even top-tier universities.

Be careful with this. My grades and scores as an undergraduate were better than that, and I was rejected by many top tier mathematics programs. It is much more about who you know, I think, if you want to get into those types of places. Of course by "get in," I mean "get accepted with funding and all that good stuff". Lots of people can get in. Select few get funded (and that will make all the difference).

Places like University of Illinois has a lot of money and is willing to "take a chance" on someone who isn't already a superstar, but the top tier programs are much more difficult than the tier below.

If you're looking at a mathematics Ph.D program, they're almost certainly going to want you to have taken the mathematics GRE subject test as well...

Also this. Take it as soon as you can!
posted by King Bee at 6:36 AM on October 15, 2009

Would you consider going out of country? When I think math, I think Waterloo, and they seem to have fairly generous funding. (And for a bonus, I think that most of the math programs don't require any GRE let alone the subject test.)
posted by carmen at 7:46 AM on October 15, 2009

I run graduate admissions for the mathematics Ph.D. program at a large US state university. Some of the information above is correct, some not.

1. You need recommendation letters from professors at your current BA institution. Ask them "Where should I be applying?" They know what they're going to say about you, so they'll know the range of places that match the strength of your application.

2. You certainly need to take the math subject GRE; my program would almost certainly not admit you without it.

3. It's not so important that you have research interests that match those of specific professors in the target department; most undergrads don't have focused, well-defined research interests yet, and that won't be held against you in admissions. (If you DO think you know exactly what area you want to pursue, though, it's certainly a good idea to focus on programs that are strong in that area.)

4. What happened in the '90s is irrelevant.

5. Most math Ph.D. programs are fully funded, and will support you with a TA stipend (i.e. you'll be grading and/or teaching undergrad math courses) and cover your tuition. I wouldn't advise accepting an admission offer under any other circumstances.
posted by escabeche at 8:23 AM on October 15, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks so much for all the recommendations. In my research so far, a lot of schools haven't required the Math Subject exam and I've been leery of taking it because when I took the practice test from ETS, I got a really low score (like 38th percentile, though I didn't try as hard as I would have for a real test). I would have to review a lot of calculus or something. But thanks for the advice. I could always wait a year and try to get more prepared for the subject exam.
posted by tamaraster at 8:56 AM on October 15, 2009

In my applications to math grad schools, I found that almost all the decent ones (and surely almost all the ones that you'd be considering with your math GPA) require the Math GRE. Which is somewhat of a pain because they only give it a few times per year and only in certain locations. I also got a mediocre score my first time - 44th %ile - because I was used to not having to study for standardized tests. I gave it a couple weeks of decent study and got up to 83rd %ile, so it's totally doable. A solid review of Calc 3 and linear algebra will go a long way.
posted by Earl the Polliwog at 7:09 PM on October 15, 2009

Oh, and just for a data point: my GPA was ~3.4, math GPA 3.25 (though it would have been a 3.5 without one course I retook for an A), GRE 1510, and I wound up going to Michigan State. Got into the Ph.D program, did it for three years, disliked it, and took my Master's just a couple months ago.
posted by Earl the Polliwog at 7:14 PM on October 15, 2009

On re-reading my comment, I wanted to clarify that I meant most of the math programs *at Waterloo* don't require the GRE (one does, but it seems to require it only of people educated outside the US and Canada; in general most Canadian university programs don't require it).
posted by carmen at 6:58 AM on October 17, 2009

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