Re-enter PhD program after many years -- recommendations?
November 23, 2009 3:31 PM   Subscribe

Applying to enter a math PhD program after working in industry. Question about recommendations.

I am thinking of applying to re-enter a math PhD program, maybe in applied math.

My brief background: a masters degree in Mechanical Engineering from U. of Toledo and another in Math from Auburn U. 16 years ago. Was briefly in the math PhD program at Purdue immediately afterward, but regrettably left it after 2 years - I squandered it.

Forward to now. I plan to take my GRE general soon and the math test in April.

I am stuck with getting recommendations however. Being a web developer, my current work is not too relevant to math, but still I can ask my boss for references. For another reference I could try asking my former boss from the previous company I worked for, but I can't think of whom to ask for a 3rd letter.

Any suggestions for what I can do for references? Do I have a chance of being accepted with 2 letters attesting to my web development skills? My GPAs from the MS degrees: 3.4 and 3.7, and I scored full on the math GRE in '93, and I was a good student at Auburn and considered potential for a PhD.

posted by lakshmi_mefi to Education (9 answers total)
Can you get back in touch with any of your former math professors?
posted by madcaptenor at 3:34 PM on November 23, 2009

Yes, I guess I could. Will do, thanks.
posted by lakshmi_mefi at 3:40 PM on November 23, 2009

Being a web developer, my current work is not too relevant to math.

Don't use those words. Call it "(internet) programming" on your application and CV. And definitely include the Purdue time, which is meaningful, even if you just call it "studies toward...".

Something to keep in mind, maybe, though it's a very small sample size: I have only know three math PhDs. The two I know best both ended up leaving the USA (independently and a decade apart) to work overseas, because the only great job offers they were getting here were from the dreaded military-industrial complex.

(The third was just a giant asshat who stayed in academia. At Purdue, come to think of it. Hm.)
posted by rokusan at 3:40 PM on November 23, 2009

I am chair of math Ph.D. admissions for a large research department. I'm not gonna lie, you are in a difficult spot; we look for recommendations that can attest to your research potential in mathematics, and it's not going to be possible to get those from your recent employers. Asking your old math professors is a good idea, but the odds are they're not going to remember you well enough to write you a helpful letter.

If you really want to do this, what you want to do is take some upper-level undergrad math courses, or better still intro grad courses, at a university near you. Let the professors know your plan. Then you'll have letters saying "I taught this guy LAST YEAR and he's ready to succeed in grad school" -- that's what everyone else is going to have, and that's what you need. You'll need up-to-date GRE scores, too.
posted by escabeche at 6:02 PM on November 23, 2009 [2 favorites]

escabeche is on the ball here -- what the recommendations need to convey is that you are capable of doing serious research. Your boss is unable to attest to that and in my experience, any letter from industry, unless it is from a serious academically known researcher (read: continues to publish academic papers), will be useless. I'm a grad student in CS, and when I was on the admissions committee, there were plenty of people whose recommendations made it clear they were good coders but did not (and could not) attest to their research potential. As far as I know, none of those people got admitted.

Was you MS research or course based? If it was researched based, your research supervisor should at least remember you and be able to say some good things. As far as the PhD you started -- is there anyone there who both knows about your work and can write something positive? Your boss's recommendation can help explain how you are motivated and capable, so that should provide information on what you have been doing since collge.
posted by bsdfish at 6:30 PM on November 23, 2009

I was in your exact position, and did what escabeche said. I enrolled in a grad-level course, taught by a professor that was well regarded in my field. I made no bones about my intentions for taking that course, right up front. The subject matter was also a bit out of my depth, but relevant to a future research project I hope to undertake in my PhD life. I let the professor know this as well. It's been a ton of work, but I think I've impressed him with my ability to keep up and my enthusiasm (honestly, every assignment I've turned in has been driven by my goal) and I feel pretty confident that he'll be a good recommender for me, not to mention what I've learned in his class, and how that will boost my application (especially where my research project is concerned). It's turned out to be a win-win-win so far.

I think this might be a good way for you to go too. Choose the professor and/or course well. Email them in advance, explaining your situation and building a rapport. They might then be able to help clear any roadblocks to get you in the class (even if it's just an audit).

Also, the GRE is a stupid, dumb bear. I'd recommend taking it earlier than you need, so that you may retake if necessary. Also, they let you take it once every calendar month, so pick the date accordingly, in case you think you'll retake.
posted by iamkimiam at 12:40 AM on November 24, 2009

Thanks escabeche, will explore taking courses. Actually 1 or 2 of my old math professors might remember me.

bsdfish, my MS was course based, and I didn't do research while I was in the PhD program.

A follow up question -- I'll try and enroll in a relevant course in the next term, so I guess that recommendation letter could be coming late. If I am not accepted for next fall, would they reconsider my application for 2011?

Thanks for the responses, guys.
posted by lakshmi_mefi at 9:58 AM on November 24, 2009

You will probably have to reapply. But here's the thing...if the only thing holding back your application is the recommendation letter, and you don't get accepted because of it, and in the time between your last application and next year's you've taken big strides to get that part nailed down (taking a class, making friends with prof, etc.) then you will have it IN THE BAG next time around. I would definitely apply now, see what happens, and demonstrate initiative and progress so that if you don't get accepted this year, you will next year.
posted by iamkimiam at 10:04 AM on November 24, 2009


Following up on my original post, I didn't get any offers for admission into a math PhD program for the coming year.

But I want to apply for next year. I have written to a near by university asking about taking a grad course or doing directed study with this objective. I plan to also inquire with other universities nearby. (I am in Silicon Valley)

Since class room courses are during the day and I work full time, I was thinking of online courses, but couldn't find anything on a Google search.

Are there any online grad math courses I can take that might improve my credentials or get me recommendation letters when applying next year?

posted by lakshmi_mefi at 2:34 PM on July 6, 2010

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