Like a moth to a naked light.
May 14, 2012 3:45 PM   Subscribe

How can I improve my chances of getting into graduate programs?

I would like to attend a competitive graduate program in applied mathematics. My interest is harmonic analysis and computational linear algebra, with application to neuroimaging (e.g., MRI) and possibly image processing more generally. I tentatively applied to one applied math program last fall to test the waters. My application was not rejected until two days before the acceptance deadline, which I took for a good sign. Help me be more successful when I apply to this and similar programs in the fall.

I work as an MRI technician at a university. I have previously worked for three years as a research assistant in cognitive psychology. I have been taking math courses for three years as a non-degree-seeking student. My lowest grade is a single B+. I have taken a number of upper-division undergraduate courses (e.g., analysis), but no graduate courses yet. The courses I've taken basically add up to the requirements for a bachelor's in math.

I plan to take my first course in the target program in the fall. It has the evocative course catalog number 666.

My biggest weakness is a lack of meaningful letters of recommendation. My BA is in cognitive science, not math. I graduated with it six years ago. My former professors barely remembered me four years ago, when I turned to them for work-related references, and they certainly don't remember me now. I was an unremarkable student. During my adventures in mathematics, I have not taken more than one course with any one instructor: it's a large department with lots of faculty members. No one knows me well, except for my former lab supervisors. They have known and mentored me for years and will write glowing letters, but they are psychologists, not mathematicians.

My GRE scores are 170/166. The conversion charts provided by ETS suggest that this is equivalent to 800/800. My essay score is only a 4.5 — I imagine I could improve it with practice, but I also suspect that it's an insignificant factor during admissions. I was intimidated by the subject test in math and didn't take it. I plan to study for it over the summer and take it when it's offered again in October.

I am comfortable with MATLAB and have a few years of experience using it for scripting in the context of data analysis. I am familiar with several other languages, but am not idiomatic in them.

I have a number of co-author credits on conference posters and papers, but they are all in cognitive disciplines. My ability to do independent methodological research in neuroimaging is limited by my lack of background: really, that's the point of attending the program. I could continue collaborating with faculty on psychology and neuroscienceresearch, but I'm not sure what that would contribute to my application.

I have met a few times with faculty from the program that is my first choice. They are sympathetic and encouraging, but make a policy of avoiding specific advice beyond "just apply and see what happens." It is a competitive program that ranks well nationally (top 20). I would also like to apply to other similarly ranking programs that match my interests.

Short to-do list:
  • take subject test in math
  • take a graduate class in the target program and do well
  • explore opportunities for collaborative research
  • meet again with faculty at first-choice program
  • explore similar programs to target with applications
What else?
posted by Nomyte to Education (3 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Take a quarter or semester of independent study with someone who does something related to what you want to study. You will probably need to be quite proactive in designing your project and ensuring you get what you want out of the experience, but if you can do that you will be in a much better position for references.
posted by gingerest at 5:41 PM on May 14, 2012

I run grad admissions for a math Ph.D. program in a top 20 department; here are my thoughts.

1. Taking the subject test and doing well on it is particularly important for you. Like a lot of good programs, we don't require it -- but as someone who didn't do a math major at a top undergrad program, or participate in a math research program, you're missing some of the other things that let us know you've really mastered the undergrad curriculum. So you're right to have that on your to-do list.

2. Similarly with taking a grad course; these courses are smaller and your professor will be able to speak to your qualifications to succeed in a Ph.D. program. If you do this (and you should) make sure not to be anonymous! Go to office hours, be open with your prof about your ambitions, and get a sense from him or her as to what level of program you should be targeting.

What haven't you thought of?

1. A lot of great applied math is done in departments like ours (Wisconsin) where pure math and applied math are part of a single department. So you don't need to restrict yourself to applying to departments that are called "applied math" -- though of course you would want to check that any math dept you apply to has significant amount of stuff going on in your area. (You would certainly find a huge amount of stuff going on in harmonic analysis with applications to imaging here in Madison...)

2. There is nothing in the slightest wrong with asking the professors at your first choice place, "Which other programs are good for this; I want to apply to a range of places." If they're the ones who are working in exactly the area you want to study, they're the ones who know best where the OTHER centers for that kind of work are. They will give you straight advice; there's not a lot of game-playing in this business.

Feel free to MeMail (or use my regular e-mail) if you have more specific questions.
posted by escabeche at 5:48 PM on May 14, 2012 [3 favorites]

Way back when, I was encouraged to engage the professors I was interested in working with, to help make my application stand out. It sounds like you've done that, although you say "meet with".

I sent out a bunch of letters (I did say "way back when") requesting pre-prints of current work. Almost everyone wrote back with papers and an invitation to give them a call if I had questions or wanted to discuss the work. So I read all the papers I got, then followed up with phone calls to discuss them. This makes it a targeted conversation that allows you to show off your ability to digest the subject matter, think critically and ask questions/suggest research/etc about the work that the professor is doing.
posted by Gorgik at 5:13 AM on May 15, 2012

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