Back to math school
November 13, 2014 6:41 AM   Subscribe

What advice do you have for helping me go back to school in a few years?

I will be retiring from the IT industry in a 2 or 3 years and would like to go back to school in what I started in: math. I graduated in 1990 with an applied math degree and then then went to graduate school in math for another year and a half before switching to computer science. Obtained a masters in comp sci in 1993 and have been working full time since then. I did take a few more graduate level math classes over the years but the last one was in 2001.

I would like to pursue a PhD after I retire but the truth is I barely remember any of what I learned back then, and I rarely have occasion to use any math in the IT world, sadly.

Do I start over from scratch with Math 101? Is a degree worth anything after so many years? I want to do this but dread the thought of taking all the other unrelated classes..English, History,... or do I even have to?
posted by dukes909 to Education (6 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
What do you want the degree for? That has a lot of bearing on whether it will be "worth it."

I bet you would be able to re-learn the stuff you knew before more easily than you think, and I certainly don't see any reason why you would need to take non-math classes... if you're applying to PhD programs there will be prerequisite classes, and they may require those to be from the last 5 or 10 years, but they don't care when/if you took your general education requirements.

I'd recommend you look at actual, specific programs you're interested in, and see what their admission requirements are like.

(Oh and if you want to see how your old skills hold up, try signing up for a free online math course that seems interesting.)
posted by mskyle at 6:53 AM on November 13, 2014

First: I would highly doubt you would need to take any history or English courses in a math PhD program. PhDs are specialized programs, and won't have gen ed requirements like a BA or BS would.

But, I would really think about why you want a PhD and what you want to get out of it. If it's just to take some math classes, you can do that without enrolling in a potentially expensive, lengthy, and stressful graduate program. I just finished a PhD, and it was several years of intense, hard work. I definitely would not have done it if I didn't anticipate pursuing a career where I will be using the skills I learned and where I will need the credential. It sort of sounds like you think a PhD would just be a fun hobby, and...well, it's just not that. That doesn't mean you can't take classes -- if that sounds appealing, definitely go for it! But it sounds like you need to do a lot more research and really clarify your goals before applying to graduate schools. Among other things, admissions to good PhD programs are highly competative, and you'll need both solid goals as well as an interesting research plan/proposal in order to be successful.
posted by rainbowbrite at 6:56 AM on November 13, 2014

I'd start with some Coursera & EdX courses to see if they scratch the itch.
posted by deludingmyself at 7:23 AM on November 13, 2014

I was an older grad student (well, late 20s to mid 30s), so I do understand not remembering some of the course material as if you took them yesterday. I also had no idea as to what a PhD meant until I started doing research about programs and was in one - your questions imply that you do not know this info either, so I am going to give a go at your questions and a bit more. Big caveat: this applies to the sciences, but I suspect most of it would apply to math, too.

• You don't start over again from scratch. If the requirement was to take class X as an undergrad, you mastered that subject and no, you don't need to take it again. However, you are correct that you might not remember details or you might even find yourself in a class and did not have all the prereqs. If this happens, grab an intro text for that topic, and review that basic info and whatever info is needed for a particular class or lecture. I think this was a difference between undergrad and grad school - you are expected to get yourself caught up/teach yourself if you are behind, not stop the entire class (I don't think you will based on your question). Depending on your grad program,you might be required to take a course or two that you did not take as an undergrad as a prerequisite. Rather than signing up for a bunch of classes- talk to people in thes departments and see if across programs in different universities, the same course or courses is required. Talk to someone first, though, because if you don't have it -often you just take that course with your other courses while in grad school.

• If you are not sure whether the PhD is for you/what does a PhD mean vs a Masters or undergrad degree. I don't see this info in your question at all, so that is why I am giving this additional info. One of the big differences with a PhD is not that you take classes (you can take the same classes at a Masters degree level), but you will be doing RESEARCH ...for years. What I think you might want to consider instead of worrying about classes, is find a local university with a math department. Email a few profs who do research that looks interesting to you (go to their about us page, which describes research and lists recent publications).Ask to volunteer in the lab a few hours per week. This will give you a taste of what research is like - I have to emphasize that it will still be nothing like research in grad school,but you will see other grad students, read papers that are published by that group, know more about how research is conducted. You can also answer questions about your research areas of interest in the grad application. But I would highly encourage you to take this step before doing classes - you might observe it/try it and say this is not for me. You also need to make yourself competitive for grad school, and this is something you should consider, especially if you have been out of school for years. If you put enough time/work/etc into this work, sometimes your name will go onto a poster that is presented at a conferences, or on a published paper - you can list these things when you apply for grad school and again, this will make you more competitive. pursue a PhD after I retire... Is your plan really to retire, or change industries/careers? If your plan is to truly retire, I would not advertise this or frame your application as you are considering changing careers. Why? It doesn't matter where you apply, all grad degrees at that level will be competitive. In the sciences, it usually means- free tuition, stipend that covers basic cost of living,and on your way with classes to towards a PhD. Since this is funded, many more people apply vs.the number who get in. I don't think they will fund someone if they think you will be retiring.

• What about a Masters? You would take similar classes. Research would be a semester/to a yr or two tops.Not the multiyear churn and stress,etc. This might give you exactly what you want.

I don't think Coursera courses, etc, will give you the same experience as grad classes at all - but a Masters might fulfill your desire to dive into the material more. A masters would also qualify you to teach community college courses,etc.- not sure what your goal/objective is for the grad degree.

posted by Wolfster at 8:17 AM on November 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

If you haven't yet, this seems like a good question to discuss with people at the program that you spent 1 1/2 years at - either professors you knew there, professors working in the area that you're interested in, or the admissions office/committee.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 9:32 AM on November 13, 2014

Response by poster: Yes, I'd like to discuss it with those that were there, but there are none left! They've either reitred, died, or moved elsewhere!
posted by dukes909 at 11:33 AM on November 13, 2014

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