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In the UK/US people usually don't get an MSc before pursuing a PhD in math. But in other countries getting an MSc before the PhD is the more common case. This raises the following questions regarding how graduate admission committees view applicants with an MSc from countries where it is common to get one. On one hand, seems like an MSc is another "proof of my abilities". On the other hand, the committees may ignore it altogether because they have to compare the applicants by their greatest common ground. When talking about an MSc I mean a two-years program with a thesis.

Can you compare the relative importance (admission-wise) of:

  1. Course grades (specifically, how important are BSc grades and how important are MSc grades? $(*)$)
  2. MSc thesis.
  3. Recommendation letters.

In respect to comparing $(2)$ and $(3)$, I can either try very hard to write the best thesis I can, or alternatively, I can work, in addition to my main thesis, on some smaller scale projects with one or two faculty members other than my advisor, to make sure I get more than one sincere recommendation letter.

$(*)$ I need to know this as I have some freedom to choose which courses will appear where (I have completed more than enough credit during my BSc studies and can move some of the graduate level credit to the MSc).

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Anyway I look at this question, there cannot be one correct answer, so I wiki-hammered it. I'm also not entirely sure whether Math.SE is the right forum for this: the question is not really mathematical in nature, and can only really be answered by those mathematics professors who have served on admission committees (and even at that the answers would be anecdotal and probably not authoritative). –  Willie Wong Jun 18 '11 at 21:05
@Wille: Is there a more appropriate forum for this question? –  Adam Jun 18 '11 at 21:15
@Willie: (just realized I mispelled your name so I'm asking again for the notification) –  Adam Jun 19 '11 at 11:09
The currently-still-in-area-51 proposal of an academia stackexchange would be a perfect forum for this, should it receive enough commitments and go live. –  Willie Wong Jun 20 '11 at 12:59
I am voting to reopen this question; this is a question to which people who have been on graduate admission committees in U.S. math departments can make concrete responses. Furthermore, such responses will surely be very subject dependent; hence I don't see that a catch-all academic site could have much that is useful to say. (E.g. while it is true --- as stated by the OP --- that in math a masters is not required, and probably not typical, for most U.S. programs, is this true in other subjects? I don't know, and it's irrelevant in any case.) Regards, –  Matt E Sep 2 '11 at 22:52

2 Answers 2

I have been Dir. Grad. Studies in Math in MN in two intervals, and also have an understanding of others' perceptions:

Letters of recommendation are the most important... tho' low GRE subject test scores can dissuade some admissions committees. (My own attitude is that the GRE's multiple-choice stuff is not-at-all reliable... by now I'd look at GRE general-test verbal... ! ...)

GPA is not of much interest. Sure, crappiness in not-so-hard classes is not a plus...

GRE subject test is the easy indicator for lotsa lazy admissions committees to look at. Bang-there-you-are.

It is true that letters of recommendation from people who themselves have dubious mathematical judgement are iffy... No helping that, if one is from a remote place.

A "personal statement" that shows that you understand that there is a larger world... is very good.

(Good luck with this very tumultuous part in anyone's life...)

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I would say:

  1. Your grades in your MSc are probably more important than your undergraduate grades. Ph.D. programs are looking for evidence that students can succeed at graduate-level courses, and the best possible evidence of this is previous success at graduate-level courses.

  2. No one on the admissions committee will read your master's thesis. The quality of it matters only in how much it affects your letters of recommendation.

  3. Letters of recommendation can be important, especially if you can get a professor to write a particularly glowing letter for you.

Roughly speaking, Ph.D. programs are looking for very high grades, good letters of recommendation, previous research experience, and high scores on standardized tests.

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@Jack: No, only the math subject test matters. The general GRE's are mostly irrelevant unless your scores are unusually low. As far as standardized tests go, a high score on the Putnam exam can also be helpful. –  Jim Belk Jun 18 '11 at 19:59
@Jack: They can be important, especially in some programs (depends on the school). General test GRE scores can (and are often) used as sieves, with people with low scores on the quantitative section (and in the analytical writing section, though less so than pre-2002 when it was the "analytical ability section") may be dismissed from consideration unless accompanied by very strong letters of recommendation. It depends on the program, though (and some universities require the scores at the Graduate Division level, which means it may be out of the Math Dept.'s hands to ignore the scores). –  Arturo Magidin Jun 18 '11 at 20:02
I'd like to add a note concerning reference letters. Reference letters tend to be taken with different weights depending on who they're from. Some people are known to write glowing reference letters for people they barely know. Some are known to be very careful with their words, and so on. Also, some programs are known to be strong and some fairly weak so sometimes your grades may be "weighted" by your program. And there's so many universities out there that perhaps the committee feels is has few ways to compare you to other applicants -- things like the GRE are very important then. –  Ryan Budney Jun 18 '11 at 21:58
@Adam: If you can get a reference letter from someone in your department that has a connection with people at the university you wan to go to, by all means ask that person for a reference letter. But keep in mind, someone that's considered "well known" at your university may be unheard of in your destination university, as most niches in mathematics do not have universal penetration. For example, I was talking with some faculty at MIT one day and they expressed surprise there is a university in Victoria (where I work), yet we have "famous" mathematicians here. –  Ryan Budney Jun 18 '11 at 22:23
Said another way, there's a big difference between saying someone is a "famous mathematician" and "well regarded in specialized niche X". And by and large, people say the former when they should be saying the latter. This is sort of like looking at the list of recent fields medallists and asking yourself: how many of those names had I heard of before they were being nominated for the award -- and subtract away those that are close to being in your general subject area. –  Ryan Budney Jun 18 '11 at 22:34

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