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I'm hoping to apply to grad schools this fall. I think I'm a reasonably good candidate, one aspect aside -- I have around a 2.5 undergraduate GPA in-major and failed several math classes in college.

That was a few years ago. In the mean time, I worked in industry for a while, and after that, I took two years of graduate-level classes and enrolled in a third, earning a 4.0 GPA and passing all the qualifying exams here; as I understand it, the remaining requirements for the MA degree are basically formalities.

If I need to, I can stay in my current program -- I am enrolled in the MA/Ph.D. track -- but the one professor closest to my interests is retiring and doesn't want to take on any more students, and the next-nearest areas are very far afield of what I want to do. I know that it's possible to get a professor to supervise a dissertation in an area that's not his/her specialty, but there don't seem to be any who want to do this, and at any rate I wouldn't have any other students to talk shop with.

I have some original, though not spectacular, results, although I'm having trouble corralling my coauthors to get things written up. I think I'm looking to take another year or so of courses before starting on my dissertation just to catch up with enough background to read papers in the field.

There's a lot of advice out there for people trying to get in to grad school, but most of it seems to start with "Make a 4.0 GPA in-major or don't bother." Does anyone have specific advice for someone in my situation? I don't want to spend a bunch of money on application fees just to have my applications discarded by a secretary before the admissions committee even looks at it.

Also, please share any advice pertaining to low undergrad GPAs, even if it isn't directly relevant to my particular situation -- there are other people out there with similar issues, and this will probably be the first thing that comes up when they hit Google looking for help.

UPDATE: I ended up getting into about half the schools I applied to, including several of my top choices! I even got some fellowship offers. If anyone out there is in a similar situation, feel free to contact me.

UPDATE: In response to some questions, here's some information about my application and results:

http://www.mathematicsgre.com/viewtopic.php?f=1&t=685&p=3643#p3643

Unfortunately I don't currently have access to the hard drive that all my application materials were stored on so I can't say a whole lot else. And I've just checked and it should be possible to contact me through the email linked from my profile.

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"there are other people out there with similar issues, and this will probably be the first thing that comes up when they hit Google looking for help." - +1 for that. –  J. M. Sep 10 '11 at 1:49
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Admissions people mostly care about what you have done lately. –  André Nicolas Sep 10 '11 at 3:18
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Two suggestions: 1)If you know the area you want to work on, don't ask a professor working in a different area to supervise you. Unlikely that they would agree to it, and it is unlikely that it would turn out well. 2) Transfer. Ask for letters of recommendations from the professors of your current department, who know about your recent performance. Also ask them which graduate program they think would fit you best. They should have personal connections, and know the schools, where their letters would carry some weight. –  Jyrki Lahtonen Sep 10 '11 at 5:30
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If the professors are prestigious in their chosen fields & they can give you a good letter of recommendation,that will carry a lot of weight as well. But a word of warning: You better be absolutely sure that professor will write a positive recommendation letter. That's by no means certain.If that professor trashes you in the letter-sometimes for as petty and capricious a reason as he or she CAN-it could wreck your chances at whatever school it lands at. Not so much because Dr.So And So said you're an idiot-but because you were too poor a judge of character to predict he was going to do that. –  Mathemagician1234 Sep 10 '11 at 6:40
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@Mathemagician1234 : There is no need to inject paranoia into this. I've read a huge number of letters of recommendation for graduate school over the years, and I don't think that I've ever seen one that "trashes" a student. Even letters that are mildly negative are pretty rare, and then you can usually tell from other sources that there is something very wrong with the candidate. The vast, vast majority of professors will simply refuse to write a letter if they don't feel they can write a positive one. –  Adam Smith Sep 15 '11 at 5:20

1 Answer 1

up vote 20 down vote accepted

Well, first I want to ask a question: are you officially enrolled as a master's student at your current institution or not? When you say that the remaining requirements for the master's degree are "formalities", do you mean that you've already done all the challenging stuff and still need to take a language exam / one more required course / something like that, or do you mean that you are not on track to getting a master's degree because you are not actually enrolled as a graduate student?

If you are enrolled as a graduate student, then...how did that happen? It seems like you already surmounted the problem of low undergraduate GPA if you are currently in a PhD program. What leverage did you have to get into this one program?

Anyway, when I read the first paragraph of your message I was quite pessimistic: a 2.5 GPA with some failed math classes is, as you seem to realize, a very poor record that would stop you from being admitted to most of the top 50-100 PhD programs in the US. But then your story gets much better: if you are indeed on track to complete a master's degree with a perfect GPA and your current institution is willing to accept you as a PhD student, then the faculty who write your recommendation letters will say that they know you can succeed in math graduate school because you have already done so. That will put you ahead of many applicants, believe me.

In general, when you've already spent some time in a masters / PhD program in mathematics and are trying to transfer into a different such program, most graduate committees will weight your performance in your current program much more strongly than your undergraduate performance, especially if the latter is more than a few years in the past. So based on what you've said I don't think you should have too much trouble transferring to a PhD program of roughly equal quality to the program you're already in but don't find compatible with your research interests. If you already have a truly substantial / impressive result then that puts you ahead of almost all entering PhD students of any quality, and you should be thinking of applying to the very top programs. Without that, I think that honestly you will have difficulty getting into a top 10 graduate program with your record, because for these schools the competition is so keen that they can pick among candidates whose applications are completely without flaw. But very respectable programs should still be possible. For instance, based on what you've said your application to UGA would be seriously considered, and I encourage you to apply here if you are interested in number theory / geometry / algebra.

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I'm currently enrolled on the M.A./Ph.D. track. Apparently all I have to do to get the MA is to take a twenty-minute, three-question oral exam. After hearing other students' questions, it sounds like it's just designed to make sure the students didn't somehow cheat through their qual courses. –  Daniel McLaury Sep 10 '11 at 2:08
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As for getting into this program, I had taken courses here in high school before going to college, so I came and talked to one of the professors I had had, who also happened to be the graduate director, and then spent a year as an unsupported student before being admitted formally. –  Daniel McLaury Sep 10 '11 at 2:09
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@user3296: okay, sounds good. Then, as I said, in your situation your poor undergraduate performance shouldn't be too much of a problem. I would expect you to be able to transfer to a program which is equal to slightly better than the one you're already in. (It helps to apply to multiple programs of course; I can well imagine that some graduate committees would be more aghast at having failed undergraduate courses at any point in your past than others.) –  Pete L. Clark Sep 10 '11 at 2:13
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P.S.: As a member of my department's graduate committee, let me say that we look at all the complete applications, however briefly. There is no preliminary screening process. I think it would be a reasonable investment to apply to on the order of 10 graduate programs. If you have some specific reason to worry that a given program may dismiss your application out of hand, you should contact a faculty member in that department and ask. –  Pete L. Clark Sep 10 '11 at 2:17
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Moreover, having an undergrad GPA of less than 3.0 and a graduate GPA of 4.0 is a huge difference from just having an undergrad GPA of less than 3.0. But as I said, sure, if you have concerns that your application will be "culled", just ask. I do think that some programs will be more sympathetic to your situation than others, and any given program should be able to let you know where it stands in this regard. –  Pete L. Clark Sep 10 '11 at 2:20

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