I'm currently a rising senior at a small, yet well ranked liberal arts college studying Pure Mathematics. I've taken multiple high level mathematics courses and plan on doing a few more independent studies before graduating.

I'm not sure where to go next. I don't think I qualify for a PhD program, as I only have a 3.5 major GPA (3.3 cumulative) and do not feel that I will do well enough on the GRE. Similarly, I have no research experience (even though I applied for REUs).

I'm thinking of applying to an Applied Math program at a larger university to segway myself into an industry job.

My adviser seems to think I could easily get some sort of math based government job, but I am highly doubtful. Also, it seems to me that having a masters degree would make me much more marketable.

I could really use some advise here. Thank you.

Edit: I think there has been some good advice given to me. I'm just not sure what to do at this point.

Edit #2: The most disheartening thing is that one of my advisers hinted that he does not think graduate school is for me. This has really upset me and has really killed my confidence.


2 Answers 2


First, don't write off the Ph.D. so casually. I know plenty of successful Ph.D.s whose undergraduate GPA was far lower than yours, whose transcripts included "C"s and "D"s. If you're interested enough in math to think you want a Ph.D., then there's probably a way to do it. Second, doing the master's thing can be a good idea to help you sort all this out. You'll have a year or two to learn more math, learn more about how academia works, and make connections which can help with furthering your grad and post-grad career. Choose a school carefully, and look into funding options. You might want to consider a bigger place--say a state university somewhere--where there are more likely to be people connected to the world of math at large. Such connections can help with furthering you career, whether it be industrial, academic, or ??? Finally, learn to program in several important languages: C, C++, Java, PHP, Python etc. You can probably start taking programming classes right now, and segue into more advanced stuff in grad school. Programmers are now in great demand and will be for some time, I'll warrant. And, I think, being able to program as well as understand deeper mathemtatics is a good combination.

Best of luck with these tough decisions. If you have any questions, leave a comment and I'll try to get back to you.

Note added Friday 27 June 2014 10:58 AM PST: I thought a lot about your situation and my response while I was at work yesterday and today, and I'd like to add a few more remarks. First of all, I think it behooves one in your position to know that there are a great many ways to approach graduate school, both in terms of program and funding. And I think more options will open up for you if you can get yourself into a big school in urban area with lots of work available, both on and off campus. I live near UC Berkeley, and this area is sort of a model for what I have in mind: there are many colleges and tech businesses in the area that can provide work for grad students; you might also take into consideration that, having been at a small school in (what appears to me to be) an isolated place, the change of pace/lifestyle provided by a more urban environment might serve to expand your horizons and open your mind to new experiences which you can exploit to further your academic/intellectual goals. As for funding: this is an extremely important aspect of graduate study, a fact of which you seem to be aware, judging by your post and comments.

NB: I must hurry now since the closure demons are hovering over this question. So think on a scenario like this one: get a job in industry in an area with a good school; get in an M.S. program part time, often your company will help pay for this; use what you learn to make connections, look for and carefully plan your nest move. Might be fun! You can email me if you want to hear more. Check my user page for the address. Best of Luck, and Let your Love of Mathematics be your Guide!

Hope this helps. Cheers,

and as always,

Fiat Lux!!!

  • $\begingroup$ Again, the only reason I'm not considering a PhD program is because my adviser told me I would not be a strong candidate. I'm more worried about funding than getting accepted. $\endgroup$
    – Pubbie
    Commented Jun 26, 2014 at 21:30
  • $\begingroup$ As I said above in a comment, talk to other faculty. You can clearly do math well enough to have a pretty damn good GPA! There are lots of avenues to funding, too. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 26, 2014 at 21:34
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    $\begingroup$ (+1) on the comment to learn programming. That might come in handy if going for an industry job. $\endgroup$
    – Thomas
    Commented Jun 26, 2014 at 21:42
  • $\begingroup$ @Thomas: yup, just what I was thinking! $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 26, 2014 at 22:13
  • $\begingroup$ @Pubbie: I added a few more words to my answer. You might check it out! Feel free to contact me if you want more input! Fight the good fight! Cheers! $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 27, 2014 at 20:43

It is hard to give very specific advice when we don't know you that well. You say that your GPA is 3.5. That certainly is not the wall that separates you from a graduate program in mathematics. Remember that there are smaller graduate programs out there that do not require high GPA.

It sounds a bit like you just need to believe in your self. If you don't take the GRE because you don't think you will do well, then you have already failed. Some times you have to trust that the academic advisors if they believe in you. If you advisor says that you probably can get a government job, then believe it and work for it. Don't let your doubts in yourself stand in the way of trying. And if you try and fail, then don't give up. How do you think the Allied won the Second World War?

IMO the key things that you need to figure out are

1) Do you like doing mathematics?

In my experience your you have to like mathematics for what it is to enjoy graduate school. You can, of course, not like it and just be so highly motivated by something else, but in general I would say that you have to see the value in math itself.

2) Are you lazy?

Completing a graduate program requires hard work for most people. Are you willing to put in the hours. If you doubt your talents, then that just means that you might need to work harder than other people. When I see people fail in graduate school it is rarely because they are not smart enough. It is usually because they were not willing to put in the hours.

3) What do you want do end up doing?

It sounds like you might be interested in working in industry. You might go to some career fairs and have a chat with various companies. Investment firms and bank all hire mathematicians. The oil and gas industry as well. Could you see yourself as a teacher? What level? The answer to this question will say a bit about what direction in mathematics you might want to take. It sounds like you are leaning towards applied mathematics.

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    $\begingroup$ @DavidLawhorn: Stephen Smale got a Fields Medal after a very uninspiring start as an undergrad--check his online biographies! And seriously, you might want to cultivate other connections on the faculty that have more faith in you; you'll need letters. Fight the good fight! $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 26, 2014 at 21:31
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    $\begingroup$ I don't know what you did to your advisor, but your GPA is fine! As long as you have pretty good GRE and can get good rec. letters (from people other than your advisor), you can get in to a PhD program. If you have doubts you could always work for a year or two first. A little break from school may not be the worst thing on earth. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 26, 2014 at 21:33
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    $\begingroup$ @DavidLawhorn: You have to contact specific schools to figure out what type of funding they have available. Also, you might want to listen to your advisor, but you also have to understand that if you are motivated enough and are willing to work hard at it, then anything is possible. I strongly suggest that you don't give up. It is not uncommon that someone starts on the Ph.D. track, but decides to leave with the Master's. It is also not uncommon that someone starts the MS program and decides to continue with a Ph.D. $\endgroup$
    – Thomas
    Commented Jun 26, 2014 at 21:40
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    $\begingroup$ By "getting in" I actually mean "accepted with a TA position". If they're not going to fund you, they might as well not even accept you. There are many schools out there. Take your chances if this is genuinely what you want to do, and do NOT let your advisor put you down. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 26, 2014 at 21:40
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    $\begingroup$ I agree with Tom Cruise. Think of "getting funding" as "getting accepted". If a department accepts you but doesn't offer you funding, interpret that as not getting accepted. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 26, 2014 at 22:14

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