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26 years old , never went to college , too late for a math career?

  1. Mar 20, 2013 #1


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    I'm 26 years old , been thinking about going back to school for the last 2 years to pursue a career in mathematics.

    Never went to college , stopped my education at the end of highschool where I had multiple personal problems that are now more or less solved.Always been strong at math since I was a kid , but also understand I never got tested with the real stuff

    My question is , is it too late to try to pursue a serious career in math (research).Probably pure math.I'll have to do my Bach , master and Ph.D from scratch.It's been a while since I went to highschool but I still have a total mastery of the highschool math and some more so I won't have to re-learn everything.

    Of course the number one reason why I'm asking is the notorious ''math is a young man's game'' mentality.

    I'm not saying I want to win a fields medal , but I don't want to be a 4th rate mathematician either.Is it possible to become a pretty strong mathematician if you start so late (and by pretty strong I don't mean ''one of the best'' but a solid and respected mathematician) ?

    Additionnal info:I'm not that interested in money , I know what it's like to be poor so I'm not scared about the financial side of this decision.My interest in math is not new and I'm an introverted kind of guy who can get rather obsessive (but can still enjoy life once in a while and forget about the serious stuff , I find that it actually helps once you get back to it).This isn't an idea that occured to me out of the blue by watching a movie about a mathematician or that kind of none-sense that won't last.Just thought you guys should know before answering me.


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  3. Mar 20, 2013 #2


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    Are you from the uk or us? I don't know much about the us education system. But In the uk, we usually have secondary school until 16. Then two years of 'sixth form' which is also sometimes called 'college' (confusingly). Then we have an undergraduate degree which is in one chosen subject. Then to stay in education, most people do a masters degree, then phd.

    So anyway, there are people who do an undergraduate degree who are older than 18. 26 is definitely not too old. Since you left education a while ago, it might help to do some kind of refresher course? If you are in the uk, this page is pretty helpful:

    I guess the main thing is to think about if you really want to do it. It takes a lot of years to get a phd, and to get into research is not impossible at your age. But it is difficult. (It is difficult for someone of any age). And in pure maths, funding is definitely tighter than for applied maths research. Also, even when you are doing research, I don't think it pays so good. And you would potentially have to live wherever you can find research (or commute to that place). But as you say, if in spite of these downsides, you still want to do research, then I say go for it.

    P.S. I am doing a joint masters/phd, which is fairly easy to get funding for. The difficult part is once you have done your phd, to be able to continue in academia beyond that point. So my view is definitely the naive view.

    edit: I think I meant to say "if despite these downsides", because "if in spite" doesn't really make sense...
    Last edited: Mar 20, 2013
  4. Mar 20, 2013 #3


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    I am from Canada actually.

    I think it's the same here , we have highschool (5 years) then CEGEP (2 or 3 years) then undergraduate at university and so on.

    But anyway , the point is it's going to take me around 8-11 years to do it.

    As far as the financial situation goes , I also mentionned that I'm not particularly interested in the money.I'm not greedy , I've never been rich and don't want to focus my energy in life to accumulate money.Of course everyone needs a bit of cash , but will I really fall on welfare for the rest of my life if I complete a Ph.D in pure math? I would be happy with any normal salary if I can get paid to do math research.

    I also speak both english and french , which I think is a plus in math.

    And as far as the ''do I really want to do it'' question , I guess the answer is yes , but the answer might get clearer once I get in the water in undergraduate school.If I graduate and change my mind , I would still have a math degree (though not enough to do research) , but it'll be better than where I am now.

    It's not like I'm going to quit a lucrative career or another field of study , I have next to nothing to lose in my life right now and not a whole lot to look forward to unless I go back to school.
    Last edited: Mar 20, 2013
  5. Mar 20, 2013 #4
    Then just go back to school if it's possible. It sounds like you can't go wrong by getting a degree, it'll get you closer to your goal, and will put you in a better position even if you can't get there. You'll know after a math degree whether or not grad school is appealing.

    Though, you should be warned that pure math isn't the kind of thing that people go "well, I have no other choice, time to research math". People that have what it takes to be a math researcher have what it takes to do a lot of other things, but very few people have what it takes to be a math researcher.
  6. Mar 20, 2013 #5


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    I don't understand completely what you mean in your last paragraph.

    It is because I feel like I have all the choices in the world that I choose pure math , not the other way around.

    please forgive me for my poor english , I'm tired today :)

    Last edited: Mar 20, 2013
  7. Mar 20, 2013 #6


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    For what it may be worth this guy http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Persi_Diaconis missed out about 10y of school and is very famous.
    It's possible your extra maturity and motivation would keep you mnore than up with the classes if the finances hold out.
  8. Mar 20, 2013 #7
    That's fair, as long as you realize that you are choosing it over a large number of options that aren't bad. Many of these other options may in fact end up being more appealing to you. If you truly do have the choice to do pure math, then you probably have the choice to do things that you don't even know about yet.

    But, there is only one thing that I think makes sense for you to do. Go back to school, start a math degree. You'll figure it out once you get there.
  9. Mar 22, 2013 #8


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    All true.

    It's possible that there's some careers out there I don't even know exist that could be appealing to me but that doesn't require as much time and effort (or is less risky in the long run).

    Going back to test the water is definitely my short-term plan , see how I do and how much I like it.

    Though in all honesty the thing that scares me the most isn't the familial/financial side of this project but the fact that I wasted some golden years in my youth not doing any serious math.I'm scared of completing my Ph.D at age 35-38 and already being on the decline.

    thanks for taking the time to answer!
    Last edited: Mar 22, 2013
  10. Mar 22, 2013 #9
    It is a myth that you need to be young to do math. It is my quest in life to squash this nonsense wherever I see it.

    However, high-level mathematics is quite different from what you see in high-school, so I recommend doing some community college courses to get you started. That will allow you to get a feel for the subject before committing to a full degree.

    Also, it isn't a great idea to do mathematics for 'career' purposes unless you are willing to do a lot of statistics and/or computer science as well. If you really enjoy it, though, go for it!
  11. Apr 1, 2013 #10
    I was in a similar situation to the original poster, and for anyone who comes calling to this thread, I got onto a degree without many issues.

    For people in the UK: the Open University offers something called the Open Plus scheme, which allows you to study part-time for two years with the OU before eventually progressing onto the second year of a physics [or science] degree at your chosen bricks-and-mortar university. Good schools such as York, Queen Mary, Sheffield, etc, are participatory and encouraging.
  12. Feb 19, 2015 #11


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    Fact: You love math.
    Fact: You are 26 years old w/o any advanced (college education) schooling.
    Let's assume you are simply average (worst case) in math and intelligence. Even being average, if you can attend college part-time (2-3 classes per semester), you should be able to graduate in 8-12 years with a Bachelor's degree. If you have a real knack for it, you will graduate before you're 34. At that stage, you might decide to teach (an honorable choice, although great mathematicians usually make poor, often very poor teachers... reason: "Can't you see THAT? It's obvious!!" being said often by such a professor). If you are gifted at math, you will know and so will the math department, and you will be encouraged to stay for an advanced degree.

    In the US, we also offer CLEP exams that can save 1-3 semesters of full time study (for electives and some basic classes) depending upon your selection of degree and how closely the colleges coursework can be matched up with the available exams.

    Good luck to you.
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