Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

Programs Been out of school and working for a few years, want to get PhD, need advice

  1. Apr 16, 2010 #1
    I graduated from a top 10 liberal arts school in 2007 with a degree in math. After school, I worked for a year and change as a computer programmer and I'm now employed as an actuary. Getting an advanced degree is an idea I've entertained for a while, and now I want to try and achieve that goal. I'm fed up with the general attitude of most of the people I work with. There is no intellectual curiosity and very little desire to explore new ideas. Everything revolves around maintaining the status quo and pleasing whoever is in a position you want to have in 5-10 years. As an actuary, I have to fulfill a fair amount of academic requirements, but 95% of what I study is never used in the workplace as only the most basic and well understood concepts are utilized professionally.

    Each year in college, I was able to improve my academic prowess. I feel like I have stagnated since graduation and am no longer bettering myself. My motivation for wanting to go back to school is that I want to keep learning and become a stronger mathematician. It's not really the degree I'm interested in so much as the process that it takes to achieve it. The thing I enjoy most about my job right now is studying for my actuarial exams and solving lots of problems. If I don't have any immediate deadlines, I might end up studying all morning, taking lunch, and then studying all afternoon. I remember one day a month or two ago where I was trying to explain to my coworker that Q and Z are the same size. He wasn't really following, so I tried explaining how 2Z and 10Z are the same size. I spent the rest of the day looking at and remembering theorems from my discrete class years ago, and it was probably the most fun I've had at work in a while. My point with all this isn't to be overly corny, but to establish that I want to go back to school because it's what I want to do, not because it's not what I don't want to do.

    The plan is to apply to programs this winter and start in the fall of 2011. My undergrad GPA was 3.6, and a tenth or two higher in my major. My course load was pretty strong; I would have to double check but I had something like 12 semesters of upper level math including two semesters of graduate level abstract algebra my senior year. I aced the SAT math on minimal preparation so I assume that with some good studying I can also ace the GREs. My main worry is the recommendation part of the application. Some (most?) schools require at least 2 academic recommendations, and it's been a while since I've had any correspondence with my old professors. The other worry is that I won't be considered seriously because of the amount of time I've been away from school for. So:

    1) I know that if you are coming out of school and want to pursue a PhD, you do not get an MA beforehand as doing so is highly frowned upon. In my position, would going for an MA before a PhD augment my chances of getting into a strong PhD program later? It would show that I'm serious about what I want to do and it would definitely open me up to stronger recommendations.

    2) If getting an MA is a poor option and applying straight to PhD programs is my best bet, where can I expect to get in? Top 10? Top 20? How much success do people in my position generally have? Will a strong statement of intent help counterbalance average recommendations?

    3) What haven't I thought of and what other comments/advice can you give?

    Thanks for reading, sorry this ended up being quite longwinded. But then again, if you didn't want to waste time, why are you browsing internet forums? : )
  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 16, 2010 #2
    Not long winded at all. A PhD is a serious endeavor. Like you said in point one, I wouldn't think about getting a MA if you want to pursue a PhD. It just doesn't make sense to spend more money and time. I would apply straight to the PhD programs that interest you most. You have excellent grades in undergrad so that will help. Plus, you have real world work experience that some don't have. I think you will find success in any program if your heart is in it and you commit yourself. What programs are you looking at currently? If you truly enjoy learning then you should do it. I am not that academic minded to enjoy a PhD program so I went the master's route. I wish you the best of luck in your decision.
  4. Apr 19, 2010 #3
    Lots of people in grad school are there after heading out into the real world for 5 or 10 or more years. Your situation is by no means unusual, so don't sweat that.

    If you are a little rusty, getting your masters first may be the best thing. I know many people who did masters, then transferred to other universities. But if possible, try getting straight into a PhD program, I mean it just gives you the "free" option of staying in after the Masters.

    I'd guess in your situation doing well on your Math-subject-test-GRE will be a large factor as to what program you go to. Will give you a good excuse to open up all the old textbooks :) (Btw just to be clear -- I couldn't tell in your post, but the GRE Math subject test is a completely separate test than the GRE general test that happens to have a math section.).
Share this great discussion with others via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook