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Graduate School in Math with no BA/BS?

  1. Sep 14, 2011 #1
    I know that getting into graduate programs, in any field, without first having an undergraduate degree is extremely rare. But it's not unheard of.

    I dropped out of school well over a year ago and going back is absolutely not an option. I don't have the money but even if I did, there aren't any schools with good math programs in my city and state. Moreover, I was not a math major in college so I would have to take a bunch of classes on topics that I have already learned on my own.

    What is the most important factor in being admitted to a Phd program?

    I can conduct research on my own, but how important is that relative to grades, test scores and letters of recommendation (none of which I have, obviously)?

    Nor am I talking about the very top schools. I mean, maybe one of the schools ranked below the top 25 in U.S. News and World Report. Do you think such a feat is possible by producing an original, albeit not spectacular, result?
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 14, 2011 #2


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    The percentage of those who get graduate degrees (or are even admitted to graduate programs) in a different field and after dropping out of undergraduate are even smaller. If you didn't finish undergrad, why would a graduate admissions committee think you would finish the graduate degree?

    Grades, usually.

    Anyone can conduct "research," but unless that research is at a level on par with what would be expected in a degree program it doesn't count for anything.

    Ranked "below the top 25" leaves a lot of room. Lack of research isn't the biggest strike against you, and in my opinion unless your result was truly something special it wouldn't help you that much.
  4. Sep 14, 2011 #3
    Can you pass a qualifying exam?
  5. Sep 14, 2011 #4
    What exactly have you self-studied?
  6. Sep 14, 2011 #5
    There are threads like this on a daily basis. What makes you so special that you don't have to pay your dues like everyone else? Have you published any widely acclaimed research papers in the field of mathematics?
  7. Sep 14, 2011 #6
    I don't know, since the major was not even in math a high (above 80%) subject GRE could put them in good standing at some schools. I think Rensselaer actually lets you skip quals if you get that percentile (which is kind of crazy to me, but could be beneficial to the OP since an 80%ile+ would presumably mean more at such a school.
  8. Sep 14, 2011 #7
    Some of those are pretty strong schools. I was thinking there would be a slot maybe at some in the bottom 50 at best.

    Produce it and ask around when you're done. Good luck finding something manageable to prove without a faculty specialist to guide you to the low hanging fruit though.

    ETA: Out of curiosity, what was your major? Did you take a good number of math courses for it?
    Last edited: Sep 14, 2011
  9. Sep 14, 2011 #8


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    Where have you EVER heard of this happening? I can imagine the only circumstance this happening would be if the person alllllmost finished their degree or they're publishing quality research already.
  10. Sep 14, 2011 #9
    What makes you so special that they'll accept you?? That is the question that everybody needs to ask themselves before going to grad school.

    Basically, you didn't prove anything!!! You did no exams, you did no research, nothing. Why in earth should they accept you above all other people??

    Why do you want to go into math research anyway? Do you have any idea what it is about?? Do you know basic topics like real analysis, topology and abstract algebra??

    If you don't wanna pay heavy fees, then maybe you can take online classes and do some exams online. If your grades are good and if your GRE is very good, then you might have a shot. But now, I don't see any grad school who would accept you.
  11. Sep 14, 2011 #10
    I didn't know that questions of this nature are common on this board. I appreciate your responses (and welcome more feedback, if you'd like). From your comments, I gather that it would be almost impossible to even get into an "average" graduate school.

    Also, I do not believe that I'm "special", it's just not possible for me to complete an undergraduate degree. I detect some hostility in the suggestion that I think I'm special. Some of you seem to believe that since you had to endure years of undergrad, then everybody else should to. Otherwise, life wouldn't be "fair":cry: Boo hoo. And I could do without insulting questions like, "do you have any idea what math is about?". Obviously, I do--otherwise I wouldn't be interested in going to graduate school for math.

    So far, I've studied linear algebra, differential equations, single and multivariable analysis, algebra, complex variables, probability theory, mathematical stats and measure theory/real analysis. That's essentially what a typical undergraduate math major would study. I have worked through over 90% of the problems in all of my text books (including the dreaded "big rudin"). I did this in a little over a year. I'm currently studying notes on graduate level algebra.

    Furthermore, it's a bit presumptuous to make comments about my research (or lackthereof). You know nothing about me. For all you know, I could have already published a paper or two:eek:

    I might try some online math courses if I can find a school that offers those topics. The GRE subject test sounds like a good idea too. Thank you for your help.
  12. Sep 14, 2011 #11
    Basically your problem is to convince any program you apply to that you do have the necessary background. The problem with graduate program is that there are too many applications relative to the number they can accept, and they will only accept people that have reasonable chance at succeeding in their program. So it is not so much as to whether you *have* the ability and the background, it is about whether you can somehow convince them to even take a look at your application, when you do not have the necessary *official* background. They would feel that it is more "secure" for them to accept people that do have such background.
  13. Sep 14, 2011 #12


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    Many undergraduates have published a paper or two, taken all those classes and more, and have great letters of recommendation. So why should a grad school take someone who didn't even do a degree? They won't. I've never seen anyone get into graduate school without a bachelors degree. That is the most basic requirement.
  14. Sep 14, 2011 #13
    You should check out mathwonk's "who wants to be a mathematician?" thread (it's a sticky at the top) to get a better idea of what the whole process is typically like.

    I think that many people dislike the idea of others skirting around the obstacles they themselves went through great lengths to get through. From what I've seen (long-time reader, new poster) people on this board also try their best to be realistic, and sometimes that can come across as harsh or hostile. But they really are just trying to not lead you astray or give false hope.

    I've seen people come on this forum and claim they want to find the "Grand Unified Theory" when they haven't even taking a Physics I course and calculus. So, it happens.

    That's some pretty impressive self-study, but, without a formal course, a graduate school has no way of knowing if you actually know the material, and at what level, without grades. I'm not saying that you don't know the material, but schools don't have any way of evaluating that. That's why doing well on the subject GRE could be a great thing.

    Every department I've ever seen says they require a B.S. degree on their website; perhaps you could put some serious time into looking at different graduate schools' websites to see if there are any without these requirements. But, I really wouldn't get your hopes up too much. Graduate schools get a lot of applications from qualified candidates, and if it comes down to someone with a B.S. or without one (if it even gets that far), I think we both know the probable choice. Aside from the background, a B.S. shows that you are willing to stick with it.

    I hope I gave a bit of perspective.

  15. Sep 14, 2011 #14
    First of all, it was not my intention to insult you or to be hostile. Far from it. I understand how you might take my post as a personal attack, but I assure you that it was not meant this way.

    I did not suggest any of this. I said:

    I did not say that you though you were special or anything. I just wanted to ask you what differentiates you from the other hundreds of applications that grad schools get.
    To get in you a grad school, you must be special in a way. Why are you special?

    Nobody said this.

    It's a valid question though. Do you have any idea what math research is about?? I'm doing it right now, and I find it to be completely different than what I thought!!
    Ideally, people do undergraduate research before going to grad school. Why? To see if they'll like it. To see if they can handle it.
    You did not do such a research (as far as I know), so I consider it a valid question to ask if you know what math is about.

    Very good. What branch did you like best? Where would you like to do research in?

    You should have mentioned in your OP if you already published a paper. Since you did not mention it, I assume that you didn't do any research.

    In my country there is something that's called an "exam contract". Basically, one does not have to pay for tuition but only pays for doing the exam. This reduces the fees by a whole lot. Maybe there is something like that in your country??

    Try to pass a couple of upper level classes. If you ace them all, then this is a positive sign to the grad school commission.
  16. Sep 15, 2011 #15
    ^There is no concept of "Exam Contract" in the United States unfortunately. I don't know if that is where the OP lives. I think the OP should attempt to take the qualifiers at a decent school. Presumably he is already prepared for real and complex analysis. If he is still in contact with any of his old professors it is very possible they can arrange this. I am in undergrad but was able to take the real analysis qualifier last semester at another institution. I had self-studied and wanted some evidence for what I had done.
  17. Sep 15, 2011 #16


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    I posit this as a pure hypothetical, but what would happen if someone had a very high GRE (general and subject-specific) without an undergrad degree? I'd think that someone who could do that (and do it more than once) would certainly fit in the category of "special" and outlier.

    Or someone who's mugged it, but I think they're designed to prevent this sort of thing (more so than the SATs, at least).
  18. Sep 15, 2011 #17


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    I think the most important thing is to realize that all that matters is what an admissions committee thinks. When you tell them you've self-studied something, that's meaningless to them because for all they know you're lying. You'll need to have good GRE/subject GRE scores, letters of recommendation, and possibly some kinda research because not having a degree or the formal classes is a HUGE red flag to them.

    On the more practical side, remember you're competing against people who have all that stuff PLUS they have their actual degrees and classes and GPA. Admissions committees do not exist to "give you a chance", their sole purpose is to find the best students who apply.
  19. Sep 15, 2011 #18
    I would think the only chance you have is if you publish one or more very well received papers in an area of mathematics. That is the only way you will be able to demonstrate that you have the necessary knowledge without the BS.
  20. Sep 15, 2011 #19
    Not sure where you are from, but is there a way you can go to a junior college and transfer somewhere, while doing something on the side for money (tutoring, etc)? Schools usually award financial aid to those who show promise.

    If you've already self-studied stuff, classes will be cake for you. So what you can do with your additional time at a school is to do some independent projects. Get a head start on what you'd do in grad school. You can try finishing your requirements in shorter time than 4 years - maybe in 2-3.

    In a theoretical subject, you should have good grades, and good recommendation letters, and fairly good standardized test scores. The first is very important, the third is important in so much as you shouldn't raise red flags, and the second is what bumps you in when you are good with the fundamentals. It is also the most important in deciding how top notch a program you go to.
  21. Oct 8, 2011 #20
    I've looked up online math courses but only one school--The University of Idaho--offers anything advanced. Wisconsin used to offer a few advanced courses through their independent learning program, which would have been a good fit since students could complete courses at their own pace. Idaho's program isn't like that...you have to sit through whole semsesters, which is time consuming.

    Plus, in either case, I would have to pay a lot for tuition and textbooks. I'm not going to pay for no instruction and crappy textbooks.

    So, I will just take the GRE Subject Test. Also, I've emailed my papers to some mathematicians who specialize in functional analysis. One wrote me back saying that he might be able to get my papers refereed, and would arrange for me to speak to someone in the admissions office at his school.
  22. Oct 9, 2011 #21

    Scroll down to Mr Hisham Kotry's (cool name, eh) question. If Hoofty says it's possible (getting into the MSc course), then I suppose it is.

    Micromass, can the exams be taken in English?


    Would you like to live in India? Serious question. There are a few institutions who might be willing to admit somebody into their Master's program. Don't take my word for it, I'm only going based on an impression but the guys over at the CMI seem fairly liberal liberal and hey, you have to pass an http://docs.google.com/viewer?url=http://www.cmi.ac.in/admissions/sample-qp/pgmath.pdf" to well, gain entry. So, if you're interested, e-mail them, ask and see what comes of it. There's also the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai.

    Try looking into UNISA or Open University.

    Besides financial concerns, why do you not want to study in a university setting?

    I'm considering doing an online degree as well or something along the lines of that. There's a prof (PhD, Mathematics) who lives 5 minutes from me and I have friends who will probably be doing maths/physics at uni - so, I'll be able to form a little study group or something. I learn more with these than with formal classes anyway.
    Last edited by a moderator: Apr 26, 2017
  23. Oct 9, 2011 #22
    You'll need to absolutely SMOKE it to convince a school to fund you, but best of luck.
  24. Oct 9, 2011 #23
    My advice would be to do some part-time volunteer work for a research group nearby (if there are schools with graduate math programs located close to you). I suspect if you dominate the MGRE and GRE then you might be able to convince a professor to take you on as a volunteer. I think you will absolutely need some letters of rec for your application and this would be a good start.
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