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Programs I am a Software Engineer planning for a Math PhD

  1. Mar 5, 2010 #1

    I am 30 years of age and am currently working as a Software Engineer at a major software company. I have an MS and BS in Computer Science. From childhood, I have always been attracted to math, especially pure math. I have participated in numerous regional Olympiads and stood in the top-3 (I wasn't good enough for international level though :( ). I would not be exaggerating a single bit if I said that my first choice for spending a holiday would be with a math book in my hand (soaking in the sun with a glass of wine nearby, if possible ;))

    I had to choose CS rather than math for my undergraduate since there was more money in it. This proved to be a not too unwise choice since I am in a well paid position now and work with smart people who keep me motivated. I love writing software, but I would prefer to deal with nature's complexity (beauty?) rather than man made complexity. Over the years, the urge in me to pursue higher studies in math has been increasing. And as I hit 30 and see a lot of friends/relatives pass away it becomes very clear to me that life is too short to not do things that you truly love. So, I have been giving serious though to the idea of doing a PhD in Math. However, life has also taught me that things that appear appealing from outside may not be so once you dive into them. I countered this thought myself by saying that since I have always been interested in math and since my desire to study it has never diminished, I will not feel disappointed if I jumped ship.

    With that said, experience from software development tells me that incremental development with prior planning is better than an abrupt, complete rewrite. To this end, I have come up with a plan to eventually orient my career towards math. My purpose in writing this message is to check my assumptions by having you wonderful folks examine it. I would appreciate if you can give your opinion on my plan and answer my questions below:


    1) Take few online courses in undergraduate math to warm up my brain (I am currently taking an online course in Linear Algebra and loving it!)
    2) Do an online Masters in Applied Math (since no university has a Masters in Pure Math). I have already researched for universities which have such programs. I want to do a Masters so I can have solid knowledge in all the undergraduate courses and more that I didn't take.
    3) Take general GRE and subject GRE and do well on them.
    4) Apply to top universities - MIT/Stanford/UCB/etc - and see if you get an admit + scholarship for a PhD in math. While I agree that the advisor is what matters for a PhD rather than the college, when I don't know any profs in any university, I might as well go for a reputed name college.
    5) The day I get an acceptance letter from one of these top universities, it will be a moment of truth - should I leave my comfortable well paying job (at age ~35) and jump into an unknown world? Am I really capable of doing a PhD? Will working under pressure and paper deadline be as enjoyable as learning math for its own sake in free time?
    6) Once I get my PhD (or close to that), I will think about what to do next - should I go back to software profession (I will be 40, will I be too old?), get into academia (can I do the hard work needed to get tenure at that age and when I probably will have young kids), become a math lecture (I *love* teaching, but lectures aren't paid well, are they?)


    1) When a university like MIT sees a PhD applicant aged ~35 with experience in software, will it consider it more favorably then a fresh-out-of-undergraduate applicant? Does age act to my advantage or disadvantage?

    2) Would you suggest any more (or less) steps to my plan.

    3) [Very subjective] Do you think my goals and plans are stupid or impractical? If not, any inspirational statements are highly appreciated.

    Love you all,
    Last edited: Mar 5, 2010
  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 6, 2010 #2
    You are not on the usual path, and programming experience doesn't really help in most fields of math. You're definitely fighting an uphill battle.
    Yes. But so what? What is life if you don't tilt at a few windmills now and then? :-)
  4. Mar 6, 2010 #3

    Ben Niehoff

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    Gold Member

    You can always fall back on software programming. I say do it. I wouldn't count on getting into a top school, though. Make sure you send a few applications to schools a bit lower on the list as well.

    One thing to take note of is that working as a TA (as you will probably work as a TA if you get funding at all) is going to feel quite demeaning after having held a real job. The powers that be (not every professor, but a few people) in my department treat me as inexperienced and untrustworthy, and I have to fight to convince them otherwise, or choose to brush it off. I had a real job at a major company in the computer industry for a few years before going back to school, a place where it was assumed I knew what I was doing and could get things done, and it feels absurd to be treated essentially the opposite as a TA.
  5. May 2, 2010 #4
    I think it sounds like a good change of pace, but I think you should consider lowering your expectations a bit. Remember you'll be competing against a large number of students that *have* participated in international competitions, and a good number of national champions. Coming in third in a regional competition (while certainly impressive) just isn't going to turn any heads at a top-5 school. And as far as age, I'd say it's a disadvantage by far. Think about the admissions process -- egotistical math profs are looking for fertile young minds to groom into tomorrow's thinkers. Who wants to take on a 35-year-old set in their ways, who will be over 40 - past Fields medal eligibility - and 15 years from retirement by the time they graduate (not to mention make tenure)? Unless you've got some stellar credentials in some other fashion, I think a top-5 school is pretty unlikely.

    That said, it might actually work out better for you at a lower tier school anyway. You'll stand out more, and the push-push-push to publish won't be as intense. You'll actually have time to enjoy your life (which sounds somewhat like the motivating factor here anyway), and perhaps do some side work if you need money for a family. And you can pick anywhere in the country.

    And it's not like these schools are slouches. If you say that half of the world's best math schools are in the US, and say each one tenures roughly one prof per year, then you can do the math and realize that most of the profs at even the 50th-best school in the US are still among the world's brightest people. And ultimately it's about what you do, not where you do it.

    As far as advice, probably skip the online masters. Just take the GRE and go to whichever school you can get into next year. Otherwise time is working against you pretty quickly, and an online masters probably doesn't add a whole lot.
  6. May 2, 2010 #5
    As another option, you could try taking a lower-stress job for a year while you get your skills up to speed. That should allow you time to get your thoughts together about what you really want to do with your life too.

    Certainly no more stupid than sitting in a cube for the rest of your life, wishing you were doing something else, just to make money to buy a bunch of stuff you don't need. Though perhaps more impractical.
  7. May 2, 2010 #6
    Actually, certain areas in CS are math heavy. It may be advantageous to you if you also apply to the CS program. Research these days is mostly interdisciplinary and cross-departmental. You shouldn't be hung up on what department you are in. As far as schools go, you should apply with an appropriate measure of realism as it is really competitive to get into the top schools you mentioned. You probably want to add a few more to your list. Just remember that a top ranking school may not do the kind of research you are interested in. Finally, take one step at a time and don't plan too far - you never know what's going to happen next. Life has many complexities.
    Last edited: May 2, 2010
  8. May 3, 2010 #7

    For graduate school the decisions come from the respective departments, especially for the technical subject.

    One ray of light though since you said you have money you may be able to get in but required to pay your own way, an option that is not suitable for 99% of the rest of the applicants.
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