Seriously, what is grad school like?

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  • #1
JasonJo
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Hey guys, I apologize in advance because I know there have been like a thousand threads on this already.

I'm about to graduate in May with a degree in Applied Math and Pure Math. I have taken a bunch of upper division math courses and I attended an REU and am currently doing an undergraduate honors thesis on an open problem in dynamics. I feel like I have a good math background, especially pure math. I have excellent grades and I got 2 really good letters of recommendation and 1 good one from a professor that I took 3 courses with, however I did terribly on the GRE Math subject exam (35% percentile).

Anyway, 1-2 years ago, it was my goal to get into a good grad school that was strong in geometry and mathematical physics. I think I have a good chance of getting into a couple of schools that are a bit more flexible in terms of math and physics and in fact is their main strength (Duke looks to have a very impressive mathematical physics faculty, even with the departure of David Morrison to UCSB). But, lately I have been really considering whether or not I want to go to grad school.

Here are the basic facts, and I really want to hear everyone's opinion on whether or not I should go:
1 - I have no desire to be a part of any academic profession. I do not want to be a professor or any of that. So getting a PhD would be just to get it.
2 - I am extremely uncomfortable with what I have been hearing about the amount of work that is required. As an undergrad, I took a lot of independent studies and seminars that required a ton of studying outside of class. I studied probably 20-30 hours a week, depending on the week. I have been taking 5-6 math courses a semester for the last 2 years, so I'm used to being saturated with math. But I have been hearing of 10-12 hour work days in graduate school. This sounds obscene to me.
3 - What the hell do I gain from a PhD over the "pat on the back" aspect of getting a PhD? I don't want to become a professor, I am not getting into a school that is "prestigious," so any type of field like quant finance is out of the picture (for the most part since I hear they really have a predilection for Ivy League, top 10 PhD students).

What is the workload like at grad school? Does it get any better after you pass the qualifying exams? Is there any point to go to grad school for my PhD (specifically PhD) if I have no desire to become a professor?

I'm sorry for the long post, but I appreciate any insight you guys are willing to share.
 

Answers and Replies

  • #2
oedipa maas
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1 - lots of people doing PhDs in fields like math and physics don't want to go into academia. However, there aren't many chances in life to study fulltime something YOU think is interesting.

2 - the people that I did my first two years of graduate school with worked hard and complained a lot, but everyone agreed that they'd suffered more as undergrads. Once coursework is over, you pretty much do 9-5 (although you will do more than this if you are studying for quals, preparing something for a conference or writing up your thesis). As an undergrad you have to work until you get through all your assignments; in grad school you have the freedom to work until *you* decide that you're tired. And then you go swimming or home and make a nice dinner or go for a beer with some friends.

3 - a PhD demonstrates that you can manage a project, that you are smart and that you are focused. You will also probably have some mathematical or computational skills that will make you attractive for specific applications.

I have a friend who got a PhD studying gravity in 4 dimensions - he worked at Boeing for two years solving fluid dynamics problems (making piles of money) and now he'd like to do an MBA. Another friend of mine did two postdocs in condensed matter theory and then parlayed his computer skills into a job at Google. People with science and math PhDs - even PhDs from mid-range schools - get jobs that use their skills.

There are lots of reasons for going to grad school:
1. You like doing research.
2. The lifestyle is great. Sure, you don't make a lot of money, but you have a lot of freedom to choose how you spend your time. And you will make enough money to live comfortably and indulge a few vices.
3. The people you work with - professors and postdocs and other grad students - are fun and interesting. (some of them are a little strange too, but that's all part of the show)
4. You enjoy teaching.
5. You enjoy traveling - there are lots of chances to see the world on somebody else's dollar.
 
  • #3
JasonJo
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Can you expand upon the lifestyle aspect a little bit more? I understand I'm probably going to have to move, etc, all that. But I guess for most PhD programs in math or physics, you generally take 3 courses a semester and then teach a calculus recitation or something like that. So I'm figuring 9 hours a week from courses, most programs suggest 15-20 hours a week for the teaching, and then I figure I'm going to need to put in 15-20 hours a week, at least, to do well in the grad courses. That's about a 50 hour week, which does not sound too bad. Is this a good guesstimate?

My main concern is that I'm going to be studying and doing homework ALL DAY, for at least the first two years when I'm taking basic grad courses, prelim exams and the quals.

I am not willing to let math completely become my life for even 2 years.
 
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  • #4
motx
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Just thought I'd point out that you do not need a ph.d for quant finance. Take a look at some of the financial engineering programs out there. Particularly, check out Baruch College's webpage for their masters in financial engineering to view some employment and admission stats.
 
  • #5
leon1127
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My background is very similar to you. I even scored about the same marks on my GRE subject test. I was once trying to get into PhD programme. I am doing my master on Mathematical Finance. The idea is that passing through all the pre-req is not as bad as you might have heard. It might seem very difficult at the very beginning but there are always help from your classmate.

The problem is the fact that current research is so much focusing on very specific topic. It requires so much more knowledge BEYOND you can learn from first two years of classes. For example, the foundation of Stochastic Analysis is discussed by the book by Streve and Karatzas, and Rogers and Williams. With my (sufficiently low) ability, I would need a year worth of real and functional analysis, and probability theory knowledge to understand them. Adding about another year of finish those 3 monographs in Stochastic Analysis. This means I would already need two years of work to understand just foundation of Stochastic Analysis. After this point, you are basically on your own because there aren't any classmate who is doing the same thing as you are.

My favourite topic is stochastic calculus of variations by Malliavin. This topic requires harmonic analysis, PDE, operator theory, Lie groups etc. To acquire sufficient knowledge of the language of Malliavin Calculus would requires at least a year (wishful thinking) worth of hard work.

Finally I can understand Malliavin Calculus after short 3 years (hopefully) of learning. Guess what? Foundation of Malliavin Calculus was done about 40 years ago. How much more time do I need to filter the new results discovered in last 40 years? After that, I still need more time to complete my ORIGINAL thesis in the subject.


My point is that there are two choices (3 actually). You can either enjoy your mathematics and do it everyday for 4-5 years, or still enjoy your mathematics forever by taking forever to complete your education and have a life meanwhile (or, the last choice, you have 210 IQ.)

Notice that I used stochastic analysis as my example because it is relatively newer topic and less result is known. You are interested in Geometry and Mathematical Physics. You should have an idea how much more information is out there?

You should not worry about employment if your interest isn't as pure as semi-category theory (if such non-sense topic even exist). You can always find a job somewhat related to your quantitative knowledge (with decent salary). For your information, quant don't just hire PhD from MIT; they also hire people from regular school. It is not about where you graduate from, but is about what you can contribute. Although the quant market this year is very bad...

Maths PhD should be considered as a joy of learning, and not be considered as hope for better employment.
 
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  • #6
arunma
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My main concern is that I'm going to be studying and doing homework ALL DAY, for at least the first two years when I'm taking basic grad courses, prelim exams and the quals.

I am not willing to let math completely become my life for even 2 years.

If I may just interject a short blurb here...

It sounds like you already have an excellent idea of what grad school is like (better than I did before signing up). I'm a physics grad student, but I imagine it's similar to math. Basically I do homework or teaching all day. And yes, there's that qualifier hanging over me for next summer. Granted if I pass it I'll be home free, because people at my school almost never fail their orals or defense (but the qual is really hard). Still, physics grad school is really hard, and it takes up all of my time. I do have some small modicum of a life outside of school, most of which I dedicate to various activities at my church. Aside from that, it's really just work from 9 am to 8 pm Monday through Saturday.

Why the heck would anyone do this to themselves? Well personally, I just think it'll be cool to prepend "Dr." before my name someday. But most people will tell you that you should go to grad school because you're interested in a particular subject, and because you want to do something that will give you personal fulfillment. This is probably the correct answer. Of course there are also practical considerations. Physics and math aren't that employable for people with just undergraduate degrees. Heck, there's no short supply of threads here by people complaining that they can't get a job with their degrees. Grad school will give you a far better shot at employment. After all, who ever heard of an unemployed physics or math PhD?

So ultimately here's what I'd say: if you really like math, and are willing to let it consume your life for two years (plus three years of slightly more laid back research), then go to grad school. Alternatively, if you can't get a job anywhere, then it doesn't really matter if you're willing to let math consume your life or not, since you basically need to suck it up and spend a few years on a PhD or starve. But if you can get yourself a job, and if you have no desire to work 12 hour days for two years, then you shouldn't go.
 
  • #7
oedipa maas
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I had classes and homework primarily for the first year of grad school, but I don't feel that it took over my life. I probably spent 55 hours a week doing homework, studying and TAing, but I didn't feel like I was throwing my life away. TAing (well, except for the marking) doesn't feel like a sentence of hard labour.

During my first two years of grad school I played Ultimate frisbee, read fiction every day, cooked good meals with friends, went for beer every Friday, played on the department ice hockey and softball teams, and played in a band. And while I was writing up my thesis I made a record. All in all, I had a pretty good time.
 
  • #8
HallsofIvy
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You have to be very very careful. Most graduate professors are going to expect the graduate student to be responsible for his own education. They will lecture without stopping to ask question of the students, not give homework (select textbooks that don't have exercises) and not give many tests. You will find it all very easy until you wake up and realize you haven't learned anything! You are solely responsible for disciplining yourself to go through the textbook and lecture notes repeatedly and for testing yourself to make sure you understand.
 
  • #9
jtbell
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not give homework

That probably varies from one school to another and from one course to another. When I was in grad school at Michigan, we definitely did have homework for the standard courses that everybody took: classical mechanics (Goldstein), E&M (Jackson), etc. It was collected, and graded by one of the more advanced grad students.
 
  • #10
mathwonk
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you were lucky. many professors do indeed expect you to be responsible for your own learning, especially in advanced courses, although there may be a project or two or a few problems to do.

in general, grad school requires a tremendous commitment, almost total dedication of time and energy. do not begin it without this, if you hope to succeed.
 
  • #11
tronter
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also, when learning a subject, read from different texts, not just the one the professor has assigned.
 
  • #12
tronter
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If you do not want to go to academia, do not get a PhD. Many PhD's in physics and math realize this, and are often unemployed and have to work at part-time jobs to support themselves. Then they switch fields and gets jobs.
 
  • #13
Laura1013
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If you do not want to go to academia, do not get a PhD.

I think that's terrible advice. There are so many positions outside of academia that expect and even require a Ph.D.! My boss, for example, and nearly every single scientist at my workplace are all Ph.D.-holders and most are not associated with academia.

Edited to add: I work at a government research institution.
 
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  • #14
JasonRox
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I heard to opposite of graduate school. I heard it's pure hell for the first 3 years on your way to your Ph.D. Two professors from my school said that to me. They were being truthfully honest about everything.

They said if you're not ready to commit, basically wait a year and work on things. Don't go into it thinking it'll be fine. You have to go into it completely focused and willing to sacrifice all of your time to studying, research and work. That's basically what it came down to.

I'm not ready for that, so I'm waiting.
 
  • #15
arunma
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Hmm, I must attend a weird graduate school. Where I'm at the professrs give no short supply of homework, and actively ask questions to make sure we understand the material. Maybe I just have really good professors. And maybe it'll bite me in the ass someday when I realize that I don't know how to educate myself. But graduate courses here seem mostly like the undergrad courses with the exceptions that a.) they cover much harder material, b.) the professors expect that we're competent physicists (as opposed to undergrads, and c.) they understand that we have teaching duties of our own. But my courses are structured much like my old undergrad courses. Again, it's quite possible that my experience deviates from the norm. Of course we all can agree that physics grad school is absolutely grueling, and requires tremendous effort. Fortunately the older students tell me that it gets much better once you pass your quals.

BTW Tronter, I've never heard of an unemployed physics PhD. Where have you gotten this info?
 
  • #16
tronter
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DrTransport had noted that he had some friends with PhD's that had to flip burgers (i.e. overqualified, and not practical). It is really competitive to get a professorship. I am not saying not to do a PhD. I am just saying do a PhD with some goal in mind (rather than just doing it for the sake of it). The 20's are your best years of your life (commonly told).
 
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  • #17
Laura1013
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Hmm, I must attend a weird graduate school. Where I'm at the professrs give no short supply of homework, and actively ask questions to make sure we understand the material. Maybe I just have really good professors. And maybe it'll bite me in the ass someday when I realize that I don't know how to educate myself. But graduate courses here seem mostly like the undergrad courses with the exceptions that a.) they cover much harder material, b.) the professors expect that we're competent physicists (as opposed to undergrads, and c.) they understand that we have teaching duties of our own. But my courses are structured much like my old undergrad courses. Again, it's quite possible that my experience deviates from the norm. Of course we all can agree that physics grad school is absolutely grueling, and requires tremendous effort. Fortunately the older students tell me that it gets much better once you pass your quals.

If your experience deviates from the norm, then so does mine. That's how grad courses are in my program as well. The majority of the self-study that differs from undergrad comes from preparing for the quals.
 
  • #18
Shackleford
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Hey, guys, I'm contemplating a Ph.D down the road. I think I might want to first stop at an MS in physics. I'll do a non-thesis option that way more course hours would go towards the doctorate and I can start dissertation research only when I decide to make the doctoral jump. Does that sound all right?
 
  • #19
RasslinGod
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Im planning a similar path tliek u Shackleford.

Im also curious if doing a non-thesis option hurts your chances into getting a betetr PhD program? Coudl anyone answer this?
 
  • #20
leon1127
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Hey, guys, I'm contemplating a Ph.D down the road. I think I might want to first stop at an MS in physics. I'll do a non-thesis option that way more course hours would go towards the doctorate and I can start dissertation research only when I decide to make the doctoral jump. Does that sound all right?

thesis is just 3 credits for a master, isn't it? I believe it is more important to do thesis and get a feel of how it is like to do research
 
  • #21
Shackleford
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thesis is just 3 credits for a master, isn't it? I believe it is more important to do thesis and get a feel of how it is like to do research

I suppose. But that's one thing the faculty adviser explicitly told me: that you would have to start the research all over for a doctorate.
 
  • #22
leon1127
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I suppose. But that's one thing the faculty adviser explicitly told me: that you would have to start the research all over for a doctorate.

who cares. PhD thesis can take 2 full years of research. How much more can that 3 credits of research help to your final thesis. Moreover, master thesis is more like exposition of some topics instead of producing original work. Dont even think that you can really produce original research after the master progromme. What you learn in a master programme is merely enough to read current research. Think of your master thesis is an independent study rather than RESEARCH.

I did a thesis over Clifford Algebra. I didn't waste my time, even though I won't do anything algebra in the future, because it was a way to learn how research is like. It would be too late to try that when you are half way into a PhD programme.
 
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  • #23
TMFKAN64
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Most Ph.D. programs allow you to petition for an MS after you complete your coursework and qualifiers. If you think you might be interested in a Ph.D., you'd probably be better off going directly into a Ph.D. program.

If you already have a BS in physics, I'm not sure that an MS without any research component is really going to help you get into a Ph.D. program. (If you *don't* have a BS in physics or if your grades were less than stellar, that's a different matter...)
 
  • #24
arunma
927
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Hey, guys, I'm contemplating a Ph.D down the road. I think I might want to first stop at an MS in physics. I'll do a non-thesis option that way more course hours would go towards the doctorate and I can start dissertation research only when I decide to make the doctoral jump. Does that sound all right?

Actually I think this might not be the first idea. I'm a first year PhD student, and like most of my fellow first years, I do not have an MS. There are a few people in my class who are only here for their Master's degree, and they're planning to get a PhD elsewhere. From where I sit, these guys are at a few disadvantages.

1. The qualifier. I have until the end of my first two years to pass this beast of an exam. Master's students will need to transfer elsewhere, and then pass it relatively easy. If my worst nightmare comes true and I don't pass, I'll at least get a Master's degree as a consolation prize. But when the current Master's students transfer to a new university, they'll need to pass their qual right away. If they don't, then they need to drop out or transfer again. Not a good position to be in.

2. Research. Basically the MS students at my school are going to have to do two years of research with a professor, and then transfer elsewhere and do new research. So nothing they do here will ultimately count towards their PhD, unless they do something funny and transfer to a school where they can work for a group that's in the same collaboration as one here. Yes, you get experience and something nice to put on your resume. But in some sense it's just wasted effort. All the research that we PhD students do our first two years will go towards our PhD thesis (assuming we don't switch groups, which admittedly many students do after the first year).

3. Transfering credits. They keep telling me that the MS credits you take will transfer to the school where you do your PhD. But I'm not so sure about that. I have one PhD student friend who has his MS, and yet he's in all the same first year classes as me. I'm told this is true of all the MS students in the previous year's class. I'm guessing that transfer of credit isn't as smooth a process as they say it is.

Now, there are a couple reasons you might apply to MS programs. Maybe you just want to get your MS and get a job (which from your post seems to not be the case). Or maybe you don't have the best grades, and you know that MS programs are easier to get into. If this is so, then an MS might be a great way to boost your GPA and have a better shot at PhD programs. But if you're going this route, try applying to MS programs at schools that also have PhD programs. Once you get in and demonstrate that you can do well, it's relatively easy to apply to the same school's PhD program and get in. This will at least resolve problems 2 and 3.
 
  • #25
Shackleford
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I'm still working on my BS Physics. So, it might be better for me to shoot directly for the Ph.D after my BS? Here are the requirements for Ph.D at the university I plan on attending:

http://www.phys.uh.edu/phdreq.htm [Broken]
 
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  • #26
leon1127
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I'm still working on my BS Physics. So, it might be better for me to shoot directly for the Ph.D after my BS? Here are the requirements for Ph.D at the university I plan on attending:

http://www.phys.uh.edu/phdreq.htm [Broken]

There are a lot of great physics school in Texas. UT, UTD, A&M, and rice are at very high standard. UTD's physics department is undergoing an expansion for its nano-tech research. You shouldn't stay at the same school as your undergraduate degree. One of the reason is that you should go to other school which is best fit your interest. The other reason is that by the time you finish your undergrad, you should have learned what your undergrad school can offer, then it would be better go go somewhere else and get what other school can offer.

fyi, i graduated from some school in texas. I might be able to give you some opinion around texas.

And yes, you should just go straight to PhD if you can. However you have to be very good at undergrad level.
 
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  • #27
Shackleford
1,666
2
There are a lot of great physics school in Texas. UT, UTD, A&M, and rice are at very high standard. UTD's physics department is undergoing an expansion for its nano-tech research. You shouldn't stay at the same school as your undergraduate degree. One of the reason is that you should go to other school which is best fit your interest. The other reason is that by the time you finish your undergrad, you should have learned what your undergrad school can offer, then it would be better go go somewhere else and get what other school can offer.

fyi, i graduated from some school in texas. I might be able to give you some opinion around texas.

And yes, you should just go straight to PhD if you can. However you have to be very good at undergrad level.

Thanks for the advice. I think I'll do that. It'd be great to go UT Austin. I live near Houston, though. I'm going to try to do my best while in undergrad. I'll gladly accept any advice on doing the best I can, preparing for courses, etc.
 
  • #28
eastside00_99
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To the OP: I wouldn't underestimate your own talent and interest in mathematics if I were you. As you say you take around 5 math courses a semester that probably is, at the least, as hard as your experience will be the first years of graduate school (depending on the graduate school). At MIT, you probably won't get very much sleep (as I believe you only have 4 years). I also wouldn't overestimate the quals. I have looked at quals for some universities (and I am undergrad) and after taking 27 hours of graduate credit, I can do many of the problems very easily without studying or even when the exam tests material I took a year and a half ago. Of course, it depends on the university. As long as you find a good fit for a graduate school the quals will not be all that terrible. Besides what the quals do is give the opportunity to learn three areas of mathematics really well. It gives you a strong working knowledge of math and this is essential because it demonstrates that you can learn more advanced topics in these areas but also shows that you can learn a theory in detail (and so can learn others in detail). Of course, some schools have quals that are not so concerned with explicit modes of knowledge but with a wide breath of knowledge (Harvard is an example, U of Ill is another). These approaches are not bad either as satisfying the requirement is usually somewhat more flexible (i.e. at Harvard you can take the qual as often as you like until you pass and they see this as an essential feature to their program). So, in part, I think the qual is not the hardest part of the Ph.D. It is only the most boring because their is form and structure--its a test. And for this test you have to take these courses and learn this material and work these problems and be able to perform at least at so and so a level within the material. So, I would say it is kind of the thing you have to do to get to the real purpose of doing the ph.d.

The next step is specializing. So, now you have to go to the "forefront" of knowledge in a particular field. I guess yours would be a certain area of mathematical physics. The test for when this is finished is the oral examination which is where you usually present a currently published paper(s) and maybe some other material to a few mathematicians. To do this you have to read a lot. I mean after the quals you may say you are at somewhere around a 1950s mathematician (or something). You have to now pick an advisor and start reading books and papers on you own to get to the present time. If you pick something like graph theory you may get their very quickly, but if instead you pick algebraic k-theory (and you don't understand some more fundamental topics) then it may take a very long time. I guess this was the point someone was making earlier about stochastic analysis. The truth is, at a young age, you have the ability to learn things very quickly when your concentration is fixed, and this time is when you really get to learn the subject you are most interested in (and presumably is why you are in graduate school). The oral presentation I am sure is intimidating and is especially for me because I often stick my foot in my mouth and overlook the obvious. But, its ok not to know something or to do something incorrectly. The main objective is to see that you know your subject.

Finally, the research aspect. To me, this is the hardest part and is probably the most difficult. I haven't any real idea what it is like. But, I do know things can go horribly wrong (e.g., someone solves your thesis problem before you do or you realize that your problem is way too hard to work on in the time that you have). Really, this should be the most exciting time though and is when you get to develop your own, original ideas.

I think the trademark for grad school as opposed to undergrad is that sometimes in grad school you are thinking about mathematics so much that it spills over into your dream time. Anyway, I would stay positive about this though.
 
  • #29
SCV
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Actually I think this might not be the first idea. I'm a first year PhD student, and like most of my fellow first years, I do not have an MS. There are a few people in my class who are only here for their Master's degree, and they're planning to get a PhD elsewhere. From where I sit, these guys are at a few disadvantages.

1. The qualifier. I have until the end of my first two years to pass this beast of an exam. Master's students will need to transfer elsewhere, and then pass it relatively easy. If my worst nightmare comes true and I don't pass, I'll at least get a Master's degree as a consolation prize. But when the current Master's students transfer to a new university, they'll need to pass their qual right away. If they don't, then they need to drop out or transfer again. Not a good position to be in.
Can you give an example of a program that says if you already have an MS and you start their PhD program then you have to pass the qual right away?


3. Transfering credits. They keep telling me that the MS credits you take will transfer to the school where you do your PhD. But I'm not so sure about that. I have one PhD student friend who has his MS, and yet he's in all the same first year classes as me. I'm told this is true of all the MS students in the previous year's class. I'm guessing that transfer of credit isn't as smooth a process as they say it is.
Have you asked any of the students with an MS why they are in first year classes?

I will have taken about 20 graduate classes before I graduate with my bachelor's and master's in math. [11 of those classes are for my master's] However, if I go to any school other than the one I am at right now I will probably take all the first year classes. So I would be a first year PhD student with a master's but taking first year classes. If I can pass the quals before starting my first year then I will not take those classes, but if I don't I should probably focus on that material for a while pass the quals and then move on.

Also many of my credits for grad classes will not transfer because I would have obtained them before getting my BS. If I stay at my current school, I think they will count most of them but if I go somewhere else it will be harder.


Now, there are a couple reasons you might apply to MS programs. Maybe you just want to get your MS and get a job (which from your post seems to not be the case). Or maybe you don't have the best grades, and you know that MS programs are easier to get into. If this is so, then an MS might be a great way to boost your GPA and have a better shot at PhD programs. But if you're going this route, try applying to MS programs at schools that also have PhD programs. Once you get in and demonstrate that you can do well, it's relatively easy to apply to the same school's PhD program and get in. This will at least resolve problems 2 and 3.
What I have heard is that it can be really hard to get into MS programs because of funding issues (But this was for math). However, there is probably more funding to go around in physics programs so that may not be an issue. For math, basically, its harder for student who apply to MS programs to get funding.
 
  • #30
Laura1013
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3
Can you give an example of a program that says if you already have an MS and you start their PhD program then you have to pass the qual right away?

My university, where the qualifying exam is called the comprehensive exam (the written exam on a number of physics topics), and the qualifying exam is a different exam (presenting preliminary research to one's doctoral committee):

"Students entering UAH with an M.S. degree or previous graduate training in physics must take the UAH Comprehensive Examination at their earliest opportunity." - Graduate Catalog, Physics section.

My program seems to be a little unusual within the United States, in that an M.S. degree is not skipped over, but is nearly automatically awarded in pursuit of a Ph.D. What I mean is, even though I had always been pursuing my doctorate, I was considered a master's student until I passed the comprehensive exam.


Have you asked any of the students with an MS why they are in first year classes?

My roommate, who already had an M.S. from another university, re-took first-year grad classes to both fulfill requirements and refresh her memory. (She was also an exception to the "earliest opportunity" rule I quoted above, as she has just move to the U.S. from Turkey and was trying to adjust to a new language and culture.)
 
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  • #31
arunma
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Can you give an example of a program that says if you already have an MS and you start their PhD program then you have to pass the qual right away?

Well, actually my school, Iowa State, is one such program. Over here M.S. students are given fifteen months to pass the qual after entering the department. Problem is, the qual is only given once a year in the summer. So effectively the M.S. students only have one chance to pass; two if they take the free shot in the summer before their first year.


Have you asked any of the students with an M.S. why they are in first year classes?

A few are taking classes just to keep material fresh in their minds that'll be on the qual. But also, the department doesn't always accept transfer credit. Plus, until you pass your qual you can't really get started on PhD research, so I suppose there's not much else to do.

I will have taken about 20 graduate classes before I graduate with my bachelor's and master's in math. [11 of those classes are for my master's] However, if I go to any school other than the one I am at right now I will probably take all the first year classes. So I would be a first year PhD student with a master's but taking first year classes. If I can pass the quals before starting my first year then I will not take those classes, but if I don't I should probably focus on that material for a while pass the quals and then move on.

That' excellent! I highly recommend trying to pass the quals during the free shot they give you before your first year. It'll basically remove the largest obstacle on your path to a PhD. I myself managed to pass half the qualifier before my first year (they split it up into classical and modern sections, which can be passed independently).

Also many of my credits for grad classes will not transfer because I would have obtained them before getting my BS. If I stay at my current school, I think they will count most of them but if I go somewhere else it will be harder.


What I have heard is that it can be really hard to get into MS programs because of funding issues (But this was for math). However, there is probably more funding to go around in physics programs so that may not be an issue. For math, basically, its harder for student who apply to MS programs to get funding.

Well, I can't speak competently about that. In physics (at least over here) professors don't mind having competent grad students to help with their research, so they typically don't mind having Master's students. But I've heard that in biology they also don't tend to give M.S. candidates much funding.
 
  • #32
JasonJo
429
2
To the OP: I wouldn't underestimate your own talent and interest in mathematics if I were you. As you say you take around 5 math courses a semester that probably is, at the least, as hard as your experience will be the first years of graduate school (depending on the graduate school). At MIT, you probably won't get very much sleep (as I believe you only have 4 years). I also wouldn't overestimate the quals. I have looked at quals for some universities (and I am undergrad) and after taking 27 hours of graduate credit, I can do many of the problems very easily without studying or even when the exam tests material I took a year and a half ago. Of course, it depends on the university. As long as you find a good fit for a graduate school the quals will not be all that terrible. Besides what the quals do is give the opportunity to learn three areas of mathematics really well. It gives you a strong working knowledge of math and this is essential because it demonstrates that you can learn more advanced topics in these areas but also shows that you can learn a theory in detail (and so can learn others in detail). Of course, some schools have quals that are not so concerned with explicit modes of knowledge but with a wide breath of knowledge (Harvard is an example, U of Ill is another). These approaches are not bad either as satisfying the requirement is usually somewhat more flexible (i.e. at Harvard you can take the qual as often as you like until you pass and they see this as an essential feature to their program). So, in part, I think the qual is not the hardest part of the Ph.D. It is only the most boring because their is form and structure--its a test. And for this test you have to take these courses and learn this material and work these problems and be able to perform at least at so and so a level within the material. So, I would say it is kind of the thing you have to do to get to the real purpose of doing the ph.d.

The next step is specializing. So, now you have to go to the "forefront" of knowledge in a particular field. I guess yours would be a certain area of mathematical physics. The test for when this is finished is the oral examination which is where you usually present a currently published paper(s) and maybe some other material to a few mathematicians. To do this you have to read a lot. I mean after the quals you may say you are at somewhere around a 1950s mathematician (or something). You have to now pick an advisor and start reading books and papers on you own to get to the present time. If you pick something like graph theory you may get their very quickly, but if instead you pick algebraic k-theory (and you don't understand some more fundamental topics) then it may take a very long time. I guess this was the point someone was making earlier about stochastic analysis. The truth is, at a young age, you have the ability to learn things very quickly when your concentration is fixed, and this time is when you really get to learn the subject you are most interested in (and presumably is why you are in graduate school). The oral presentation I am sure is intimidating and is especially for me because I often stick my foot in my mouth and overlook the obvious. But, its ok not to know something or to do something incorrectly. The main objective is to see that you know your subject.

Finally, the research aspect. To me, this is the hardest part and is probably the most difficult. I haven't any real idea what it is like. But, I do know things can go horribly wrong (e.g., someone solves your thesis problem before you do or you realize that your problem is way too hard to work on in the time that you have). Really, this should be the most exciting time though and is when you get to develop your own, original ideas.

I think the trademark for grad school as opposed to undergrad is that sometimes in grad school you are thinking about mathematics so much that it spills over into your dream time. Anyway, I would stay positive about this though.

I would just like to thank you for an excellent, insightful post. This is really going to factor into my decision making.
 
  • #33
JeffKoch
400
1
My main concern is that I'm going to be studying and doing homework ALL DAY, for at least the first two years when I'm taking basic grad courses, prelim exams and the quals.

I am not willing to let math completely become my life for even 2 years.

Then don't go to graduate school. :smile: That's basically the concept for the first year (or two, depending on the school) in most grad schools - you devote your entire life to coursework, and if you don't want to then there are plenty of other folks in your classes who are happy to get the good grades and watch you flunk out. It's not as bad as you might think, it's temporary and there's life after grad school, but while you're in the meat grinder you need to be motivated to push on regardless of how much it affects the rest of your life.
 
  • #34
JasonJo
429
2
Quick update:

I am back at school and I'm in my last semester. I am taking a bunch of general ed courses that I need to graduate and I really learned one thing: how much I miss taking math courses. I am taking 2 math courses, 1 is working on my dynamics problem and the other is a geometry of physics seminar. I really do miss taking 4-5 math courses every semester, even with all the stress of studying. I think once I get out of an undergrad environment (i.e. the dorming and not being able to control my schedule and sleeping, even though I do enjoy the more lax atmosphere at times) I'll really do that much better.

Thanks for all your responses guys, Peace!
 

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