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Seriously, what is grad school like?

  1. Jan 20, 2008 #1
    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.
  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 20, 2008 #2
    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.
  4. Jan 20, 2008 #3
    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.
    Last edited: Jan 20, 2008
  5. Jan 20, 2008 #4
    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.
  6. Jan 20, 2008 #5
    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 isnt 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 dont 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.
    Last edited: Jan 20, 2008
  7. Jan 21, 2008 #6
    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.
  8. Jan 21, 2008 #7
    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.
  9. Jan 21, 2008 #8


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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 text book and lecture notes repeatedly and for testing yourself to make sure you understand.
  10. Jan 21, 2008 #9


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    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.
  11. Jan 21, 2008 #10


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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.
  12. Jan 21, 2008 #11
    also, when learning a subject, read from different texts, not just the one the professor has assigned.
  13. Jan 21, 2008 #12
    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.
  14. Jan 21, 2008 #13
    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.
    Last edited: Jan 21, 2008
  15. Jan 21, 2008 #14


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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.
  16. Jan 21, 2008 #15
    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?
  17. Jan 21, 2008 #16
    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).
    Last edited: Jan 21, 2008
  18. Jan 21, 2008 #17
    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.
  19. Jan 21, 2008 #18
    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?
  20. Jan 21, 2008 #19
    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?
  21. Jan 21, 2008 #20
    thesis is just 3 credits for a master, isnt it? I believe it is more important to do thesis and get a feel of how it is like to do research
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