What are my chances of going to MIT?

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I am a fourth year undergraduate who will be graduating this year and doing a master's in mathematics (in Canada), or possibly taking a fifth year to improve my math credentials. I am curious as to what my chances of getting into a top US school for Mathematical Physics (at a mathematics department) are. MIT really seems like the best place to go, and Berkeley too would be great for me. Let me give you some information:

I go to a top Canadian school and am in the joint mathematics & physics program. The advanced (3rd year or above) math courses I will have taken by the time I apply will include Topology, Complex Analysis I, Real Analysis I, and the graduate Mathematical Quantum Mechanics, Mathematical General Relativity, Mathematical Quantum Field Theory. For physics, it will include E&M, Quantum I, Quantum II, Classical Mechanics, GR I, GR II, Fluid Dynamics. My GPA will be somewhere between 3.75 and 3.9 (with the higher weight coming from the last 2 years) by the time I apply. I haven't taken the Math GRE yet but I would guess my scores will be reasonably high (if you can tell me what scores I need to get, given the rest of the info, that would be helpful). As for research experience, I held the equivalent of an REU the summer after 2nd year, in mathematics. The summer which just passed I did not receive an REU but I worked under a professor in the physics department doing computational work, which I am continuing this semester (and we are hoping to publish a paper out of it). The references from these two professors should be fairly good, and I am working on finding another. I think that I will be able to write a strong personal statement because I am very passionate about mathematical physics and also have a strong sense of what sort of topics I enjoy (and I am a reasonably good writer when I write things that aren't message board posts).

Another question: would it be more beneficial, for the goal of getting into a PhD program in the states, to do a fifth year and raise my marks, or to simply move straight on to a master's in math (which I am fairly certain I can get into here)? How about the issue of my somewhat lacking math background?
 
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  • #2
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I am curious as to what my chances of getting into a top US school for Mathematical Physics (at a mathematics department) are. MIT really seems like the best place to go, and Berkeley too would be great for me.
Low.

Not to say that you don't have a decent background. You do, and your background is good enough so that you should apply to a few "shoot the moon" schools. It's just that it's hard to get into MIT, and so you chances of getting in, even if you have a good application, are low.

My general advice to people that want to go to graduate school is to worry less able getting into a top graduate school, and spend more time thinking about which non-top graduate school they should apply to. Ultimately, you don't have any real choice as to whether MIT will take you. If they say no, then the answer is no, and they probably will say no.

What you should spend more time thinking about is assuming that you can get into a non-top graduate school, which graduate school will it be.

Another question: would it be more beneficial, for the goal of getting into a PhD program in the states, to do a fifth year and raise my marks, or to simply move straight on to a master's in math (which I am fairly certain I can get into here)?
The trouble is that if you go into a terminal masters in math, that makes it extremely difficult to get into a Ph.D. program. Ph.D. programs in the sciences are not set up for people with terminal masters to transfer in.

As far as a fifth year, if you can take higher level courses and get some research experience, it might help. However, don't do another year just to raise your GPA. If you take easy courses, then it's going to be obvious and look back. If you take hard courses, there is the very real chance that it will lower your GPA.

How about the issue of my somewhat lacking math background?
There's nothing that suggests a deficiency.
 
  • #3
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Thanks for your input. But what exactly do you mean by "terminal master's" degree? In Canada we usually take a Master's between our Bachelor's and PhD (unless you decide to skip it). So next year I will be doing either that or a fifth year (in either case there will be research experience) -- this is the issue. Would it be more beneficial to stay as an undergrad, or do a Master's, when all I'd be doing as a Master's student would be getting up to speed with my full-math major friends (who know all the material now, in 4th year/ by the end of the year). I'm also curious whether they would view high marks more favourably for an undergrad or a Master's student...since sometimes grad school can be easier to do well in because of the lower course load.
 
  • #4
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The trouble is that if you go into a terminal masters in math, that makes it extremely difficult to get into a Ph.D. program. Ph.D. programs in the sciences are not set up for people with terminal masters to transfer in.
Would you say this is only so in Maths or does it apply to Physics, as well? Because when I checked around various departments, basically everyone who hasn't done their bachelor degree in the US had a Masters degree. I saw a lot of Canadians with Masters degrees, and similarly, just adding to anecdotal evidence, everyone who I know from interviews and such from my home country that went to do their PhD in the US had done a Masters back home.

And why would it be harder to get into a PhD program if you posses a Masters degree already?
 
  • #5
fss
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Thanks for your input. But what exactly do you mean by "terminal master's" degree?
A terminal Masters is generally a program in which you enter with a B.S./B.A. and exit with an M.S./M.A.

In most major US institutions- including nearly all of the "top 50"- you get admitted to a PhD program during which you obtain your Masters' degree usually as almost a side note.

And why would it be harder to get into a PhD program if you posses a Masters degree already?
Because admissions committees will wonder why you didn't get your PhD in the first place (among other reasons).
 
  • #6
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I saw a lot of Canadians with Masters degrees, and similarly, just adding to anecdotal evidence, everyone who I know from interviews and such from my home country that went to do their PhD in the US had done a Masters back home.
US physics/math Ph.D. programs are masters/Ph.D. programs. If you come in with a masters degree, then you have to retake the masters course and probably get a second masters.

The other thing is that different countries and different fields have very different structures, and getting two systems to mesh with each other is pretty interesting.

And why would it be harder to get into a PhD program if you posses a Masters degree already?
Because in the US, having a masters degree without a Ph.D. in physics is taken as a sign that you've "dropped out" of graduate school. US Ph.D. physics programs are not set up to accept masters students, so it's likely that you'll have to redo coursework.
 
  • #7
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Because admissions committees will wonder why you didn't get your PhD in the first place (among other reasons).
Because in the US, having a masters degree without a Ph.D. in physics is taken as a sign that you've "dropped out" of graduate school. US Ph.D. physics programs are not set up to accept masters students, so it's likely that you'll have to redo coursework.
But the OP said he isn't from the US, so how could the admissions commitees be so short-sighted so as to only consider the way things are done in the US? And how do you then explain the amount of people from abroad doing their PhDs in the US if they are seriously impaired in doing so by having Masters degrees? I mean, I get that if you study in the US, then you go from a bachelors to PhD without obtaining a Masters, but the policy you're describing doesn't make sense for people who have studied outside the US. In fact, I know that people from my home country couldn't do a PhD in the US without first obtaining a Masters degree (back home, that is, not a Masters in the US), because their education was considered inadequate (heh, the irony).
 
  • #8
fss
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But the OP said he isn't from the US, so how could the admissions commitees be so short-sighted so as to only consider the way things are done in the US?
PhD programs are offered internationally as well. If you wanted to get a PhD internationally you could have done so, or you could have applied to a US program right out of undergrad. In any case, twofish is correct in that you'll probably be required to re-do coursework or take a qualifying exam to prove that your skills are at the required level.

And how do you then explain the amount of people from abroad doing their PhDs in the US if they are seriously impaired in doing so by having Masters degrees?
Can you provide any statistics on the percentage of admitted international PhD students that already have their masters' as opposed to those without? Not trolling here, genuinely curious. I didn't work with a whole lot of international PhD students studying at a US institution that already had their masters', but my experience might have been atypical.

I mean, I get that if you study in the US, then you go from a bachelors to PhD without obtaining a Masters,
You usually get your Masters' along the way.

In fact, I know that people from my home country couldn't do a PhD in the US without first obtaining a Masters degree (back home, that is, not a Masters in the US), because their education was considered inadequate (heh, the irony).
Yes, there are often special cases.
 
  • #9
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PhD programs are offered internationally as well. If you wanted to get a PhD internationally you could have done so, or you could have applied to a US program right out of undergrad. In any case, twofish is correct in that you'll probably be required to re-do coursework or take a qualifying exam to prove that your skills are at the required level.
Well if it's "just" re-doing coursework, then that's fine and one's personal decision whether to go with that or not, what bothers me (if it's true) is that someone would have a harder time getting admitted because he actually has more knowledge than what's usually expected.
Can you provide any statistics on the percentage of admitted international PhD students that already have their masters' as opposed to those without? Not trolling here, genuinely curious. I didn't work with a whole lot of international PhD students studying at a US institution that already had their masters', but my experience might have been atypical.
Unfortunately I can't, since it's only anecdotal evidence from looking at various departmental websites. I know Harvard had the data on their graduate students in Physics, but I just checked the website and they removed it.
 
  • #10
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US physics/math Ph.D. programs are masters/Ph.D. programs. If you come in with a masters degree, then you have to retake the masters course and probably get a second masters.
Is this the only drawback though? The reason I don't apply to a US school now is because I think my credentials and research experience will be much better in a year. I mean, the thing is, regardless of whether I take a fifth year or do a Master's, I'll be taking similar courses...so what difference will it make in terms of how they look at me if I take grad-level math as an undergrad in 5th year vs. grad-level math as a master's student? I'm sure they must be aware that in Canada master's degrees aren't obtained as part of the PhD...

By the way, I forgot to mention (not a huge credential, but still something) I am TAing for first year Calculus this year.
 
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  • #11
pom
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In Germany we used to get our Diploma(Master's) without getting a Bachelor in between, and I know some People who got their Phd in the US in only three years, skipping all the course work. The best way to do this is probably to ask your current professors if they can recommend you to some US Professor they know, and it helps if you continue in the field you did you Master's thesis in.
 

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