Edit: Right so I forgot this really big thing. My question is actually under this framework: Why are US PhDs different from European PhDs?

  1. After the basics of topology, linear algebra, abstract algebra, elementary analysis and complex analysis, what are essential topics for the average pure math US PhD program?

  2. If there are none, then how do you know? If there are, what are they?

  • Guess if there are: They are the basics of the following topics:

    • Algebraic topology, such as Part II of Munkres Topology

    • Algebraic geometry and commutative algebra, such as the rest of the second half of Artin Algebra

    • More group theory, such as the rest of the first half of Artin Algebra

    • The algebra topics in Dummit Foote Abstract Algebra that are not in Artin Algebra

    • Elementary differential geometry, such as Tu Manifolds

  • Guess as to what isn't included:

    • basics of complex geometry

My context: (Feel free to just ignore this bottom part if it makes my post too long.)

  1. I was recently rejected for a pure math PhD program in Country A, where I live, for not having a strong enough background in "essential topics".

    • 1a. The professor said I was not ready for a PhD or even an MPhil in pure math. I asked if he meant for Country A (I was very careful to not use the words "only" or "just"). He claimed that it was for all "reasonable" universities.

    • 1b. He claimed that the average first year Country A PhD student (before starting the programme) in topology or geometry would know the basics of algebraic topology, complex geometry, Riemannian geometry and more algebra than the elementary abstract algebra. Some of the specific concepts are Gauss-Bonnet, branched coverings, Kähler manifolds, Poincaré duality, Euler characteristic, etc. Also, there's stuff about Riemann surfaces required (eg Mittag-Leffler and Riemann-Roch. I'm guessing also Abel-Jacobi, Riemann-Hurwitz, Poincare-Hopf and the list of 2-name concepts goes on.)

  2. I am wondering whether my background is more similar to an applicant to a US-style grad school than to a European-style grad school.

    • 2a. Consider Johns Hopkins University. Its maths phd requirements are the same as the "straight phd" programs in the top 3 universities in Country B, where I'm from and where I got my bachelor's and master's degrees in (unfortunately applied) math. (These 3 universities have "regular phd" which require master's or equivalent and "straight phd" which require only bachelor's or equivalent.) Both JHU and top 3 universities in Country B are actually even less than what I put as my 'guess' above.

    • 2b. But anyway going back to JHU, it even says 'Nevertheless, the department does admit very promising students whose preparation falls a little short of the above model.' In other words, JHU isn't even as strict about these elementary requirements, but this Country A university is extremely strict about these highly advanced requirements.

    • 2c. I just find it very hard to believe that my rejection from this Country A university isn't related to these US vs European questions that I've asked before. I would like to think that my rejection is that European universities simply require more. I don't quite have a chance there without further studies, but I do have a chance in the US. (And worst comes to worst, there's always Country B.)

  3. You can see the previous revisions for more details.

Gonna copy some comments into the post:

  1. If you're fact-checking this professor, what he said is kind of stupid. If you're trying to assess your preparation for whatever an "average" program is, you need to check with them. – Elizabeth Henning Dec 17 '18 at 16:41

    • (I think this comment is about the "reasonable" thing.)
  2. I honestly don't understand what you're after here. All programs will say they want an undergraduate major in math or a related field. (...) A mid-ranked school will probably expect basic abstract algebra and calculus with proofs. (...) – Elizabeth Henning Dec 19 '18 at 16:57

  3. (...) It is very likely true that more than half require no more than the GRE topics, if that is useful information. – Elizabeth Henning Dec 20 '18 at 4:52

  • 3
    Why should this question stay open when your last one was closed for being opinion-based?
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Dec 12, 2018 at 21:13
  • 3
    The Math Subject test is not at all a test of preparedness for graduate study. It's a test of preparedness to TA calculus. Part of the reason is that US graduate programs vary greatly by level. The average person earning a PhD in my mathematics program knows less mathematics than the average first-year graduate student at Princeton. Commented Dec 12, 2018 at 21:15
  • 2
    I certainly think if you don't mean to talk about the GRE you should not mention it.
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Dec 12, 2018 at 21:17
  • 2
    My statement about "US graduate programs" is true whether Masters programs are included or not. I do mean pure math. Commented Dec 12, 2018 at 21:18
  • 8
    The question is becoming a moving target. Let it settle, please.
    – Buffy
    Commented Dec 12, 2018 at 21:24

2 Answers 2


These questions are essentially unanswerable, because universities in the US are quite diverse in their expectations.

The average person earning a PhD from the department I work at knows less mathematics (and is certainly less capable of doing research) than the average first year graduate student at Princeton.

The average person earning a BA/BS with a major from the department I work at knows less mathematics than the average junior major where I was an undergraduate.

The average person entering my university as an undergraduate knows less mathematics than I did when I was 14 (and starting high school).

Of course these are averages and there are exceptions.

Do you want the answers for my university, or for, say, the University of Minnesota, or for Princeton?

(And, as for the ETS, they mostly are catering to be accurate for the middle of the normal distribution, which means universities like mine, because that's where the people are.)

  • Alexander Woo, do you disagree with Buffy? Thank you!
    – BCLC
    Commented Dec 12, 2018 at 22:43
  • I edited my question. Is your answer mostly the same? Also, how about non-ivy leagues?
    – BCLC
    Commented Dec 16, 2018 at 11:09
  • 1
    Yes; my answer is still the same. There is no such thing as an "average" US university. By the standards of your Professor A, my university is probably not a "reasonable university". But "unreasonable universities" exist and are indeed quite common. Commented Dec 17, 2018 at 22:41
  • 1
    @JackBauer: How am I supposed to give you an answer then? Say that 19.6% of the programs expect you to know commutative algebra? And what do you mean by "expect"? Certainly at a highly selective program, those who know more mathematics will have an advantage in admissions, but someone who shows exceptional promise in other ways might be treated differently. Commented Dec 19, 2018 at 18:38
  • 1
    @JackBauer: Ed Witten's undergraduate degree was in history. Presumably, the Princeton physics faculty saw some reason to admit him to their PhD program despite his having studied far less physics than usual for a physics PhD student. Clearly they were right. Commented Dec 19, 2018 at 18:43

If you want to know why ETS does something, ask them. The test needs to be broad enough so that most UG curricula are well covered, but not much broader than that. It tries not to disadvantage anyone in its coverage, though most students will find questions there that are about things they haven't studied. And you can still do extremely well even leaving some questions unanswered.

On the other hand, anything that you study will give you some additional mathematical background before you start to dive deep into a research area. You probably don't have time for all of them, so just choose something that seems interesting. If you already have a research interest, you could start there.

I'll note that the last time that it was possible for a single person to know all of mathematics was early in the 20th century. It has expanded too much since for it to still be possible as it once was.

  • 1
    Most UG programs cover the basics and one or two additional things. I studied PDE, for example, as an UG (half a century ago). But measure theory was an early grad course. I'm not sure that ETS makes a big distinction between MS and PhD. Many students see the MS as just a stepping stone in any case.
    – Buffy
    Commented Dec 12, 2018 at 21:07
  • 1
    I studied algebraic topology as a grad student. In fact my first serious topology course was in grad school. The UG version was a pale shadow. Nice historical emphasis (Koenigsberg Bridges, etc) but not very deep. But Analysis (real and maybe complex) is pretty fundamental and many UG programs are, I suspect, pretty heavy in that.
    – Buffy
    Commented Dec 12, 2018 at 21:16
  • 1
    Correct. Note that a doctorate in the US normally includes quite a lot of coursework. It is probably not like UK where the UG is more concentrated, so more maths are covered.
    – Buffy
    Commented Dec 12, 2018 at 22:30
  • 2
    "Is algebraic topology expected of the average pure math US PhD program under the supervision of a professor researching in topology or geometry?" Probably not if the department is weak in algebraic topology and the professor is in set-theoretic topology. I think you're putting too much focus on specific subjects. If you're simply interested in admission (and not trying to conduct a survey of existing or exiting students from graduate programs), then future potential (can you pass the qualifying exams and complete a dissertation?) and past achievement (e.g. top 20 Putnam?) play a huge role. Commented Dec 13, 2018 at 12:01
  • 1
    @JackBauer stop changing the goal posts... You should have read about how to ask good questions....
    – Solar Mike
    Commented Dec 16, 2018 at 11:27

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .