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I am interested in applying for PhD programs in discrete mathematics, but one of the schools I'm looking at isn't included in the top 10 rankings of discrete math programs (at least not according to US News: https://www.usnews.com/best-graduate-schools/top-science-schools/discrete-mathematics-rankings). The school I am looking at is an overall top 25 school in math, but just not in the top 10 for the specific area I am interested in. They do have several people (about 5) researching discrete math, so it is not a non-existent research area in this school.

The part that I am especially torn about is that if I were to go to this school, then I wouldn't have to move (and incidentally the city I currently live in is my favorite city), and I could likely keep my current job and just work at my job half-time. I figure that if I'd have to likely work 10-20 hours a week as a TA, it might be worth it just to do 20 hours a week at my current job with better pay. Also I should mention that so long as I do 20 hours a week at my current job, I will get tuition payed for, health insurance, 401k etc (all the benefits I currently have). My goal isn't to stay in industry, but to go into academia, and so I would need a really stellar dissertation since academia is so competitive. My question is therefore if you want to take the academia route, how important is (in shaping how good of a mathematician you will become) the ranking of a school in a certain specialty if its overall math ranking is good (top 25), and there are still several people doing research in that specialty?

EDIT: I wouldn't be able to live in the same city as the school is located in. I'm in a city that is close by. How important is it to live near the campus when doing a PhD?

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    A small warning: it's possible that the TA position includes some tuition reduction too (as well as insurance benefits). Depending on what the department charges, your current job may be less beneficial than it seems at first. It's something to take into account. – Anyon Jul 15 at 17:54
  • @Anyon Good point, I have made edits to my question. – graphtheory123 Jul 15 at 17:56
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    A big warning: Don't put all your eggs in any one basket. Competition for admission at any high ranked school is fierce. Have a backup. Have several. And not all clones of each other. – Buffy Jul 15 at 19:04
  • Do you think it is feasible to do 20 hours a week at my current job plus a PhD program? That is the main thing I am concerned about. My current job doesn't require all that much mental effort, so I don't think it would cause too much of a mental drain when I go to study. It just pays so much more than what a TA would be, and I think that the hours are comparable right? From what I hear most TAs work 10-20 hours – graphtheory123 Jul 15 at 20:54
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Don’t trust the US News grad school subfield rankings at all. They’re based entirely on surveys and most people don’t actually know a lot about things outside their speciality and their university. So you infamously end up with high ranking places that actually don’t have anyone in the subfield.

If you want to know how good a school is in a subfield you’ll have to look into it seriously yourself. Ask people you know in that subfield, look up the research interests in the department, find out whether their have been grad students their recently, after you get accepted visit the dept and ask questions.

That said, I think in the US in math it’s a mistake to narrow down to a specialty before you go to grad school. You have a year of grad school before you have to pick an advisor, and you’ll learn a lot in that year. Plus you’re more likely to find a good advisor match if you are picking between 20 potential advisors and not 2.

  • I disagree with the last part. The sooner you start your research the sooner it's done. – Anonymous Physicist Jul 24 at 5:33
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    I agree that you shouldn’t put off starting research, but in math in the US no one does research their first year. If you find an advisor early your second year you’re already ahead of things. This is very specific to math in the US. – Noah Snyder Jul 24 at 10:58
  • @NoahSnyder What about US News general math grad school ranking? Does it reflect the real state of things, in your opinion? In particular, do you agree with the position of the school you work at? – user94794 Jul 25 at 1:01
  • The general math rankings are better. I wouldn’t take small gradations very seriously, but just about everyone will agree that the 5th ranked one is clearly better than the 25th ranked one, which is clearly better than the 45th ranked one. – Noah Snyder Jul 25 at 2:39
  • My school is ranked in the mid-30s, and I’d generally agree that the schools above 20 or so are better, the schools below 50 are worse and the schools between 25 and 45 are in a comparable tier. – Noah Snyder Jul 25 at 2:43
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I wouldn't be able to live in the same city as the school is located in. I'm in a city that is close by. How important is it to live near the campus when doing a PhD?

Living near your campus is important in the sense that doing well in a graduate program tends to be highly correlated with coming into the department regularly (and doing things like studying for exams, doing research, reading papers or skimming abstracts, attending departmental seminars, talking math with other students in your area, etc). There are definitely plenty of people that are able to work very productively from coffee shops or at home, but when I was in grad school I found that the most successful students tended to be the ones that came in to the department virtually every day. It's like the Woody Allen quote: 80 percent of success is just showing up.

  • It all depends on the person and their study/personality type. Some people cannot work with others and do not need others to work/study. What's more, being not alone may only disturb some people from studying/doing research. – user94794 Jul 25 at 1:05

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