An engineering graduate with a below average grade, being in industry not related to math, for almost 10 years, with no previous publication record in any field, while still working full time, publishing a single authored research paper in a reasonable mathematics journal with zero guidance from anyone. Is this a significant achievement, and would this be a substantial factor for getting a PhD position in an applied math department at a US university or European university with good reputation or if not a reasonably good university?

Edit: (added as per suggestion) Journal Name : Journal of Applied Analysis

  • 3
    Can you state the name of the journal? I’m asking because experienced people may have a different idea from you about what is a “reasonable” math journal.
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Jan 29, 2020 at 17:41
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    It’s a very nice achievement that could very well help you, but to be clear, you will very probably not get extra points for doing it with no guidance, or as an engineering graduate, or as someone with below average grades, or while working full time in industry etc. The main thing that matters is that you did it and that it’s a single authored paper, and which journal you published it in, and (which is correlated with the journal but not the same question) how good the paper is.
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Jan 29, 2020 at 17:46
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    @DanRomik : added the journal name.
    – user102868
    Commented Jan 30, 2020 at 0:12
  • Thanks. Yeah, looks like a reasonable journal to me.
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Jan 30, 2020 at 1:35

2 Answers 2


Writing single-authored papers in math is extremely common, much more so than in other disciplines. It's not considered a significant achievement on its own in the context of applying for jobs.

Writing a paper before the beginning of a PhD is however certainly a big plus for you. But how much this will help depends on the journal: if you had the misfortune of publishing in a bad journal, I am sorry to say that this will actually hurt your application. It also depends on your field: I'm in pure math, but maybe in some areas in applied math it's expected of applicants to PhD positions to already have papers. Your question is a bit too general.

  • Can you please explain a bit on what you mean by a bad journal?
    – user102868
    Commented Jan 30, 2020 at 12:23
  • I think you are referring to predatory ones. No surprise it has negative effect in such cases.
    – user102868
    Commented Feb 2, 2020 at 6:43

Most applicants to a mid- to upper-tier math Ph.D. program will be coming directly from an undergraduate program, and the core planks of their application will be their grades, letters of reference from professors, and (in many cases) good performance on mathematics competitions. Some but very few will have published papers in peer-reviewed journals. All of these will be viewed as predictors of future, to be developed, mathematical research ability.

Your application will be unusual in many ways, your work experience, the absence of some of the typical predictors (grades, etc), and this paper (congratulations, by the way!).

To the extent a committee singles out your application for discussion, your paper should go a long way to reassuring concerns you may be a risky admit. Someone should say, "the grades are poor, but they clearly demonstrably can and want to do math research. Why are we trying to predict the potential of future research ability when we have evidence of it already being in place." However, you still run 2 risks:

  1. Your application may be rejected out of hand due to the usual metrics, esp. grades, field of study, etc. and not get serious thoughtful consideration at all

  2. The committee may be risk averse, and if it can fill its spots with "typical" candidates, they may do so, especially if they have recommendations from math professors they know, good performance on the Putnam competition, etc.

As to your publication being sole-authored, as others have written, in math this is not at all unusual. Sole- or 2-authored papers are the norm. In your case, there is still benefit that it demonstrates you did the work on your own, rather than being a hanger-on in a team effort. However, given the unusual situation, frankly you would be equally well-positioned with a co-authored paper with a research mathematician with that co-author writing you a letter of reference describing how you were the lead author.

In any case, you have something good, so congratulations. And you know what you want, so go for it. Given that, a few suggestions to put your best foot forward:

  • Is there any professional mathematician you have talked to about your paper, who helped you with something, who you've collaborated on about something else? It would be very helpful for you to have a letter of reference with discusses and puts in context your research accomplishments, in addition to just the paper itself.

  • Broadly speaking, when I am on a committee, I know direct-from-undergrad applicants, no matter how excellent, are a blank slate. So I expect them to have not much idea exactly what they want to do, to not know what they don't know, so to speak. The more an applicant is mature/from industry/track change, the more I expect them to have a plan, a research idea, to have done background reading, etc. All of these are indicia they have thought through what they want, that they have learned skills from their life experience so far, and that they are pivoting with forethought rather than to get out of a dead-end - and might give up and pivot away from us with minimal provocation. With your paper to open the door, more so than others I would think you have a lot to gain from identifying specific individuals at specific universities you'd like to work with, and reaching out to them directly (with your paper) prior or in parallel to the normal application process

Good luck! (My background - Ph.D. in pure mathematics in the US, then pivoted to industry, now straddling academia and industry in a multi-disciplinary field)

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