I work in the mathematics department of a university that has a new, small, mathematics bachelor's degree program, and no graduate mathematics programs. Some of our students are looking for advice on how to successfully apply for graduate school. I don't know what to tell them. Everyone in my department (myself included) applied to graduate school so long ago that I think our advice may not be relevant. I don't think anyone else who works for my university knows more than my department colleagues do.

What are good things for students at a small school to do to get into graduate school in mathematics? In particular, what are some things that might not be obvious to mathematics professors who've been out of graduate school for a few decades?

EDIT: In response to this question being put on hold for being "too broad", here is my modified question: What advice would you give students applying for graduate school in mathematics in 2014 that you would not have given them a decade or two ago? In other words, how would the advice differ? I am thinking both about what students have to do as undergrads and about the application process itself (which I assume is done online nowadays).

  • 3
    I think this question is too broad for stackexchange. Perhaps you could break it up into more specific questions. You might also look at the questions and answers already available, which contain a lot of good advice. Feb 4, 2014 at 7:53
  • 3
    It is a little on the broad side. Here is one idea for sharpening it: you write "Everyone in my department (myself included) applied to graduate school so long ago that I think our advice may not be relevant." But that's clearly an exaggeration: e.g. I'm sure you know that taking challenging course and doing well in them is good advice. It might be interesting to ask: "What advice would you give in 2014 that you wouldn't have given N years ago?" Feb 4, 2014 at 9:18
  • 3
    (Also, do you mean advice on what to do during one's undergraduate career in order to successfully apply to grad school or advice specifically about the application process? The latter is much less broad.) Feb 4, 2014 at 9:22
  • @PeteL.Clark : thanks for your comments. I modified my question. Feb 5, 2014 at 17:02
  • 1
    @Stefan: I may not have fully grokked the ethos of this site...but I voted to reopen your question anyway. Feb 5, 2014 at 19:03

4 Answers 4


I personally had the experience of applying to graduate school from a very small college that has not produced many math Ph.D.s (though oddly enough, I'm not the only 2002 BA graduate working at an R1 university in North America) not so far in the misty depths of time. Of course, I only have a couple of data points, but let me try to give my thoughts.

I think one thing is you've really got to get the basic stuff right: take the hardest classes available to you from the selections you have (and you should note in your letters that the student did this!) and ace them. Do well on the general and subject GREs. I assume you could have told them those.

I think the biggest non-obvious thing is that it's essential to seek out experiences outside your small program. If you're at a large school with its own graduate program, probably you have all the resources you'll need at your fingertips, but in a smaller program, I don't think you really have the ability to fully prepare someone for graduate school. Study abroad is good for this (I went to BSM in Budapest, but there are other programs). So are REU's (I did the one at LSU). On a smaller scale, you might be able to take more advanced courses at a nearby college (for example, students at Smith and Amherst can take graduate courses at UMass), or do a guest semester somewhere in the US (like at the Penn State MASS program).

These will, of course, be generally enriching experiences, but they also help by giving some real points of comparison. Graduate schools know what an A at BSM means (where they might not know it for your school); a professor who supervised you at an REU can speak with authority about having supervised many talented young people, and having some experience with which of them succeed in grad school.

Another possibility is working at summer mathematics program like PROMYS or Canada/USA Mathcamp (there are many other) though I think you should give some weight to activities like REU which are more likely to result in letters.

EDIT: I'll just note that what I've written about is still advice from the Web 1.0 world, but it's not so clear to me what Web 2.0 has changed about the admission process. I think it has made communicating with other people going through the process easier (for example, you can see in essentially real time which schools are sending out acceptances and rejections. This seems more likely to drive you insane than help though). I think for students at a smaller school this can be a boon (for example, the applicant profiles in this thread could be helpful for understanding where they might get in, though it's worth a reminder to take things with a grain of salt).

I think one thing I didn't know was that it's very reasonable to contact the Director of Graduate Studies at programs that interest you if you have questions. Don't be a pest about it (only email if you have a real question), but communicating with applicants is part of the job, though my DGS may not appreciate me telling the internet that (sorry, Tom).

The Web, of course, has also changed research about grad schools a lot. In theory, you can know a lot more about individual professors now than it would have been easy to figure out even 10, but especially 20 years ago. It's not super clear to me that this will help very much though. I generally feel like researching individual professors before starting grad school is a mug's game, since you're so likely to shift interests. I think it's much wiser to choose based on the program, and then worry about getting an advisor after a year or so of grad school when you know a bit more.

  • You've left out a crucial verb in the phrase "it's essential to outside your small program." Feb 4, 2014 at 18:52
  • @BenWebster : What's BSM? Feb 7, 2014 at 9:17
  • 1
    Budapest Semesters in Mathematics (I had linked to it earlier, but not with the name). Feb 7, 2014 at 12:36
  • @BenWebster : sorry, I didn't click on the link. As far as the Web 2.0 world goes, LinkedIn and maybe ResearchGate might help undergrads make contacts. I don't know. It wouldn't hurt, unless they wrote something inappropriate. Feb 9, 2014 at 23:37
  • 2
    I suppose in theory, but I'm not sure how. I don't know any academics who take those sites seriously. It probably is true nowadays that you want to try googling yourself, and putting up a website in order to control the top google hits a bit isn't a bad idea. But I wouldn't have any high hopes for the effect of such a site. Feb 10, 2014 at 9:46

Ben Webster has already wrote a great answer about how to get into a good math grad school, so I will not repeat that answer here. I do, however, want to interpret your question more broadly (what advice would I give to seniors applying for grad school?) and give you some advice. In particular, most of the things that I am about to talk about were not so much of problems back in the 70s, I think.

No one tells you about the darker side of academia when you are an undergraduate student. But academia is really, really hard. Here are some cons of becoming an academic.

  • the most serious problem by far is the fact that you do not have any choice on where you live. You just go to the best grad school that you got into, then after that, you apply to around 60 institutions for your postdoc job, and cross your fingers. Most schools give you two weeks to decide on your position, then off you go to some random city that you have never thought of. The same deal repeats for your second postdoc (if you are unlucky), or tenure-track. If you fail to obtain tenure, you might have to do another postdoc or tenure-track. So you are actively changing cities every 2-3 years for the next 10-15 years of your life. As an undergraduate student, this is not a serious problem, but when you have a significant other, and you are past 30, you really do want to settle down.

  • academia is an extremely hierarchical society. Whether you get a job or not depends on your letter writers, one of which must be your advisor. As you obtain letters from people senior to you, it is often very difficult to express your opinions, as it is very easy to burn bridges. Academia is also very small; words travel fast. If you mess up in one place, chances are, everyone knows about it. Sometimes, it's not even your fault, but people can get very, very upset at you.

  • the job market is very tight these days. The schools that I consider to be the top grad school are Harvard, Princeton, MIT, Stanford, Berkeley, Michigan and Chicago. These schools alone produce about 100 PhDs a year. I think that there are around 300 research postdocs available each year in the US (if you apply to every PhD producing institution, I think that you would send out around 80-90 applications; let's assume each school hires around 3 people, which I think is being generous). You can do the math.

These are only the universal issues that apply to practically every PhD student. Then there are issues that apply more strongly to some people than others (elitism displayed by some mathematicians, competition among peers, difficult advisor, your thesis problem being scooped, etc.)

So I advise that you need to be very, very sure that you really love math. I have been through many of these issues, and honestly, your love for the subject is the only thing that will keep you going. If you don't have the passion, you will regret your decision very quickly.

There are also perks of being a mathematician, of course. I do enjoy the flexible schedule (aside from teaching and committee work, research can be done any time, anywhere), being able to travel to conferences, and the job security that follows, if you make it to the ranks of a tenured professor.

  • @NoahSnyder I don't think what you are claiming is correct at all. If I am reading the AMS job survey correctly, they in fact claim that 573 of the new PhDs are now postdocs (which I think is too high, and I am probably missing something). But 100 is way too low.
    – user45756
    Feb 7, 2014 at 22:20
  • The number the AMS gives is 525 (not including statistics), though it's worth noting that only 249 are in math departments in the US. 127 are outside the US, and 149 are in government, industry and research institutes in the US. I wish I understood better what that really meant, since this is contrasting postdocs with other industry/government jobs. Feb 7, 2014 at 23:07
  • 1
    @StefanSmith It is a sad fact of academia that your initial starting point matters a lot. As much as I wish that I didn't have to say this, I think that it is significantly harder for a student from a small school to make it to the tenure level. Although there are some exceptions (as Ben Webster said), I assume that it is quite a bit of struggle. I have seen too many mathematicians who have reputations of being "nice" completely ignore students from smaller schools, for example.
    – user45756
    Feb 8, 2014 at 15:47
  • 4
    @StefanSmith: I think you're right that once students get their Ph.D. the undergraduate institution doesn't much matter. The harm of a small school is going to come at the getting into graduate school stage. Feb 10, 2014 at 5:22
  • 2
    From experience, I can say that having gone to a tiny undergraduate school is just a piece of small talk once you're in graduate school, whereas where you went to graduate school sets the tone a bit more. That said, I think the networking possibilities of going to a fancy school vastly outweigh any snobbish valuing of the name. A nice pedigree will get your application a look, but people have to like what they see. Feb 10, 2014 at 9:43

This is too short for an answer. However, I do think it is worth an answer.

Tell your students to get on this site ! There are plenty of questions and answers about graduate school admission. If they don't find their questions answered, then ask their own questions to get useful advices.

Your students may have the same general questions as how to apply for admission. They may also have specific questions regarding their individual situations. The best advice is, get on an excellent, informative and reliable Q&A site and that's us!


Matt Might's advice page here provides some really useful tips of the kind you're looking for. The three of his tips that I found really useful for when I applied to graduate school two years ago (that weren't mentioned above) are as follows:

  1. Consider emailing professors whose research interests you with a brief statement asking them about their work. As Might states on the linked page above,

    Tell them you were considering applying, and you're curious about the research opportunities available in the field. Comment intelligently on some research that faculty member has done. Attach any research you've done, and briefly summarize your research interests. That faculty member can then make sure your application receives a thorough review. Bear in mind that professors receive lots of form-letter spam from prospective students. It's painfully obvious when the email is form-letter spam, and most professors will summarily discard it.

    He suggests to email a month before the application deadline, but I emailed maybe 2-3 weeks before and it was still fine. He also has tips on how to send professors emails here.

  2. Consider writing your essays in LaTeX. You'd need to learn how to use it in graduate school anyway, and it makes you look more like a mathematician, so to speak.

  3. In your essays, put really important words in bold. I used this to emphasize the names of the faculty I was interested in working with, awards I had received, and my particular research interests (partial differential equations for example).

  • 2
    I've never understood why people bold words in their essays. It's annoying and makes them harder to read. I haven't seen a single professor do this, yet it seems popular among undergraduates for some reason.
    – Potato
    Mar 23, 2015 at 4:22
  • Different strokes for different folks, I guess, but I'm taking it directly from a reputable professor's page himself.
    – Alex
    Apr 15, 2015 at 6:05

You must log in to answer this question.

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