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BACKGROUND: I'm beginning a computer science MS program this summer. My undergrad background is a 2.9 in non-related sociology sub-category. The last time I took an actual math class was AP Calculus in my junior year of high school cough 8 years ago because I did well enough on the AP exam to get credit for everything my major required.

GOAL: Ultimately I plan to pursue a PhD in the Computer Science/Computer Engineering/Electrical Engineering with strong leanings toward AI/Machine Learning/Robotics. "Dream School" is Caltech but any well-respected school with connections to the aerospace industry would be stellar (couldn't resist the pun, sorry.)

Assuming I have solid grades in my MS program, 90th percentile general GRE scores, and a few publications do you think it is worth it for me to take the Math subject GRE in order to show that I have taken it upon myself to fill the gaps in my undergraduate math education?

EDIT: The program I am going to has a provisional entry option where you take 2 accelerated courses at the beginning which catch you up to speed on programming, data structures and foundational computer science. The min GPA is 2.75 in any BS/BA program and as long as you get at least a B in both classes they let you continue. I've worked as a developer/IT person for the last 3 years, my general GRE score was 27 points above their suggested minimum and I took a few random graduate computing courses at SPSU a few years ago and got As in all of them so I think those were contributing factors to my admission.

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    I don't know what people in computer science/engineering look for, but to me, at least, the math subject GRE is almost worthless in terms of demonstrating the necessary math background for a math PhD program. – Mark Meckes Mar 13 '14 at 19:23
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    (Like Mark) I am in mathematics, not CS. I'm a little puzzled by how you got into a graduate program in CS with no mathematics beyond calculus. I just checked the CS program at my school (UGA) and a CS degree requires 11 hours of coursework in mathematics. Also, your second sentence confuses me slightly: are you saying that your undergraduate major was sociology, your GPA was 2.9, you had no math beyond calculus, and you got into a master's program in CS? How did you do that? Are you perhaps holding back on some positive features of your application? – Pete L. Clark Mar 13 '14 at 20:09
  • Most undergraduate CS/EE programs include a combination of the following (plus or minus one or two courses dependent on concentration): linear algebra, calc I/II, intro discrete math, differential equations, stat I, and an algorithms course (which is part of my MS program so I'm not really worried about the Math Subject GRE's lack of algorithms). I've learned most of those things on my own but short of spending a year taking classes and spending lots of money I haven't come up with a better way to prove it. – CSGal Mar 13 '14 at 20:09
  • @PeteL.Clark I actually graduated from UGA...go DAWGS! Please see edit above. – CSGal Mar 13 '14 at 20:24
  • CSGal: Wow, small world. I was going to ask if you ever had me for an instructor...until I realized that was a stupid question in light of what you've already mentioned. I did notice that your description of the math requirements for a CS major were remarkably close to the ones I looked up. Anyway, I feel like you must have more going for you than your question has communicated in order to make it where you have. (Added: the edit helps a lot.) I'll think more about your question. – Pete L. Clark Mar 13 '14 at 20:30
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Okay, here's some advice:

I like that you have an ambitious, but clear, long-term goal: to work at NASA's JPL. That puts you far ahead of many PhD program applicants in a very important aspect.

Getting into Caltech's PhD program seems like a less realistic goal to me, honestly. They have one of the US's very best programs in CS/EE. Very top programs have their pick of applicants. They are likely going to not seriously consider applications with a low undergrad GPA just because that's one of the easier of many cuts they need to make in order to get the applicant pool down to a reasonable size. Or another way to put it is: imagine that your application is very strong except for this one noticeable flaw. They will be looking at plenty of applications which are similar to yours except that this flaw is not present. What do you expect them to do?

Fortunately you don't need to go to Caltech to get a job at JPL (although it wouldn't hurt, obviously). You need to go to a serious, reputable university (think UGA) and acquire and demonstrate the talents and skills that will get you hired at JPL. One's academic pedigree is important but it is certainly not all-important, even in academia and still less in industry. (I got my PhD in mathematics from Harvard, which afforded me the largest possible head-start on the job market. It was quite an awakening to discover that my Harvard degree was much closer to a foot in the door than a golden ticket, and the amount of work that I had to do after getting my PhD from an absolutely top program in order to land a job at a serious, reputable -- but not at the very top -- university is still remarkable to me.) You should be shooting for more like a top 50 program, I think, although you should not take my word for it but rather apply to a range of programs when the time comes.

Your undergrad GPA does look like a bit of a problem to me. Since it happens that you got your undergrad degree at my university, I know that your GPA is significantly below the average. In fact having a GPA of below 3.0 is significant at UGA for reasons that you understand and thus I don't need to get into.

You mention that your undergrad major is in sociology, and the big question is how much that will be discounted given that you want to study CS. I'll be honest with you: it still doesn't look that great. The best case scenario is that your undergrad GPA will be viewed as something which does not have much to do with your future graduate performance in a different area. So "irrelevant" is the best case scenario. As a member of an admissions committee, a student's undergraduate GPA in whatever subject is not irrelevant to me. Succeeding at coursework is a skill unto itself, and while it is not the highest or most important skill that is necessary for success in a PhD program, it's definitely on the table.

As an aside, I see that in this and another question you describe your major as "irrelevant sociology". I don't think you should say it in quite that way. How relevant your undergraduate studies in a different discipline are to your candidacy as a CS PhD student is for the admissions committee to decide. I detect a hint of disdain for sociology in your language, which to me is also not great: you are the one who chose your undergraduate major. Just because it is very far from CS doesn't mean that you shouldn't have done well at it. Candidates like you have a fine line to walk, e.g. in your personal statement: you need to show but not tell that there is every expectation that you will be an excellent CS graduate student notwithstanding the fact that you were a not-quite-mediocre sociology undergraduate student. Your task is to frame your academic journey in a positive light. Faculty reading graduate applications love to see improvements in students' academic records: among other things, this shows not fully realized potential, and that's really important because almost no one comes into a PhD program fully equipped with the skills they need to graduate from it: it is a very dynamic process, over a period of years. Especially we love to see that students are doing better in the graduate level material than the undergraduate level material.

Back to your specific question: should you take the GRE math subject exam? Other answers have already addressed this question, and I agree with them: if it's required for a CS PhD program (unlikely), then of course take it. If it isn't, then don't: it's a tough exam, to the extent that much above the 50th percentile for an American aspiring math PhD student at UGA looks good enough for us. You could really know undergraduate mathematics perfectly well for all your future needs, take the math GRE, and get a score in the lower quartiles. That won't look good for you.

What should you do instead? I recommend more undergraduate level coursework. You want to launder your GPA by showing that you can nowadays get excellent grades in the undergraduate courses that count for CS PhD program. In most master's programs you can also take undergraduate courses. You should look into this in your program. If it is not possible, you should look into separately enrolling in some kind of "post-bac" program concurrently at the same institution. If you can get mostly A's in undergraduate level math courses, then while your relatively weak undergraduate performance in sociology will not be completely forgotten, it will probably be forgiven by some top 50 program.

[You might ask: isn't graduate level coursework better than undergraduate level coursework? Not necessarily, no. First of all taking graduate level CS courses doesn't necessarily show the mastery of mathematical foundations that you're rightly concerned about. Second of all, GPAs in graduate programs are an entirely different species from GPAs in undergraduate programs. I am unimpressed by a high graduate GPA. I am only negatively impressed by a low one.]

I really do wish you the best of luck and hope you are working for NASA someday. I encounter lots of un-stellar students teaching at UGA and think "Well gosh, they're so young. If they got their act together, they could probably be much more successful. I wonder what lies in their future?" If you succeed in turning your career around like this, I'd really like to know. Somehow your story will be inspirational to me and help me put more effort into reaching students who don't yet have the academia thing all figured out: we all have so much potential lying beneath the surface.

  • Thank you for putting so much thought into your response. I'll see what I can do about taking some math classes. I realize Caltech is IMMENSELY unlikely but you know the old saying, aim for the stars and maybe you'll land on the moon...or something like that. – CSGal Mar 14 '14 at 1:26
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    @CsGal: That's a good strategy provided landing on the moon is an acceptable outcome to you. I've encountered students who have their heart set on the stars. Part of being an adult -- a tough part -- is separating dreams (attainable given work and good fortune) from fantasies (which probably aren't; striving for them is inviting future disappointment). This is something that I grapple with myself! That's why I emphasized that ending up at JPL is a better goal: it's (i) a final outcome rather than an intermediate step, and (ii) you can probably get there if you work for it. – Pete L. Clark Mar 14 '14 at 1:40
  • I'm personally a pretty big fan of the moon. No matter where I go to school, I plan to apply for JPL internships every summer until I trick them into thinking they've heard of me. – CSGal Mar 14 '14 at 2:18
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    A bit of thought has lead me to the the fact that I really just need to accept the fact that getting what I want will probably take a little longer than I'd like. My late-ish start makes me feel like I need to hurry and finish my MS in 2 years and so that's whats been my worry. In reality I need to look at the long term and decide it's okay that my MS will probably take me 3 years if I want to actually be able to devote the appropriate amount of energy into each research and making up for what my undergraduate career lacked. Thanks again for taking the time to help me with my question. – CSGal Mar 14 '14 at 16:27
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    @CSGal: Sounds great. I wish you the best of luck. – Pete L. Clark May 19 '14 at 18:37
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Either a particular subject GRE is required for a particular program or it is not. There is no middle ground. If is is required, you will not be considered without it. If it is not required, don't do it: if you do badly, it can still harm you a lot; if you do well, it cannot help you very much.

  • This isn't true. You can still be accepted to some programs which claim they require a specific subject GRE without having it. You will probably be at a significant disadvantage over students who have it, but good enough recommendation letters, undergraduate grades, and other accomplishments can make up for it. – Peter Shor Nov 5 '18 at 20:38
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It sounds like you need an answer from someone at the school to which you will apply. I took part of an online machine learning course more than a decade after graduate school in mathematics. The amount of linear algebra and multivariable calculus used there was minimal (it was an MOOC meant to be inclusive), and was more than I recall being on the GRE in an earlier millenium. I don't see how I could have done the course without a solid foundation in linear algebra and multivariable calculus, if for no other reason than to be comfortable with the notation and basic concepts, much less the applications.

I think it makes sense to check out some of the online offerings related to your eventual program, see how the math strikes you, and confirm by talking to members of the departments. My guess is that the GRE will be inconsequential and that you will have to deal with the math at some point in your trajectory. You and a face-to-face advisor are best suited to determine where in that trajectory you should do it.

(Of course, take the Math GRE if the admission requirements recommend it. Don't fool yourself into thinking the GRE will serve as an indicator for how easy it will be to do multivariable calculus or linear algebra.)

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The math GRE would essentially be useless. Please don't take this. I'd also amend your hopes on Caltech since they're a top 10 school in engineering and top 5 in CS. Methinks it would be rather unlikely someone with a sociology undergrad (and no math prerequisites) would get in. I had more background in math than you even while I was a senior in high school (just to put things in perspective). Good luck though.

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