I believe in some fields like physics or other experimental science, hiring a student without PhD degree as a research assistant is common. In pure mathematics, do professors have the need to hire non-PhD students as their research assistants?

  • 2
    Pure maths departments hire teaching assistants and depending on the university these may or may not be PhD-students. They help with teaching or grading of classes though, there is no research involved in these positions.
    – quarague
    Commented Jun 2, 2022 at 16:50
  • 1
    Could you please clarify if you mean "research assistants who are students that have not yet received a PhD" or "research assistants who are not on a path to receive a PhD"? The phrase "non-PhD" is unfortunately a bit ambiguous.
    – RLH
    Commented Jun 2, 2022 at 22:24
  • @RLH I mean the latter. More precisely, I mean a position that is involving a research job, but not a PhD position, nor required the applicant to hold a Doctor degree.
    – Ken.Wong
    Commented Jun 3, 2022 at 1:41

2 Answers 2


In pure Mathematics, there is less need for research assistants. The typical jobs of an RA such as conducting experiments, wrangling data sets, doing literary search, are not there. Research in pure Mathematics tends to be very specialized. In some research areas like algebraic number theory or algebraic geometry, you can spend years just to get to the current margin of research. A professor in those areas needs to groom students in order to work with them. There are some exceptions, such as graph theory or combinatorics, where it is in general easier to understand a research question. I got my Ph.D. in non-associative algebra and I would never have been able to use a non-Ph.D. research assistant. Maybe if I would have been interested in working in computer algebra, I could have used a non-Ph.D. research assistant.

Also, funding in pure Mathematics is very restricted. NSF grants in pure Mathematics tend to not contain funding for research assistants that are NOT Ph.D. candidates, but this is the case for other disciplines as well. Undergraduate research is a different subject. A professor in pure Mathematics will have to think of something that undergraduates actually can do, and it would typically not be in their main line of work.

TLTR: My experience suggests that there is no need for research assistants in pure Mathematics.

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    Even coming from an area of math that borders the applied, I think the only part of my research work that does not either require a PhD or would normally grant you one once you've done it for a while, would be typesetting and the more basic parts of proofreading. And while I would sometimes love to outsource a bit of that, this would be less of a research assistant's and more of a secretarial job and there is never really any additional funding for those.
    – mlk
    Commented Jun 2, 2022 at 18:22

In pure mathematics, student employees don't usually "help" their advisors do the adviser's research. They generally do their own but on a topic of interest to the advisor, perhaps extending their work. Applied math is potentially different.

But RA isn't a globally defined term. A university, even an undergraduate university could use it as a title for an arrangement in which the student does some research and gets some stipend. Thus it is a term for a certain kind of funding that has few external duties beyond research.

So, in that sense, a student other than a PhD student might get such an award. But not in every institution. And, the funding might be entirely internal to a department. Perhaps a really good student has a really severe financial constraint (poor as dirt). A department might be able to do some things while giving a student opportunities. Rare, but possible. And it would probably be the department that "hired" the student (gave the grant), not a professor.

  • I don't really think applied math is any different, though there seems to maybe be a slightly different cultural understanding about whether phd advisers put themselves as co-authors for their students' papers? In any event, I've assigned undergraduates to code up things for data analyses that interest me but this is usually pedagogical in the sense that I could do something that takes months in a week myself. My current institution has part-time employment funding for this, but that surprised me personally.
    – user137975
    Commented Jul 9, 2022 at 17:25

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