My initial goal 5 years ago was to do an applied math PhD, but I had to find a job to pay off my loans. I've been working in data science for a couple years. I'm now planning to apply again.

1. Different Academic background

My academic background is in France, but I'm now living in the USA where I'd like to do my PhD. The French system is very different from the American one - for instance the name of your school mattering much more than grades, different grading system, very few interactions with the faculty. Almost all the people I've seen from France that have gone to study in the US have done so from specific institutions (engineer schools mostly) that have close ties with American academia and adapt to their requirements. I graduated from a top French institution - but which has few ties to the US.

2. Difficulty leveraging it in application

Grades and recommendations

As such, most of the elements on the applications look to me quite very foreign - recommendation letters, GPAs etc... Simply translating my French grades to GPA gives me quite mediocre grades in the American system.

Degree name

My undergrad (French prépa) was very math heavy and gave me solid foundations. Yet I don't have a degree for this, and going into business school after simply gave me a "business degree".


To recap, coming from a system which is very different and makes it quite difficult to compete in a selective environment, especially if I'm aiming at a top school.

How could I best apply for a top math PhD program given the above constraints ? If I apply as is, I feel my skills wouldn't be reflected in the application.

Thanks for your input, a bit lost as to how best to approach this

  • What specifically is your question? "What would you advise me to do?" is only a good question if you outline what the choices are. Sep 12, 2022 at 16:42
  • Good point, will edit the question
    – Marc
    Sep 12, 2022 at 16:44
  • Much is likely to depend on your cover letter. It will be stronger if the data science work you've done actually used serious mathematics. Recommendation letters from your employer might help. Apply to many places, perhaps focus on an area that extends the industrial work you've done. Good luck. Sep 12, 2022 at 17:28
  • I wouldn't call prepa 'undergrad' - as I see it you don't quite have the usual math background even for applied math - have you taken a class where the focus was on proving statements rather than doing calculations? One would typically expect the equivalent of a license en mathematiques for admission to math grad school. That said it's quite common particularly (but not only) for lower ranked schools in the US to take good students with unusual backgrounds. Sep 12, 2022 at 21:45
  • 2
    Almost every sizable department will have someone who knows the French system and can interpret your academic record without translation. (Unfortunately, this means they may also have the prejudices of French mathematicians, which means they may also be reluctant to admit someone who didn't go to ENS.) Sep 12, 2022 at 21:48

2 Answers 2


Yes, I myself do understand, to some degree, the differences in the systems... :)

I think the main point for most places in the U.S. (which is why letters of recommendation have come to play a large role) is not so much past accomplishments, but future potential. Yes, of course, past accomplishment is a positive indicator... but... and this is potentially important, in my experience... grad school is different from undergrad (especially in the U.S., where there's a breadth requirement in undergrad).

So, operationally, the point would be to explain (through all means possible) your future potential.


The way to proceed it to apply and present the best application you can. It is fine to aim for top schools, but unwise to apply to only top schools. I'd guess that any R1 university in the US would serve you well, provided they have a few faculty in a subfield of interest to you. So, make a broad, not a narrow search for an institution, including some top schools, but not restricting your search to those.

Don't worry too much about your "GPA" as your translation may not be valid. R1 universities will probably do the translation from French style grades and will know about the different education and grading systems. In some places, low "numbers" translate to quite high qualification.

Investigate the GRE and decide if taking it would be an advantage or not. Look at sample tests to get a sense of it, for example. Not everyone requires it and not everyone will accept or evaluate it, but it could, potentially, be a boost if you do well.

It will be important, however, to get good letters of recommendation from people who know your work and can attest to your likelihood of success. You may need to help writers understand the importance of them.

You will also need a good Statement of Purpose that expresses your goals for study and beyond. It will also serve, some places, as a writing sample.

See this for how the admissions process works in the US.

You must log in to answer this question.

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