I'm 2 years out of undergrad and thinking about applying to some math graduate schools, specifically operations research and maybe financial engineering. I was a math major, with middling grades, and now I work in IT.

My question is this: it seems that even for not top-tier schools, a high GPA is crucial, as are great letters of recommendation, wonderful GRE scores etc. Why? If I'm willing to shell out 50k for grad school, and I've met the prerequisites, and I show an interest in the subject, why wouldn't a school want to have me? Is it purely so that they can claim they have a low acceptance rate?

In other words, if a grad school (again, not top 10 let's say) has a surplus of people who want to take that program, in a field like math, why not just hire as many professors as it would take to teach them?

I guess I don't get all this pressure to be perfect.


EDIT: I am referring to masters programs in particular, where stipends are not as common.

EDIT: Ok, Pete and Paul's answers make sense, given the current set up of grad school. I can imagine a different set up, however, that would make it less competitive for students, more profitable for professors and more about learning than prestige.

  • I'm not sure how many people would want to pay 50k a year for grad school, when there isn't much money to be had after graduating. So, there probably isn't going to be a surplus of people who want to go. Spots in a program are limited because each professor can only take so many students. I really wish some math programs would hire more professors, so there's more than one guy in particular areas, but I guess they are also picking about investing in a faculty member...
    – DCT
    Apr 5, 2014 at 1:26
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    @Dtseng: Trust me. We would eagerly hire more professors, if only our provost would pay their salaries.
    – Anonymous
    Apr 5, 2014 at 3:51
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    Don't think of grad admissions as "uni hiring professors to teach you"; think of it as "professors choosing to hire/not hire you as research assistants". Grad school isn't for teaching people like in early college, it's more an apprenticeship/internship/employment trial period for new "hires" as professors or researchers in their team.
    – Peteris
    Apr 5, 2014 at 5:39
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    @Peteris: That is a very helpful comment. Let me add to it: if your undergraduate student is not doing well, it is (a little harsh, but true) really their problem. If your apprentice is not doing well, it really is your problem too. So you don't want to hire someone as an apprentice without some threshold level of expectation for their success. Apr 5, 2014 at 16:41

2 Answers 2


Some points:

1) The line that jumped out at me and probably most other mathematicians reading your message was "If I'm willing to shell out 50k for grad school". Stop right there. Most people who go to math graduate school get paid stipends; almost no one pays the full tuition themselves. It is a little unclear why you are so willing to do this: it certainly does not seem like a wise career move.

2) Graduate programs have limited resources. If they admitted more PhD students then it might in the long run lead to more faculty, but this is an indirect and uncertain process. Moreover every graduate student is a huge outlay of time and effort on the part of the faculty, and while programs are not being ranked according to their acceptance rates (I don't know that these statistics are even reported), they are certainly being ranked according to their completion rates. Math graduate school is a challenging proposition, and a lot of people who enroll realize it is not for them.

3) The requirements for getting into a decent math graduate program are not "perfection". (In fact, a "perfect" academic record may in practice mean that the student did not suitably challenge herself.) They are looking for an academic record that gives them confidence that the student will actually succeed in the program. If you admit a student who is merely interested and willing to pay but turns out not to have the skills and the drive to complete the program, everyone's time has been wasted, and lots of the student's money has been wasted. This is not a desirable outcome.

Added: Yes, the above remarks apply primarily to PhD programs. (In fact I didn't understand the meaning of MFE, and I thought that OR stood for "Oregon" rather than -- my next guess -- "Operations Research". It's best to err on the side of spelling out abbreviations on a site like this.) Master's programs generally do have lower entry requirements compared to PhD programs at the same institution, and yes, paying your own way is somewhat more common, although I would still not recommend it to any but the wealthiest students. There are in fact some good master's programs in mathematics that one could get into by making clear in advance that no financial support was being requested.

To say more than this really depends on the department. Some places have extra resources for master's programs, but many do not: the master's program takes place alongside the more populous PhD program and is administrated and taught by the same faculty members with limited time and energy that they are trying to apply in the best possible way. Master's students who are not strong enough to receive funding may in fact be the ones who require significant extra effort to get them to finish the program. They may also require faculty to meet and discuss tough questions like whether or not they should be allowed to continue in the program. Speaking from my own experience: a few years ago I was largely open to the idea that anyone who has the appropriate undergraduate degree and coursework and is willing to pay their own way should be given a shot in our master's program. I do not feel that way any longer.

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    I appreciate your response. I certainly agree with you as far as PhDs go. Fit with an advisor, the ability to conduct independent research, and other factors are crucial, and that significantly reduces the pool of acceptable applicants. I'm talking about masters degrees, however. On different forums, and on school websites, I have seen rates of acceptance, and certain expectations, that do not make sense to me, if we're talking about a program that students generally pay to attend.
    – Alex
    Apr 5, 2014 at 5:50
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    @Alex: Aha, I was just wondering whether maybe it was masters programs that you were looking at. It would help if you'd edit that into your question. Apr 5, 2014 at 5:51
  • @pete thanks for your added perspective on the masters issue. If I'm understanding you correctly, the amount of money that is transferred from student tuition to the professor isn't worth as much as the time that is transferred from doing research to struggling with unmotivated students? I am still making sense of this, will comment and probably accept your answer later today.
    – Alex
    Apr 5, 2014 at 19:13
  • To clarify, it sounds like a bunch of students are willing to pay money to hear professors speak, but the professors are worried that this might require them to do a bit of mentoring.
    – Alex
    Apr 5, 2014 at 19:25
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    @Alex: Since "the amount of money that is transferred from student tuition to the professor" is in this case zero, this is certainly true. Apr 5, 2014 at 20:12

You should not pay tuition to attend grad school, excepting possibly certain "professional" schools like medicine, business, law.

That is, grad programs admit a number of students for which they have funding, and have faculty/mentoring support.

Programs do not get tuition money back directly (as counter-intuitive as this might seem), but have to calibrate grad admissions to match the faculty they have ... the numbers of which are determined by essentially unrelated issues. But, approximately, programs will not admit you if they are not confident that you can succeed in their program. So you should not begrugde that judgement. And, srsly, such judgements are made with much experience.

Yes, there is the issue of prediction of success, which is an element that did not enter in undergrad studies. That is, programs do not "admit everyone" and then allow people to fail. Nor is it just a matter of "trying hard". Beyond a certain point, there is an issue of natural ability. It is true that this is highly non-trivial to understand/detect/encourage.

Yes, there is a considerable amount of disingenuousness in how we describe graduate programs...

Perhaps reaction-comments from the OP could help refine useful answers.

  • I appreciate your response. I think you are misinterpreting my question, however. I am not begrudging anyone's judgment, as I have not yet applied to any program. But for example, Columbia has an MSOR and an MFE. These cost I think, 20k and 50k respectively (not sure exactly). They accept around 10% of applicants each. My questions is whether the low percentage of acceptance is a reflection of how many qualified candidates there are, or just a way of boosting a school's reputation.
    – Alex
    Apr 5, 2014 at 5:43
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    @Alex, ah, ok: no, the low acceptance is not a choice to boost the rep, but is a response to an already-more-desirable program's attracting more applicants ... who want to benefit from the associated cachet. One's "pedigree" matters a good bit at the beginning of an academic career and some others. A program has a certain limited capacity, for one thing, and a desire to preserve their exclusiveness (thus not strongly motivated to expand). Apr 5, 2014 at 21:00

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