I enrolled in a master's program in mathematics a while back and finished my coursework and comprehensive exams with good marks. I had difficulty finishing my thesis since I had no motivation doing it as it was in a field that I am not interested in. I had a full-time job while my thesis was still in progress. Now that I have maxed out the allowed time to finish it, I can no longer finish the degree.

I still wish to pursue a PhD in math, but with what has happened, I feel like my chances of getting accepted in North American programs is very slim. What can I do to improve my chances significantly or is there still anything I can do?

  • The title of your post doesn't match the body.
    – Bryan Krause
    Mar 14 at 2:53
  • 4
    "I had difficulty finishing my thesis since I had no motivation doing it as it was in a field that I am not interested in". So, what makes you think that you will have the motivation and dedication to finish a PhD now when you did not have that level of motivation while working on your Master's degree ? -- It is safe to assume that a PhD will take a lot more effort and dedication than a Master's degree does. Mar 14 at 6:30
  • 1
    @TheLastCipher I think the point is - you are going to face the question Job_September_2020 asked in your applications, either directly (i.e. you are asked during an interview), or indirectly (your application readers will read your application looking for answers to that question). Be ready to explain why you really are interested in the research question you picked and will be able to finish if you commit full-time.
    – Allure
    Mar 14 at 9:27
  • 1
    In the US you do not need a MSc to get a PhD, however you need one in many other places (EU, Asia). Also, that question mentioned above will definitely will pop up, and I do not think “I try harder” will be a sufficient answer.
    – Greg
    Mar 14 at 14:21
  • 1
    What country or countries are you asking about? I'm guessing not the US, but where?
    – Buffy
    Mar 14 at 14:28

3 Answers 3


Restart the master's degree when the time feels right for you at a place that will enable you to pursue your real interests.

I have a colleague (in a field other than mathematics) who did a very similar thing. They completed all of the other requirements for their master's degree, but got an excellent full-time job and never handed in their thesis. Many years later, they wanted to resolve the loose end and possibly continue to a Ph.D., so they applied to a master's degree in the same field at a different school. They completed the MA and proceeded to the Ph.D., which they also finished.

Explaining this carefully in your statement of interest is necessary - a department will need reassurance that you'll be able to finish the master's degree the second time around rather than just repeating your own history - but it's doable.


You won't know about how your portfolio is viewed until you apply.

PhD students are a very big commitment for a department and an investigator. If a student doesn't finish, the resources the department put into that student are lost.

For this reason, one of the primary concerns for admissions committees when making choices about students is "if we admit this student, will they finish".

Toward that decision, an incomplete Master's degree is a pretty big red flag. I advise that your application should thus try to mollify the committees concerns over the issue, convincing them that if accepted, you'll be in for the long haul. FWIW, I don't think the "I wasn't interested in the work, so I didn't finish" is particularly compelling toward making that case.

So, where does that leave you. There may be programs in your field that don't go by the "let's not lose any students" narrative. They may provide almost nothing in the way of resources until you pass a qualifier exam and find a mentor. Programs like that often eliminate a good portion of there graduate student population at the qualifier. I think your chances for admission are best at an institution like that. Be warned, my perception is that schools have been moving away from that admissions model.

You should also apply to schools that you consider your 2nd or 3rd tier, but with a strong mentor in the area you want to work in. They may not have the same size or quality of applicant pool as your top tier schools, but you'll still get a fine education.

Note that the burden of reviewing the application and admitting a graduate student goes up for nondomestic students, because of the visa issues. Most schools that routinely admit nondomestic students probably have this well in hand, but I do think admissions committees from top tier schools may really try to make offers to only the cream of the crop from the foreign applicant pool.


Please start focusing on your MASTERS thesis, with this you can develop interest in the research area and definitely you will end up with great motivation, which you need at the moment. For a PhD a strong motivation is required, and I wish you achieve a great opportunity for a PhD.

Second option, you can find MS leading PhD programs.

  • So you think it is still possible to get into a good MS program? Mar 14 at 7:29
  • Yes, for sure, you can do the best. Just be determined towards your goal.
    – ahmedawais
    Mar 14 at 11:52

You must log in to answer this question.

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