I graduated with a BS in math from Cal Poly SLO in 2015. My grades in upper level math were about B-. I feel like my understanding of the motivations for them was a little weak because my study habits during lower division were not good, and I feel I missed a lot of details.

In the years since I've graduated I have spent a lot of time going back to my calculus, analysis, and abstract algebra texts and I feel a lot more confident that I can do well in the higher level classes, so I am thinking of enrolling in my local university to take classes in the upper level undergrad courses to have more recent coursework and to impress faculty with my potential for success in a doctorate program. Maybe take some graduate courses.

I am wondering if this sounds like a good plan. If I am successful in doing well in carrying out this plan, would it increase my chances of getting into a well regarded program for my eventual choice of field of research? If anything, I figure I can carry out the plan for my own interest, but it would be a significant investment in personal resources, so I would like to have some sort of idea of the chances of success.

My ultimate goal is to become an instructor or a professor in California where I live. I could be happy in a rural area or an urban area or in between. Since my undergrad I have worked in software quality assurance followed by data analysis, but I think I would be happier as a teacher. I have experience in tutoring, and I have been told I make clear explanations and have a lot of patience with people.

I think I would be happy teaching at a community college or university, but I do not have research experience that would tell me whether or not a research career would be a better or worse fit.

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    My suggestion is to first get MA from a place like SFSU and then apply for a PhD program. Apr 9, 2023 at 20:35
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    Are you primarily interested in getting a PhD so that you have enough research experience to work in a primarily teaching role at the college or university level, or do you want a research career? Would you be happy teaching community college, which does not require a PhD? Apr 9, 2023 at 21:35
  • @MoisheKohan, an idea I'll consider.
    – user169803
    Apr 12, 2023 at 3:53
  • @AlexanderWoo, I am not sure yet about research career vs primarily teaching. I suspect my strength would be teaching, but I am not sure if I should close the door on a research career yet.
    – user169803
    Apr 12, 2023 at 3:55
  • @AlexanderWoo to expand a little bit: I think I could be happy teaching at a university or a community college, but I do not have research experience to tell me whether which would be a better fit.
    – user169803
    Apr 12, 2023 at 3:59

2 Answers 2


There are a lot of factors to consider when you are looking at being evaluated for suitability to a PhD program. Grades are looked at, absolutely. But something much better than grades is good research experience, contributing to a paper that is either in consideration by a journal or conference for publication, or at least being considered for submission to a venue for publication.

To address the possibility of publishing, you could ask to volunteer for someone’s research project, or apply for an RA (research assistship), or even attempt to apply to whatever the American equivalent of NSERC is, although if you were in Canada, they wouldn’t consider you with a B average but the Americans may have much more money—I don’t know.

In any case, yes taking some advanced courses and doing well in them will improve your chances. If one of the profs who have to look at graduate applications looks at your transcript, they will see that you improved your study habits and performance. With that in mind, they may choose to downplay your lower grades in their evaluation-especially if you contribute to a paper that could or has been submitted to a venue.

A big factor is also reference letters. It may be that some health conditions impacted your performance. Maybe you couldn’t be very consistent as a result, ect ect—but you were able to solve very difficult problems, contribute to research, clearly demonstrate genuine interest. In my case, I had serious depression, anxiety, and insomnia issues throughout undergrad, which did impact my performance. Regardless, I was able to do an RA, solve difficult problems, do guided studies in some advanced areas, deliver an outstanding talk in a 4th year undergraduate logic seminar. Some of my grades were very good, but I don’t believe they were the selling point in my applications.

In Canada, you are usually required to do a masters first. I applied and was able to get in a top tier school. I still had those health issues, and again they did objectively interfere with things. Regardless, I again solved a lot of very difficult problems, essentially tutored other grad students in many courses with them often just using my arguments, and so on. As a result, I was able to go to a PhD program

After clearing the courses, comps, and the thesis proposal, it was not that long until my health issues got pretty extreme. Long story short, I ended up withdrawing.

I tell you about the health stuff because your post reminded me about that experience. If you do have health issues like that, you have a very serious choice to make: delay while getting quality treatment or go and risk underperforming while you get treated. I did the later, and I do not think it went so well.

Another factor you must consider is the job situation. Every single academic posting in Canada is an international competition, or if the phrase “tenure track,” the word “professor,” and even “postdoc” now adays. If you don’t go that route, you will try to go the teaching one. Unfortunately, most of these jobs pay very, very low figures, come with no security of any kind, and likely require you to move across the country perhaps as often as ever 3-6 months. I’ve talked to people have been sessional instructors for a long time and they are absolutely miserable. Some teaching positions pay well, are permanent, and come with security; however, these are almost always international competitions as well. Be sure to keep this in mind now, and if you end up going—it is important, and if you go there is no doubt you will develop deep concerns over this.

With all that doom and gloom, attending graduate school in math allows you to experience many unique things not possible elsewhere. You will be in a community of people who all genuinely love the subject as much as you. You will spend 10 or more hours sometimes on problems a professor took out of a research paper of theirs without realizing the trick he had in mind is only known to people who have already worked for 10+ years in the subject, and you might come up with a valid proof not using the trick that connects many different areas of math but is also impossible to grade as it’s 10-20 or more pages long. All of that is wonderful even with the frustration you and all of your comrades will experience, and absolutely everyone does experience that.

If you are going to go, I suggest doing loads of independent reading in core areas while you wait to attend. Solve as many problems as you can. In any case, take care of your health, and, if you go, have a grand time.

Best of luck.

  • Thank you for sharing. Soon before I transferred from my community college (Cuesta College) to my bachelors program at Cal Poly, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder after my first of three manic episodes. I believe this did impact my studies (and work) for quite a while while recalibrating to life with medications. I am luckily in much better shape now which is related to my renewed interest in doctoral programs. I feel lucky that medicine worked pretty well in my case, but it took a long time to adjust and I blamed it for my lower energy levels for a long time, but I have adjusted better.
    – user169803
    Apr 12, 2023 at 20:43
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    Hey, that is very good. You might consider sharing some of that information with your professors, or even including a generic “due to health issues, my performance suffered, but now those issues have improved” type statement in your application. People are more considerate than you think, although there is a tendency to think “yes this person has a health issue, but I can not know if it really did impact their performance, and so can’t do much with that information,” but it could have some impact. Apr 13, 2023 at 21:34

It might work, and it might be worth doing in any case, but you can probably increase your chances by exploring your options directly with one of the candidate universities, probably in California.

Make an appointment with the department head for a meeting to explore your options. If you have a proposed field of study, mention that in the request for a meeting. There may be a professor in that field that you also want to speak with.

Take your transcripts along with a CV to the meeting.

You want to ask them what path you might follow to gain admission to their doctoral program. They can look specifically at where you have gaps in your undergrad education and can make suggestions about filling them.

You don't need to ask to study there in the short term, but try to make a plan, including when to apply.

Speak about your goals and whether they are realistic. They might suggest enrolling in a masters program, either course or research based.

The gap in study isn't helping you, as you have probably forgotten some things. But making assumptions about what you need to do is probably not optimal.

If your local university has a doctoral program, you can start there. If not, and you visit another, make sure you know precisely what courses the local place offers, say with a printed catalog of courses or a listing from the web.

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