I'm applying to masters programs in math, in the US. My goal is a PhD, but multiple circumstances make it such that I'm not a competitive applicant.

I have the choice between a few programs, but I'm torn between two of them. One is highly prestigious with highly active and well-known faculty in my field of interest. The other is not well-known, but it has a couple of solid faculty in my field.

Does the prestige of the masters impact my chances for a top PhD (top in my field, that is)? That is, if I go for the less prestigious masters, does it make it harder to get into a top PhD, compared to if I go for the more prestigious masters?

The more prestigious masters is kinda pricy compared to the other one. I can afford it but I'd rather not pay extra if there's no significant difference.

1 Answer 1


First, and foremost, be aware that you don't need a masters to enter a doctoral program in the US in math. You might earn one along the way, actually.

The prestige might matter a bit at the margins, but more important is what you do yourself and the letters of recommendation you get from those you work closely with. Things might be harder at a high prestige place since the higher prestige sometimes (often?) comes from being more competitive with somewhat better students. Not a universal.

If you work with someone with a good reputation who will support your later applications you can do well anywhere.

Note that entry into a doctoral program will probably come with a TA position which will solve the cost issue. Universities with doctoral programs in math almost always have a need for a lot of TAs to support the undergraduate program.

If you have spoken to people at these two places then talk to them again about a doctoral program instead of a masters. It will be a shorter journey with very few costs and probably some living stipend, assuming you are qualified to be a TA.

Your statement that you are not a competitive applicant worries me a bit, assuming you are correct. If these two places are just places you might apply to, not places you've spoken with or made application to, then you might not get accepted at either. In such a situation, apply to other schools as well, casting a broad net.

And note that the student usually pays for a masters, but is paid a stipend instead in a doctoral program even if they earn a masters along the way.

  • Thanks, that clears up things a little. I am aware I don't need a masters degree per se, but I've applied for a PhD this cycle, and it's not going so well, so I know I'm not competitive. I did get into the two masters degrees I am considering, since I applied for a PhD there and got my application moved to the masters after rejection. Feb 27 at 0:14

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