Before I start, I apologize in advance for dumping my neuroses on this community.

So I finished a BA in mathematics online from penn state with a 4.0 GPA (some of the courses I finished were in topology, abstract algebra, real and complex analysis). Through work I've worked on a number of research papers and a few projects that we collaborated on with some engineers to produce software.

I know that I want to pursue a phd in mathematics, specifically in algebraic topology, but I'm concerned about whether I would be considered competitive for a PhD program. I have strong recommendations from my boss at work, a fellow researcher, and one of my professors that I managed to maintain contact with throughout the online program.

I guess ultimately what I'm asking is, if everything else is equal, does an online graduate have the same chance as traditional graduate? Sorry if this isn't clearer.

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    I won't lie. It might be more difficult for you but Penn State is a top notch school and it seems like you were very active in the degree so it might not actually affect you nearly as much as you'd think. Worst case scenario, you might have to apply to a master's program before advancing to PhD (this is actually fairly common outside the US so it's not that bad in all honesty). Your work experience should also help a good bit. Mar 31, 2015 at 2:27
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    Where in your application materials does the fact that your degree is online come up? Does your degree not just say "Penn State"? The admissions committee might not even notice it unless you bring it up in your personal statement or your professors bring it up in their letters. I imagine it says something on your transcript, but is it that prominent? Mar 31, 2015 at 3:11
  • So it does say World Campus on there, but I guess you have a point that it probably won't even be noticed. In that case, do I have any obligation to mention it? Mar 31, 2015 at 3:33
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    No offense intended. According to this Web Page, Penn State offers a variety of online Bachelor degrees, however, math is not one of them. Did Penn State just discontinue the BA in Math online program?
    – Nobody
    Mar 31, 2015 at 4:00

1 Answer 1


First, @scaaahu correctly observed some formal complications: e.g., looking at that web page, it seems that the closest thing to a degree in mathematics is a baccalaureate in "arts, letters, and science". It is important not to be even inadvertently inaccurate about your degree.

But, apart from that, the issue I'd anticipate in your situation is not the name of the degree, nor the on-line-ness. After all, one can read books and papers (or PDFs) without being registered at all. The problem arises in how to "prove" to an admissions committee that you have learned things.

In the U.S., even a transcript that says an undergrad got good grades in typical-sounding math coursework does not enable an admissions committee to understand what the student has learned. You should take the GRE (both general and subject test in math) to add data points and to show awareness, despite the fact that there is not universal agreement about the significance of these scores.

The problem is that you will not have letters of recommendation from three PhD'd mathematicians. Glowing letters from people who do not have PhD's in math (or something closely related) are not optimally helpful to admissions committees for predicting your success in grad school, much less gauging your natural talent. Very often these letters of recommendation are of decisive importance for admissions to top-50 programs, at least.

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