I'm about to start my master in mathematics next year. I'm having a lot of trouble determining how some of the options available to me compare. They are all not very wel known programs, and I don't think it's a good idea to name them here explicitly so I won't.

This whole choice is really stressing me out a bit. I want to choose the best one, but I have no idea how best to compare them. Things that I'm currently taking into consideration:

  • The number of enrolled students. This varies from only 10 to around 35 per year. 10 seems very low to me. And remember we're not talking about very prestigious programs here.

  • The structure of the program. Some programs make you choose a track in which you specialize, while others don't. You can of course still build that specialisation into your program on your own, but I feel that this explicit specialisation is probably better. I also think that better profs are attracted to programs where they can teach just their specialisation.

I would appreciate some input on the relevance of those two factors, as well as other things I should consider and ways of approaching this.

I will be studying pure mathematics and hope to be able to stay in acedemia if that is relevant for this situation.

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    I find it mildly strange that those are your possible criteria. No reviews from former students? No looking at papers published by students of the program? – Telastyn Apr 16 '15 at 20:50
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    @Telastyn, the purpose of posting this is clearly to ask for suggestions of good criteria. – Antonio Vargas Apr 16 '15 at 21:53
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    Ask the professors that wrote your recommendation letters. They are the people in the best position to give advice. Also, as a very rough measure of quality, you might check the US News and World Report rankings of the PhD programs at the same universities. – Potato Apr 16 '15 at 23:20
  • @Potato Thanks for the suggestion, I'm definitely going to ask them for some input as well. – user2520938 Apr 17 '15 at 11:50
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    Also, look at placement data. If graduates aren't being placed into PhD programs you would like to attend, don't go. The programs undoubtedly have this data, even if they do not make it public. You should ask for it. – Potato Apr 17 '15 at 16:28

There are several things you could try

  • Read student reviews online - sites like GradCafe offer interesting discussions that will give you an idea how well the programs are run and how much faculty members are willing to go the extra mile to help their students get jobs after they graduate.
  • Look at USNews ranking as a loose reference. In my opinion (as a mathematician) those rankings do not fully reflect how good an institution is, but a department ranked #1 is quite likely to be better than one ranked #100. Bear in mind that US News won't give you the full picture, though, you could run into a fantastic professor at an institution that only gets a decent ranking.

  • Speak to the academic advisor in your department

Last but not least, your choice very much depends if you want to stay in the academia. If you're going into industry, reputation and the alumni network might be factors to consider. Otherwise, browse through the faculty directories and see if there's any potential match of research interests. For example, if you want to learn analysis, you're better off going to UCLA than to Harvard.

Good luck!

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  • Thanks a lot for your answer! I'm going to have some conversation with advisors in my current department, and I'll also contact some people for the different options I have to see what they have to say. Can you say anything about the nr-of-students indicator I was using? I'm just wondering how a mathematics program with only ~30 master students in total can possibly be a vibrant and high quality program. Some other programs have upward of ~200 students, which seems like it's a much healthier amount to me. However, the smaller one has way better rankings on the sires you suggested. – user2520938 Apr 17 '15 at 11:49
  • @user2520938 I don't think having a large number of students is a particularly important requirement for a graduate program. 30 (or even 10, as you mention in your original question) is already a good number for a cohort. Some very good PhD programs (e.g. Harvard, Yale) admit fewer than 10 students a year some years. The quality of the faculty and the program's record placing students into good PhD programs are much, much more important. – Potato Apr 17 '15 at 16:24
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    @user2520938. In many top institutions there're less than 10 math PhD first year students per year (i.e., about 50 grad students total) and those are the most vibrant research institutions you could ever find. It's the academic excellency that matters. As for your case, it boils down to what you want to do with your Masters degree (industry, research, teaching?). – Dinosaur Apr 20 '15 at 1:32

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