I obtained my M. Sc. in mathematics from a decent European university about a year ago (when I was 27). Due to various reasons of personal nature, my marks were the equivalent of a 3.0 GPA, or something like that, and it took me quite a while to finish. I wanted to drop out at some point, also because of the same issues, which led to a change in my thesis' topic, arguments and a not-so-good relationship with my advisor, who agreed to keep me until graduation anyway.

Right after obtaining the degree, my problems gradually subsided and I got a reasonably good job in the consulting industry, which of course I am not interested in, but I accepted because I had to. However, my interest for math and physics recently rekindled, to the point that in the little time I can spare from my job I find myself picking up my old books, and reading new ones and it's getting harder and harder to do something I dislike on a daily basis.

I realized I wasted a good chance and now I wish to apply to a Phd program (anywhere, really, with the condition that it be a reasonably good one) as I feel I am a bit too young to accept how things have played out, but all I have right now is a mediocre GPA and no way to obtain strong recommendation letters to compensate. Therefore I think my chances to get into a good program are very slim (feel free to correct me though, if you think otherwise).

I feel my only chance would be to get into another (1 or 2 years long) M. Sc., perhaps in applied math this time and enter an environment where I can:

  1. improve my record

  2. get in contact with people who could help me with recommendation letters in the future.

Here come my questions: is this plan sensible? Does a candidate with 2 M. Sc. in similar subjects raise eyebrows?
Feel free to offer further advice on what my options are if you have any.

  • 3
    Seems like an expensive way to get another letter of reference. I'd be surprised if it was helpful to a PhD admissions package.
    – Bill Barth
    Sep 4, 2015 at 17:20
  • I wouldn't attend a very expensive Master, but of course I would have to depend on my parents to support myself for a year or two. That's expensive, but being stuck - basically forever - with jobs like mine feels way more expensive, though not in terms of money. However you are saying that it wouldn't even do any good to my application, and I'm interested in knowing why, as my hypothetical application is very weak right now. I wouldn't even know what range of departments to aim at.
    – Karl
    Sep 5, 2015 at 2:01
  • Of course I would have to depend on my parents to support myself for a year or two -- But Karl, how is it possible that you have not built up a nest egg to finance this new academic venture from your reasonably good job in the consulting industry? Sep 5, 2015 at 13:40
  • Because I've had it for about a year. And I had to live in the meantime. The job is reasonably good but entry level, of course.
    – Karl
    Sep 5, 2015 at 13:50
  • The first masters will likely help you get into your program of choice. Two masters would mKe peoe wonder why you stopped st masters--was there a problem that prevented you from continuing to your PhD?
    – jvriesem
    Sep 8, 2015 at 6:59

2 Answers 2


I wouldn't if I were you. Of course grades and reference letters matter but to spend another year or two putting yourself in debt just for reference letters seems like a lot. You will also be two years older, and with no guarantee to get the position you want. I would try to apply for PhD's anyways, or if needed, try to find a project for a few months in the group/area you are interested for the PhD. In Europe there is funding for exchange students/projects. I spent a year in Sweden after finishing my MSc. back in the Netherlands. This was paid for by a stipend from my supervisor in Sweden.

Doing a project will allow you to see if this is the topic you want to do a PhD in, and also if this is the right group. If you do a good job and the supervisor has money for a PhD student, you can apply. If not, you can apply elsewhere using this supervisor as a reference.

Good luck.

  • Looks like a possibility. I assume the only way to find such opportunities would be to scour the webpages of random departments around the world. Do you happen to know of any website where such opportunities would be gathered/listed? By the way, do you reckon I wouldn't have application weakness issues similar to those I'm facing now, in applying for such positions?
    – Karl
    Sep 5, 2015 at 2:00
  • @Karl, I wouldn't look at random. I would make targeted searches based on prior collaborations, papers you've cited, etc. Your MS advisor is bound to know someone.
    – Bill Barth
    Sep 5, 2015 at 15:45
  • @BillBarth Thanks for answering. Things did not go well with my advisor. We didn't part on the best of terms and now I am in no position to use him or his network. My thesis wasn't really original work, it was basically a translation / review or a couple of really difficult and recent papers in analysis. Papers I cited are from top notch, world-renowned mathematicians who would probably laugh in my face if I contacted them going over my advisor's head. Hell they would probably laugh off my advisor, too. I cannot use him or his network, that's why I thought about a change of environment.
    – Karl
    Sep 5, 2015 at 16:37
  • As for prior collaboration, there's not really much of it. European universities (in mathematics at least) aren't really big on making undergrads and master students publish original papers, unless they are really brilliant and their research is genuinely worth publishing in serious journals. You basically do your coursework and keep quiet until thesis time comes around, at which point it's still quite unlikely that you achieve something impressive (still talking exclusively about my field). I could talk to my Bachelor thesis advisor, but that was 5 years ago now...
    – Karl
    Sep 5, 2015 at 16:45

Enroll as a non-degree-seeking student in one course per semester either at an institution in your area, or at an institution that offers online study. Use these courses to satisfy your intellectual itch and to build up an excellent new GPA. Use the remaining time in your job to build up savings to ensure financial independence, and to perfect the art of being a good employee, even when you might not find every task you are assigned deeply fulfilling.

-- Edit -- (If there are no suitable courses offered in your area) Online education is really taking off now. Here is a randomly selected example of online offerings:

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  • 1
    I wish this was feasible, but I work ~10 hours per day, sometimes more, and often far from home, so this would take a really long time to accomplish. This solution would end up being a placebo.
    – Karl
    Sep 5, 2015 at 16:50
  • You could garner a couple of good grades and strong letters of recommendation in two semesters. The idea is to use the little time you can spare from your job in a structured learning environment (i.e. online math courses) where you will be intellectually stimulated, and your efforts will serve to strengthen your grad school application. By the way, does your contract call for you to work 10 hours a day? Sep 5, 2015 at 19:39
  • Forgive my lack of faith, but do online universities offer that kind of prestige? Are there really people who get phd scholarships in decent departments with recommendation letters obtained this way? About the contract: no, it doesn't, but you are de facto expected to.
    – Karl
    Sep 5, 2015 at 21:02
  • Once you're enrolled in a course, you'll have an excuse for keeping to a reasonable work schedule. // See edit of my answer. Sep 5, 2015 at 21:17
  • Online learning does not lend itself to strong recommendation letters. Online classes typically offer few opportunities to have the kind of meaningful interactions with professors that can make for good letters.
    – ff524
    Sep 8, 2015 at 7:24

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