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So here is my conundrum. I am in my last year of my undergraduate degree which is a specialist in math and economics. In the early years of my program I was having a out school issues that I didn't think were affecting my performance but in the end did. I am in the process of getting good grades in thisnlast year in my courses, but regardless of me getting A+'s across the board I would still not have brought my GPA up enough to apply to any masters programs. During my studies I took a few math courses that were beyond my mathematical maturity at the time of the courses and as such got poor marks in them. This was due to my over eagerness to want to learn advanced concepts without respecting the process one needs to take to get there. As such I have been taking those intermediary courses now and they are going better.

I have a large desire to go to grad-school so I have been trying to think of ways to improve any faint hopes that I could somehow turn things around and I was wondering how the following strategy would affect my cause:

Graduate(well the formality part anyways) but then come back and repeat the advanced courses I did poorly in and on top of that do the other advanced courses that I have not taken obtaining good marks in these, then applying the following year. My question is how would this appear on an application? It won't affect my GPA directly, but it would illustrate that I have excelled within this set of courses of a higher level. Of course this would have to go with doing well on the GRE and anything else as well. Thoughts or advice?

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I largely disagree with the other answer.

The bottom line is that graduate school in mathematics is much more challenging than most undergraduate programs in mathematics, and the academic job market in mathematics is rather cruelly competitive even for those who excelled in their graduate programs. So my first question to you is: what are your goals? Do you know what you're setting yourself up for? Sticking with something out of sheer determination can be commendable if you have a clear view of the situation. If you decide that you're willing to walk on foot through the desert to reach your goal, that could show gumption...but first, find out how far you need to walk. If it's 500 miles, you're not showing gumption, you're showing a dangerous lack of planning.

I have a large desire to go to grad-school

Why? What are your specific goals? Do you mean that you want to get a master's degree in mathematics and then apply it to do....what? Do you mean that you want to get a PhD? That you want to pursue an academic career? I have the sense that the answers to most of these questions are "yes", so I will proceed for most of the answer under that assumption.

Maybe it sounds harsh to wonder why someone who has not excelled in something at the undergraduate level wants to pursue it at the graduate level...but I think it's kinder to be a little harsh if it helps people properly perceive the situation.

I am in the process of getting good grades in thisnlast year in my courses, but regardless of me getting A+'s across the board I would still not have brought my GPA up enough to apply to any masters programs. During my studies I took a few math courses that were beyond my mathematical maturity at the time of the courses and as such got poor marks in them. This was due to my over eagerness to want to learn advanced concepts without respecting the process one needs to take to get there. As such I have been taking those intermediary courses now and they are going better.

So in your last year in the major, you're retaking intermediate level courses and doing better in them. This means that up until now your performance in all your coursework was not good enough to satisfy the requirements for an undergraduate major? Realistically, that's bad news: I teach mathematics at the undergraduate and graduate level. As the grades lie: some of the students who are getting mostly A's should consider grad school; other students who are getting mostly A's should probably not be. Students who are getting the lower range of "satisfactory" grades have not really understood the concepts of the course, but we hope that the lack of understanding will not snowball too much into the next course so that they can get through the major anyway. This is not any kind of preparation for graduate work.

In my opinion, in order to have a shot at getting into a reputable graduate program (master's or PhD) and for such a program to be worth your time, you really want to excel in the undergraduate coursework. If in your last year you are taking intermediate level courses, you don't have a chance of doing that before you graduate.

I would consider spending another year in your current degree program. If that's going to cost you tens of thousands of dollars then that's a serious thing to do and I would think several times before doing it, but it still might be a good investment in your future. If that is not an option I would suggest that you do "postbac" work and/or enroll in a "nondegree program" at a quality undergraduate institution that lets you take the advanced undergraduate courses for grades.

The alternative is to apply to a master's program. But if you are applying to a master's program with a poor background you will probably have to pay for it, which could be just as expensive (or more so) than staying in your current program. Moreover you may find when you get there that you are (i) poorly prepared relative to the other students, (ii) expected to do work at a level you've never been held to before (iii) in a new environment where you don't know anyone or know how things work and (iv) no one around is particularly invested in your success.

Finally, a really poor master's program could end up being....poor. I've seen students enter into a PhD program with master's degrees who were clearly not as well prepared as students coming directly from a more reputable undergraduate institution. Also a good performance at a miserable place is not much of a steppingstone to a good PhD program.

All of this is predicated on the assumption that your desire to go to grad school meant that you wanted to get a PhD. If you mean that you want to get a terminal master's en route to a specific real world job: in that case, attending wherever you get in and sticking it out becomes a much better plan.

  • It doesn't seem like the OP in necessarily bad at Mathematics, although your point does make sense. To be honest, no M.S. program in mathematics that has a research component is bad. Although, say Harvard, Yale, etc., can't hurt, and according to the background, not everyone can get in to those institutions. If one goes to a decent school with a research component, takes advanced classes, distinguish themselves, keeps their GPA high, and then get into another decent institiuon for PhD studies, does well, and secures a postdoc, the end can be the same. – user42055 Oct 7 '15 at 14:19
  • I believe the OP should not waste time doing a post-bac or spending another year in the undergrad degree program. That's a waste of time and money, and it is not that hard to get into an M.S. program at a decent institution. The OP can apply to one of those, get in, engage in research and advanced classwork, and then finally apply to better PhD programs. I have seen myself, and no example for this is needed, some that have gone onto not necessarily the most highest ranked Math programs, but have risen to the top ranks of academia. – user42055 Oct 7 '15 at 14:22
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    "I have seen myself, and no example for this is needed, some that have gone onto not necessarily the most highest ranked Math programs, but have risen to the top ranks of academia." I have spent my entire adult life in mathematical academia and am having trouble thinking of examples of people who have gone to poor master's programs and ended up in the "top ranks of academia". So examples are needed by me, at least. Please give us some. – Pete L. Clark Oct 7 '15 at 16:16
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    You are not being rude in any way. I just don't understand why you say you have examples but will not give any. If there are examples it will be really helpful for me to see them. I look through the list of faculty at all the top math departments at least once a year. At my own department -- which is about #50 -- we had a PhD who is now tenured at UPenn. I honestly do not know anyone who is tenure-track at a top 20 math department in the US who got their PhD at a US department ranked below the top 100. So if you do, please help me out. – Pete L. Clark Oct 7 '15 at 17:03
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    Yes, we have also placed faculty at Georgia Tech and at University of Illinois at Chicago: these are not top twenty mathematics departments. (They are close enough for me to have mentioned them in other contexts; I restricted myself to our best example.) I agree with your last statements. Moreover, it is important to realize that nothing is impossible, but having an accurate understanding of the probabilities involved is still helpful. – Pete L. Clark Oct 7 '15 at 21:32
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This is not an uncommon situation in my opinion, and I'm glad to know that you've stepped up your game and doing well in your classes now. I would suggest this, at least try this cycle to apply to M.S. Math programs. Keep in mind this, as long as the school has a research program/PhD in mathematics, you will be fine. This does not have to be a top 10 school, or even a top 200 school. Take the GRE, and apply to many schools (it is not, in my opinion analysing students, difficult to get into some M.S. math program currently). When you get there, work hard, make a reputation, and then apply to PhD programs if that's your goal, or pursue whatever else you want. If your GPA is a 3.0 or higher, I think you have a strong chance. If not, keep in mind that your last semester had solid grades, and you can make your point to graduate admissions. From what I understand right now, most math grad students are applying for PhD's, meaning that there is space for M.S. students like yourself. Apply to various schools, and open your horizons. I personally believe that repeating your old courses is a waste of time, because I strongly feel like you have a good chance at an M.S. math program.

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