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I was just reading in the answers to some other questions (here and here) that it's not necessarily disadvantageous (and it may even be advantageous) to take a year or semester off after finishing my bachelor's degree before applying to math PhD programs, but I'm not really sure what to do during that year. If the below section is too long, the TL;DR version is: What are my options?

I honestly hadn't looked into any other options since I was planning on going straight to math PhD programs after I earn my Bachelor's degree in May of 2016, but this fall while I was dealing with some personal issues I ended up dropping one of the two graduate math classes I was enrolled in and I missed the September GRE math subject test (as well as the deadline for the October subject test).

While I'm planning this spring to take the GRE math subject test (for real this time) and enroll in another one or two graduate math classes, it's looking like I might have a better chance at PhD program admissions if I wait to apply for admission in the Spring or Fall of 2017, rather than the Fall of 2016. I might apply to a couple of PhD programs for Fall 2016 admission, but I don't want to spend a lot of money on application fees when my application isn't as strong as it could be.

If I do end up taking a semester or a full year off, I want to figure out something productive to do so that the time won't be wasted. I came up with a few options: applying to PhD programs abroad that don't require the GRE (I speak English and Russian, so Canada, England, and Russia), applying to less competitive US PhD programs, or working a full- or part-time job (teaching? computer science?) and using that money to pay for simultaneously taking one or two graduate math classes.

However, I'm not sure if it's kosher to apply for a PhD program if I only plan on staying for a semester or a year. On the other hand, I don't know how feasible it is to both work and take graduate math classes, so I'm pretty uncertain about what to do. Does anyone have advice about the options I have?

  • How about trying some of the online courses on Coursera? They do have some deeper courses like Functional Analysis. – yoyostein Oct 17 '15 at 10:16
  • Perhaps you could substitute "productive" with "stimulating to my brain". Nobody should get a PhD in math to be a productive member of society. – gfjhjgfhj Oct 18 '15 at 9:39
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Options I can think of (I bet there are even more than these):

  • Take some upper level undergrad, or first-year grad, math classes as an unmatriculated student

  • Audit some classes (this saves you some money -- you don't get credit, but you learn the material)

  • Apply for a master's, in a program that doesn't require a math GRE (for example, with some quick googling, I found a good program in statistics that doesn't require the math GRE)

  • Take or audit some non-math classes that you find interesting

  • Become a K-12 substitute teacher (this only requires a Bachelor's degree)

  • Be a Vista volunteer

  • Get a job and build up a bit of savings, to make it easier to get through grad school on a TA stipend

  • Study abroad for a year but not as part of a PhD program for the reasons you mentioned

Note, if you are working full time, I find that one challenging class at a time is enough. If you are working 20 hours a week, depending on the type of job, maybe two challenging classes would work comfortably. I remember taking data structures and linear algebra at the same time while I was working a 40-hour week, and I went a little nuts. In retrospect, it would have been better to negotiate a reduced number of hours at work.

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How does your life look like? Are you able to keep life-work balance? Everyone needs to live, laugh and chase butterflies sometimes. Do you have time for that? Can you have fun with friends every now and then? If yes - great. Keep up with what you do, have a job and either save money or take those math classes. But if not - relax. Use this months to unwind. Your body will claim its rest sooner or later. It's better to rest on your terms than be recovering from a heart attack at 30.

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In my experience, its better to start your PhD earlier, rather than later. What your area of research? Pure Math or Applied Math? I think your idea about applying to less competitive programs is good if you play your cards right (i.e. develop a strong computing background). What type of work would you consider if you took your year off? (Information Technology, Software Engineering, etc.)

I think it would be interesting to try to look for an IT position (assuming you have a skill in that) within a mathematics department at a university (I'm referring to the USA right now, because that is what I'm familiar with). Become acquainted with the faculty and staff, help them with their problems, build connections, and take the classes possibly. Then you can probably eventually (after a couple of months) just try to talk to the Chair of the department or something. Have I seen this happen? Sort of. I used to work in as a student like this, and was eventually offered the ability to move forward within the department and so I take this from personal experience.

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If you are still dealing with the stress and stuff, just reading math and coming up with ideas, solving small problems, etc. (or going into a book without MAKING yourself finish it) are all good things to do. Then again, these don't show up on a CV. You could search for professors and annoy them with questions. I would advise against getting attached to trivial things in the meantime- this weakens the spirit and creates bad habits.

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