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Background: I'll be starting a 1.5 - 2 year master's program in mathematics this coming Fall in the US. Because of my non-degree graduate courses relevant to the program and my research interest, I can easily fulfill the requirements of this program within a year. However, my main goal is to gain and tangible research experience in preparation for a Ph.D program so I plan to remain in this program for 2 years.

Question: Will my application to Ph.D programs and fellowships be diluted if admissions folks see that my second year in this Master's program consisted mostly of research with at most one class per semester?

I want to reduce the course load as much as possible in order to give me time and flexibility to do research with the benefit of less tuition fees (if any). However, this all would be moot if such decision would raise red flags among admission committees.

Besides focusing more on research than classes, any other things I should look into while in this program?

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    For what it's worth, pretty much everyone I knew in graduate school (mathematics) seemed far more concerned with passing the Ph.D. Qualifying exams than with research. This is also where there was a high failure rate, not with the writing of the Dissertation. In fact, I believe every single person who passed the Ph.D. exams when (and where) I did wound up completing a Dissertation. I've heard the situation can be quite different in the humanities, however. That said, there is still the matter of what admissions committees like, and I'll leave this to others who know more about it than me. – Dave L Renfro Apr 26 '16 at 17:46
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    Is this taking place in the US? A "master's in math" means something very different in the US versus elsewhere. – Pete L. Clark Apr 26 '16 at 19:26
  • @PeteL.Clark The program does take place in the US. I apologize, for not mentioning at start. – user17522 Apr 26 '16 at 19:31
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Background: I am the director of graduate admissions in the pure math department of my university.

In my experience, we basically ignore "research" conducted by undergraduate and masters students (unless is it truly remarkable, in which case you will almost certainly not need advice on the internet to get into a strong PhD program). It just isn't a good predictor of whether or not you will be successful in a PhD program. You will get very different advice from people who are not mathematicians, but you should ignore it -- graduate programs in math are very different from graduate programs in the other sciences. This advice also might not apply if you are applying to departments of applied mathematics.

What we care about are

  1. The courses you have taken, and
  2. Your grades, and
  3. Your letters of recommendation, and
  4. Your GRE scores.

The above list is un-ordered; different members of the committee weight the above factors differently.

  • For PhD programs in pure math in the US...yes, this is absolutely dead on. – Pete L. Clark Apr 26 '16 at 20:49
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    @PeteL.Clark Though, there is an important addendum: working on a research project with a faculty member and doing a good job, even if the level of the research is not high, can improve your letters. – Ben Webster Apr 27 '16 at 2:51
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    @BenWebster: You do have to be a little careful, however. For instance, my experience is that letters from REU supervisors are often not very helpful. – Andy Putman Apr 27 '16 at 3:08
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    @Ben: I agree with the above comments. What I would say to " I suspect many letters are not that helpful because many students at REUs don't actually do a good job." is...I honestly don't know what it means for a student at an REU to do a "good job." I know what it means for them to do a poor job -- that they end up not successfully engaging with the material [this can of course still be a valuable experience for them]. I know what it means for them to do an exceptionally excellent job: they do significant research and do a significant part of it on their own.... – Pete L. Clark Apr 27 '16 at 3:56
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    The problem is that those who run REUs are highly pressured to portray these REUs as successful: the very future of the REUs depends on this. This used to mean that almost all letters about REU students described the student in extremely, sunny complimentary terms. It seems to me that it now means even more than that: the letters talk about the theorems the student has proven and the papers the student has written...and I confess that in many cases I do not believe the student had a primary or even significant role in this work. So: yes, it's hard for an REU letter to really impress me. – Pete L. Clark Apr 27 '16 at 3:59
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Let me complement @Andy Putman's answer with a perspective from applied math. I'm on the admissions committee of a graduate program in applied math and I've advised MS thesis students who have gone on to top applied math programs.

Research at the Master's level can have a very positive impact on your application, if it is substantive and especially if it leads to publication in a respected journal, or if it enables your letter writers who supervised the research to give stronger evaluations of you.

Research that merely involves, say, implementing a known algorithm and applying it to a slightly different problem may not be given much weight. Research that is presented in a sloppy way can even be a negative.

But top MS students are often able to do research of high caliber in applied math. For instance, some of my MS students already had one or two high-quality papers accepted to journals like SISC and SINUM; partly as a result of this, they had their pick of top doctoral programs.

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