One is supposed to be devoted to pure mathematics. Is it beneficial for one to pursue a master degree before applying a math PhD in the United States?


The question is due to the harsh situation of undergrad students who are outside the U.S. and want to apply for a pure math PhD in the U.S. After an application process, one received no offer or no satisfactory offers. I wonder whether it's beneficial to apply for a master degree first, as a springboard towards a PhD position?

I googled online and found some similar posts. However, I found nothing exactly matches what I want to ask, such as:

  1. One can determine whether he/she really wants to do math via a master life. while I suppose that one is devoted to pure mathematics.
  2. To attend some required courses (for PhD applicants) which aren't available in his/her university. They don't require a lot, and in the situation I'm interested in, there is not shortcoming from this kind of restriction.

I want to know the pure pragmatic effect of a master degree. Does the fame or honor of the graduate school increase the chance of admission for students? Do (good) scores in the graduate school de facto prove the strength and ability of students? Are these more convincing than scores/works in the undergraduate school?

Thanks for information.

  • Wait a second: you may apply for a PhD even without having a master degree? :o
    – gented
    Jul 11, 2016 at 12:14
  • 2
    @GennaroTedesco As far as I know, almost all students apply for a math PhD without having a master degree in the U.S., but a bachelor degree is necessary. See, say, academia.stackexchange.com/q/19213/49364
    – Yai0Phah
    Jul 11, 2016 at 13:00
  • I believe the questions are, will it help me be successful with my applications if I apply for a masters program instead of applying for a PhD; and would doing a masters help me figure out if I want to do a PhD. Did I get that right? Sep 5, 2016 at 23:02
  • @aparente001 No for the second part "would ... help ...". And usually it's not instead of applying for a PhD. Rather, it happens when one already failed to achieve any PhD positions and he/she wants to pursue his/her study. That's devious.
    – Yai0Phah
    Sep 28, 2016 at 11:48
  • @FrankScience - Thanks for explaining. ... Do you mind my asking, how's your TOEFL? Sep 28, 2016 at 21:01

2 Answers 2


The short answer to the title is yes, it can help for less competitive (foreign or domestic) students, as has been mentioned on this site several times (e.g. https://academia.stackexchange.com/a/42268/19607; see also How does the admissions process work for Ph.D. programs in the US, particularly for weak or borderline students?) but I can't find all the relevant issues in a single post.

For foreign students, there are a few different reasons why one might have trouble getting into a decent PhD program in the US:

  • you are coming from a very competitive location (e.g., east Asia) so by comparison you look weaker to many similar applicants; also, schools don't usually want to admit too many people from a single region

  • you have a horrible TOEFL score; unless your application is absolutely stellar, this will hurt you, as most PhD programs will need you to teach/TA undergrads

  • you come from a school that is not so well known in the US, so grad programs have difficulty assessing the value of your grades, coursework and letters of recommendation. letters of recommendation are very important in this case, but unfortunately many faculty at these schools don't know how to write appropriate letters of recommendation--I've often found all the letters for a candidate to be completely useless.

On the other hand, master's programs are easier to get into, so if you're having trouble getting into PhD programs, yes, it's a good idea to apply to Master's programs. Of course, before you apply, you probably won't know your chances, so my suggestion is if you are unsure, apply to some of both.

As for the benefit, assuming you go to a Master's program that is more reputable/well known, then coursework and letters there will count for more than at your undergrad for various reasons:

  • First, your study of more advanced material counts more.

  • (if you're comparing the value of work after you've done a master's program) How you have done most recently generally counts more than the more distant past.

  • The people reviewing your application are more likely to be familiar with the quality of education and the standards at this school. (At the least, you are coming from within the US system.)

  • Last and not least, your letters of recommendation are likely to be more meaningful, because the faculty at the Master's program know how to write letters for US PhD programs, and the faculty evaluating your letters are more likely to know the letter writers and how to interpret what they say. (Also, they'll be evaluating you on more advanced material, which is more meaningful.)

  • Thanks for the information. I hope that more advanced material is accessible in these master's programs, not repeatedly learning something already learned in the university (such as elementary point-set topology). After all, the expenditure of such a program is somewhat intimidating.
    – Yai0Phah
    Sep 28, 2016 at 12:41
  • @FrankScience It depends on the program you're coming from and the one you're going to. But if you're going to a decent master's program (at least a place with an active PhD program), taking courses beyond what you've learned shouldn't be a problem. Also, some schools will fund master's students in exchange for teaching/grading, so it may not cost you anything but a little extra time.
    – Kimball
    Sep 28, 2016 at 13:23
  • Thanks. For the expenditure, I heard from a friend that in UPenn, the fund of TA is approximately 800 dollar monthly. The total cost (including tuitions, fees and living cost) is still considerably high. And I don't know whether courses for master programs are shared with that for PhDs, or one is supposed to be able to waive some requirements in the master program and take some advanced courses instead, but since it's for a long time that I've asked this question, now I hear from an instance a negative piece of info from the course aspect. I'll inquire more.
    – Yai0Phah
    Sep 28, 2016 at 15:22

Can't say for sure, but in my experience, most PhD programs will accept you with only a Bachelors degree. I believe most students pursuing a career in academics go straight into a PhD program from undergraduate studies. The Masters degree is more for students expecting to get a job in a technical field outside of academia.

So in most cases, I would say it is not useful to go to a Masters program if you are looking for an academic job. Just apply for a PhD program. Should your situation change, it is easy to "downgrade" from a PhD to a Masters program and graduate earlier.

  • Do you have any reference for your experience? Going straightforward is apparently better, especially if there is a chance to achieve a decent PhD. We are, however, talking about the failures.
    – Yai0Phah
    Sep 28, 2016 at 12:20

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