After reading some the posts here about graduate admissions for PhD/masters in mathematics in different countries, it seems like the requirements are quite a lot higher than what I have in my country. Just for clarification, in my university (the Open University of Israel), there's no undergraduate research besides one undergraduate seminar. I've never heard of anyone from my university writing a paper in mathematics while attending the Open University of Israel. I've already read the ways to stand out in admissions on this site, and for me, research cannot be one of them.

In addition, since my school is an online school, none of my recommendations will be personal, and none of my teachers writing the recommendations are well known in their field, since they all only teach and don't do any research. I suppose that in this sense my university is the equivalent of an American community college.

Therefore, based on my readings here, the best ways for me to stand out for graduate admissions are on the Cover Letter (which I need to write), GPA (currently around 88% average, when the average for mathematics in my university is around 65%), and TOEFL/GRE (TOEFL, I may not need to do, since I'm a native English speaker, and the GRE's I still need to decide if I want to do, since I'm not yet sure that I want to apply in the United States). In addition, I'm graduating in a year and a half, so until then, I'm planning to fly to different universities around the world once every six months to meet with the graduate math program coordinators (I've already met with the coordinator for the math program at Bonn University and I've set up a meeting at Trinity College Dublin already) to get information and to also start making connections.

Given these specific circumstances that cannot be changed (graduating without a single paper from an unrated university, with weak recommendations), are there any other creative or unusual ways (which I will really need), besides improving the GPA, getting excellent GRE grades, and working on a great cover letter to stand out in graduate admissions for universities in the United States, Europe, and Canada? If I can't get accepted after graduation to a university abroad, my alternate plan is to do a masters here in Israel, and then do a PhD abroad.

  • REU? Although I know many USA ones may be closed to foreign students.
    – mkennedy
    Aug 18, 2016 at 17:33
  • 1 1/2 years should be enough time to get a "small" publication, in cooperation with a potential phd advisor perhaps? Aug 18, 2016 at 17:35
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    I'd consider a masters in Israel, to target a foreign Ph.D. after, if that is possible for you. Locally, your program is probably better known. Aug 18, 2016 at 19:16
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    Have you considered doing undergrad research in a different university in Israel?
    – Bitwise
    Sep 5, 2016 at 7:15

3 Answers 3


tl;dr Get a MSc from a top Israeli university first. It will practically ensure that you will get accepted to just about any PhD program that you want to. And a math MSc from a top Israeli uni is a pretty good thing to have. (edit see below)

I'm an Israeli currently studying outside of Israel, so I might give you a more relevant perspective on the issue. Although I'm in earth sciences, and not math, I think you will find this useful.

I am having a hard time understanding some of your circumstances. You claim that you will graduate in a year and a half. Assuming you are studying full-time, you are only halfway through and it may be too early to start thinking about your PhD, let alone fly to institutions in the world and meet with them (unless you happen to be there as a tourist).

You are correct that graduating from the Israeli Open University is hardly beneficial in terms of reputation and prestige. It is also close to impossible to get meaningful and honest recommendation letters. I do not know how much people trust GPA scores from a distance learning institution, and this may also hurt your chances. Unfortunately, as hardly any research is done at OU, I doubt that you will find a research partner to work on a publication. Even if your numbers are right, the fact that you do not study in a university where you have day-to-day interaction with other students and senior stuff is not going to help the admissions committees to choose you over other candidates.

Instead of thinking about PhD research abroad, I suggest you start with a MSc degree back home in Israel. There are several reasons for that:

  1. Math degrees in Israeli universities have excellent reputation (particularly Tel Aviv, HUJI and Technion). This alone might boost your chances.
  2. You are still an undergrad, halfway through. You have not been exposed to research yet. If you were in a physical university, you might be exposed to research around you, which is something. Yet you don't even have that. You do not know if research is what you want to do. Who knows, you might get offered a job and leave academia. Going for MSc will be your "introduction" to research and will give you a chance to get your desired publication, if you wish to pursue this further.
  3. Starting a PhD program with MSc background will make you a much better student. I can sometimes see the difference between PhD students with and without prior MSc experience in the institution I am currently at.
  4. Admission committees, in general, look favourably upon applicants with proved research experience in the form of MSc.

I will give you an example from my own experience. Having graduated my BSc with a research component, I was eligible for PhD studies abroad without having to get MSc. However, I did study for MSc in Israel, mostly for the reasons above. It made getting accepted to my institution of choice much easier, I had more than one publication by the time I applied for the PhD, it gave me a different perspective on what research is and what is it that I want to do, or more importantly, do not want to do.


OP mentioned that conducting research in Israel is not possible due to personal reasons. I don't see how this sits with OP's idea of taking MSc research in Israel, but here are two more ideas:

  1. Go for a one year Honours degree in countries that have it (for example, UK or Australia). This is something that's usually done straight after BSc and is one year of research.
  2. Go for MSc in a country where doing this is common as a precursor to PhD research (continental Europe mostly, also Israel btw).

These two are very expensive solutions because you can't usually get funded or a scholarship for this, unlike doing PhD research. I would personally go for number two from the list above.

Again, getting straight to PhD after finishing your BSc in the Open University is almost impossible. If you do get it, it's probably in a low ranked institution and that might not be the best thing for your career. Regardless of whether you are accepted or not, I still think that you should have some kind of research experience before going for a PhD, particularly as you're done your education so far in a research-free environment.


You seem to have a bit of a nest egg to spend on this. I suggest that rather than spending it on the travel plans you outlined, you use it to finance a three to six month period in a place where you can be involved in undergraduate research. Of course, you would need to do some legwork before going.

The trips you have planned seem unnecessary to me. If you want to meet with a graduate math program coordinator abroad, set up a Skype or phone meeting.

I don't know the panorama in Israel, so I can't rule it out as a possible place for a research project.

My proposal would give you valuable experience and hopefully a strong recommendation letter. If you're very lucky, you might co-author a publication (but please don't assume a priori that this will be the case).

A second suggestion: get involved in something that combines community service and math. (This may take some creativity.)

  • Hi, Thanks for the suggestions! Specifically, I can't get involved in research in Israel due to a personal issue, but I can try the community service angle (which we have lots of these projects in Israel). Sep 4, 2016 at 19:27
  • Also, perhaps you could spend a few months somewhere else working on a research project. Sep 4, 2016 at 20:04

The first task is to figure out why you want to seek/acquire a PhD in math, since the normal point of a PhD is to equip you to do research. If your answer is that you want to do research, but you haven't had an opportunity then the problem transforms to "How can I do research and communicate that successfully?" We live in a golden age of information, there is a tremendous amount of problems and work in-progrees that are freely available on the internet. Pick something you are interested in and start publicly blogging about your ideas, your accomplishments, your dead-ends. Communicate with other people in the world who are working on similar problems. As you gain some accomplishments and receive positive feedback solicit suggestions for what Universities and professors are working in that problem area.

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    This sounds all nice, but I don't see how this would possibly work out in mathematics. "Pick something you are interested in and start publicly blogging about your ideas, your accomplishments, your dead-ends" sounds completely different from research in mathematics as I have experienced it. Most undergraduates (even ambitious and talented ones) will already fail at the stage of "pick something interesting".
    – user60836
    Aug 25, 2016 at 11:40
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    Echo-ing @MaoWao's comment, I don't think things work that way in mathematics, and it's not due to biases in the system so much as to the deep relevant background in pure-or-applied math: things don't "become wrong" or "become irrelevant", and/so the smart, insightful people over the last 300 years did a lot of good things, and even the old things have not really been superceded. Thus, to be competent, and to not reinvent crappy wheels, one must be a good-bit scholarly, and so on. That said, one's own journey of (re-) discovery of good things is very good, but it's not "research". Sep 1, 2016 at 0:40

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