I just graduated college in May, and I spent my entire college career convinced that I would never study again. I had a plan for my future, and it involved working- no more school. I had considered grad school, but never very seriously.

Now, however, I am very much considering a grad or PhD program. Unfortunately, because of my intentions before, I hadn't done much research in college, opting instead for leadership and work experience. I also didn't foster any significant relationships with my professors. I talked to them enough to learn the material and pass the class, but, in my opinion, not enough for a glowing recommendation.

Now, I feel like I wasted something. How can I get into grad school when I am unable to procure stellar recommendation or show that I took classes in pure, theoretical mathematics? (I took more classes that concerned mathematics applied, like statistics and practical life models and such)

Would it be necessary for me to take more classes? Go back to school? That seems unnecessary, since I already have a bachelor's degree in Math, but I don't know what I can do.

marked as duplicate by Nate Eldredge, scaaahu, Brian Tompsett - 汤莱恩, jakebeal, JeffE Dec 28 '16 at 18:54

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migrated from mathoverflow.net Dec 20 '16 at 19:13

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    Not sure that this is the right place for the question, but surely, the key to getting a "glowing recommendation" is getting high marks/grades, rather than the relationship you had with your professors. – Geoff Robinson Dec 20 '16 at 18:49
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    @Geoff, I would argue that is not the case. Recommendations are all about the relationships you build with advisors and the work you've done for/with them. I would suggest you send some emails to professors at a nearby institution and ask if you can spend a summer/winter doing research for them. It might be unpaid, but if you could get a stellar recommendation, that would really help. – Hobbes Dec 20 '16 at 19:19
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    @Hobbes: I can well imagine that your take on recommendations holds in some fields. But such is not the case in mathematics. – Lee Mosher Dec 20 '16 at 19:20
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    @Hobbes: Your take on recommendations is way off for mathematics. As just one example: I did no work with/for any of my letter writers, and I was admitted to the top three math programs in the US. Now I am the Graduate Coordinator of my PhD program in mathematics, and I feel the same way. – Pete L. Clark Dec 20 '16 at 21:32
  • @PeteL.Clark While I generally agree that the norm in maths is not as Hobbes suggested, I think this is not entirely universal. When I was on the Grad Committee back in my Canadian job, it was very hard to know what to make of the grade transcripts especially if they came from other countries, and recommendations with some personal connection did mean a bit more to us. Now I am on the analogous committee in my UK job and a similar comment applies – Yemon Choi Dec 21 '16 at 5:53

How can I get into grad school when I am unable to procure stellar recommendation or show that I took classes in pure, theoretical mathematics? (I took more classes that concerned mathematics applied, like statistics and practical life models and such)

I think you need to take courses in pure, theoretical mathematics. You can do so:

  • As a non-degree seeking student at a reputable university, probably self-funded.
  • As a master's student at a reputable university, possibly self-funded.

By a "reputable university," I really mean one with a solid math PhD program or a very strong master's program.

Presumably you want to do this while still keeping gainful employment, so I would start slowly: maybe take one solid course, really try your best, and then reevaluate whether this is what you want to do. If that goes well, repeat and intensify. I would plan to spend at least two years doing so.

Once you start doing well in courses, make a point of talking to the instructors and getting advice from them. Maybe they will encourage you to apply to the PhD program there, or maybe they will have other good suggestions for what to do next.


Massive edit: Structure of the question changed.

Old Answer:

Yes definitely, you can conceivably go to graduate school. However, if your application isn't competitive for the programs you wish, you might want to spend some time (perhaps a year or two) in an internship, job, or program that helps you build research experience and relationships with people in a position to write you informed letters of recommendation.

To make the most of that time, I would recommend you first reflect on why you've changed your mind and what you really want. Then, try to find job(s) that (1) give you first-hand experience working on the characteristics drawing you to graduate school, to see if that's actually what you want, and/or (2) help you build skills in the specific areas you're interested in, and/or broaden your skills in areas that are widely useful (e.g. computer science).

Some suggestions for how to do this, but these are vague because I'm in STEM but not math:

Check with your undergraduate school/program for career opportunities. Many (US) schools have networks with alumni or corporate partners. Sometimes you can find a contact to talk to, sometimes you can post a resume. Your school may have resources to get you a job relevant to your degree, that could help you build your application to graduate schools. For many schools, career counselors will meet with you even after your graduate, and might be able to talk to you in person to discuss your situation and your options.

Check with the mathematical societies and associations Such as the American Mathematical Society, Society of Industrial and Applied Mathematics, etc. Societies like these will often maintain a list of internship/program opportunities that you could apply to, and/or job listings.

Internet search big companies or universities that might be hiring If the type of math you're interested in lends itself to application in data science, actuarial science, business management, information science, etc, there may be lots of job opportunities where you could apply directly with a Bachelors.

Cold-email professors who might be able to use your skills Many professors at research-intensive universities will hire lab techs or researchers who are not students. Market yourself as a post-bach looking to build your research experience. (For some professors, this is an easier sell that graduate students, because you're cheaper--or maybe even free--than graduate students and postdocs.) For example, if you're willing to work with a social scientist or biologist, many research groups have lots of data they can't use to its potential, because they lack the mathematical skills to analyze it. (Pro-tip to increase the likelihood of a professor response, attach a CV, and very BRIEFLY state your skills and interest applying your skills to their research; show that you've read and (at least partially) understood the research discussed on their website and any recent publications if you can get ahold of them. Try to keep it as short as possible.)

Or: Apply now and see what happens If you can afford it, you could apply to a couple schools and see if you get in, go on visits, etc. If you don't get in and choose to take some time and then reapply, keep in mind that some schools will take into consideration if you did apply before. Hence, if you go that route, I would address your background about undergrad, change of heart, applications, and intentional decision to spend time building your skills to make you more qualified for selective programs. This can show a dedication and initiative that many graduate schools in STEM look favorably upon.

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    I appreciate that you acknowledge that you come from STEM-but-not-math perspective, so I don't want to cavil too much: but do you really think the cold-emailing suggestion is going to help the questioner get into a math(s) PhD program(me)? – Yemon Choi Dec 21 '16 at 5:51