I am a third year undergraduate majoring in Software Engineering ,and hope to continue studies until a PhD. I am from Sri Lanka.I intend to go for USA or New Zealand to do my masters and eventually my PhD

My High school subjects were Computer Science, Accounts and Economics.I didn't select Maths since I didn't like the subject at that time(although now I regret it everyday)

While doing undergraduate studies I did a maths course and scored poorly and didn't actually learn since they teach a lot of concepts in maths in a very limited time. When I watch MIT opencourseware videos on Algorithms and Artificial Intelligence,I realized that the maths they use are Greek to me.I knew I had to do maths if I ever am going to have a career in academia after this. Is it a smart move to take a semester break from undergraduate studies to study maths or is it possible to continue studies till a PhD without actually taking maths?

  • This post might be closed because the question highly depends on your specific situation. Could you specify in which subject you want to pursue a phd? Then you might rephrase your question as: "how much of a maths background is necessary for a phd in this subject"?
    – dimpol
    Jan 17, 2017 at 12:01
  • Where are you located? Where do you intend to do your graduate studies? Jan 17, 2017 at 12:26
  • @dimpol Edited to include the above mentioned points. Jan 17, 2017 at 13:14
  • @PatriciaShanahan Edited question to answer your point. Jan 17, 2017 at 13:16
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    Taking even a year off might be a good idea, if you want to do a PhD, you ought to know at least the "basics". You can fill in a part of the gap year with an internship, for example. Feb 14, 2017 at 20:07

3 Answers 3


It is a bit hard to say, because whilst you say you don't "know" math, you must know - some - from your Sofware Engineering undergrad and Comp. Sci. pre-university education. My background is AI, a very wide field that can involve all kinds of mathematical formalisms - from Tarskian Semantics to Calculus and most researchers aren't an expert in all of the areas AI makes use of, some are completely unknown to some researchers (in my experience). So your question, "do I need to know maths", depends on what you want to do - you don't need to know ALL of our current mathematics (no-one knows that anymore in any case).

So my first suggestion is to read some Software Engineering papers and see how much mathematics they use and what kind. If you want to do quantitative research you will need to know statistics. If you want to develop formalisms to support Software Engineers you will need to know some logic and basic ways to prove theorems, and so on.

My second suggestion is to think carefully about the Masters you do in order to encompass the areas you want to learn about. But, it is perfectly possible to learn much of this on your own - at first it'll seem difficult, of course.

To try and give you some encouragement, maths is often Greek to people, because of all the Greek letters, but in my view it is also possible to pick up the necessary parts. I taught (during my PhD) students coming from a wide range of backgrounds some elementary formal logic and Artificial Intelligence techniques, most of them picked it up fine and I think from there they would have been able to pursue a PhD in AI - I have also met people coming from non AI, Comp. Sci. or similar backgrounds that have pursued a PhD in AI.

  • Thanks for the answer!It is great to hear that non math background student get PhD in AI.My research interest lies in AI ,specifically NLP. Jan 17, 2017 at 13:49
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    NLP is quite different from software engineering. I think it's best to look at what kind of mathematics the NLP papers you've had look like. From NLP work I've read you need to know the basic mathematics of: the techniques (Bayesian learning, neural networks, etc.), I say basic because you will (if anything) apply these techniques rather than extend them. You will also likely be conducting experiments, I think statistics will be the main area you'll need to focus on. In many departments there will be people with experience to help you in that area. Jan 17, 2017 at 14:03

If you really want to continue till PhD, good math knowledge is a must have. As iam not from the US, i wonder that you were able to even come that far without advanced math. At our university, the freshmans gets a pre university course which wrap up all high school math, as the first year is full of different (math and non math) courses that based on high school maths or even extend this kind of high school math concepts a lot.

Anyone who struggles with the high school maths in the wrap up course get the advise to improve in math. I would suggest you to do the same. As you already notice a lot computer science subjects relays on the mathematics concepts.

However i would suggest you to pick up a extra day the week (f. e. Sunday) and teach your self advanced math, rather than break of for one semester. Maybe there are weekend courses for math at your local city. (Some institues over here even paying students to hold such courses( as a free service for the undergrated) as they strongly suggest good mathematic skills)

DISCLAIMER: Obviously it depends on your future subjects. I guess there might be a way to some how dodge advance math at all, but i wouldn't suggest it as you limit your self.

  • I am from Sri Lanka,and there is no strict admission requirements and the quality of education in the institute isn't that great so I didn't get any extra maths related work in my first year. Jan 17, 2017 at 13:20

Do not despair. Pick a couple of state institutions including a good community college, such as Montgomery College, and check what math courses are required for a degree (Associate's or Bachelor's) in computer science. Then read the course descriptions and if they are posted, the syllabi. Look at the college bookstore for that institution to see what the textbook for that course is. Then preview the book in Amazon. Your goal is to try to match up what you are already familiar with, against a particular course or textbook, or a portion thereof. Do not hesitate to work your way back through the prerequisites as far as you need to until you find YOUR level. This is just you, doing this, and you can be honest with yourself during this process. It can be helpful to use a community college website for your analysis because they frequently work with students who have gaps in their previous studies.

You will see that, for example at Montgomery College, the three-course sequence of Calculus courses. I won't get into a big explanation for why this is frequently the case, but I will say that many fields in computer science never use that kind of math. So take that one with a grain of salt.

Once you have an idea where in the standard math sequence as taught in the U.S., update your question or write a new one, to get specific advice about filling in your gaps.

The other thing you might be able to do, is to make an appointment with the math department at your current institution, to get a placement test.

Have you heard the phrase "Knowledge is Power"? Applied to your studies: knowledge of your current level is power.

Anyone can learn math. As long as you don't jump in the deep end before you've learned the beginning parts of swimming.

  • My current institute doesn't actually have a "maths department". There is actually one lecturer who specializes in teaching maths, that's all.Thanks for the advise anyway! Jan 19, 2017 at 3:48
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    @AthifShaffy - okay, so go with my first suggestion, and look carefully at some programs of study on the web. I look forward to hearing where you place yourself. Jan 19, 2017 at 5:40
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    @AthifShaffy What I'm saying is that you might not need three semesters of calculus. Calculus is one path to higher order mathematical thinking, but it's not the only one. Jan 19, 2017 at 7:25
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    Would upvote if the "Anyone can learn math" claim were removed. Jan 19, 2017 at 15:01
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    @DanielR.Collins - Well, but I really do believe that. I was a volunteer tutor for a year for a fifth grader with epilepsy who had a great deal of difficulty learning to even add 6 + 7. But he learned that, and much more. I can say that it took a great deal of patience and creativity.... Jan 22, 2017 at 4:09

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