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Due to my wife’s job, we’re moving to a country in Latin America (Brazil). I’m finishing my undergraduate in mathematics in the US and I’m starting to think about applying for PhD positions.

How does having a PhD from Latin America impact an academic career in mathematics in the US?

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – ff524 Apr 9 '17 at 2:29
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The institution from which you have a PhD is of minor significance compared to:

  • What you've published
  • Where you've published
  • Who you've published/worked with (particularly, your advisor)
  • Who can recommend you to others

With all of those being equal, a PhD from a better-rated university (not country) will improve your evaluation as a candidate to some extent, I suppose.

However, I believe you're thinking about this the wrong way. I would suggest trying to find specific potential post-doc hosts - researchers whose work is related to what you are interested in - and contacting them directly rather than thinking of "applications" in the general and the abstract.

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While the answers telling you that what matters is your advisor and the research you do in graduate school, not the institution, are in a certain sense right, I feel like the underlying message of them is pretty misleading (or at least incomplete).

It seems worth mentioning, first off, that professional mathematicians working in the US who got Ph.D.'s in Latin America are extremely uncommon. I'm sure there are some, but I literally cannot think of any off the top of my head. In fact, professional mathematicians in the US who got Ph.D.'s anywhere outside North America or Europe are incredibly rare. Look through the faculty of any math department you like, see if you can find any. There will be a fair number of faculty who were born or grew up or even got a bachelors in another country, but very few who got a Ph.D. outside the US. Actually every time I've done this, the number of schools outside, say, the top 10 ranked graduate programs in the US that appear is always terrifyingly low.

Now, it's actually quite hard to conclude anything from this exercise, since it is obviously an uncontrolled experiment. I suspect that part of what's going on here is that if you're in Latin America, and you're interested in moving to the US to advance your career in math, you won't wait until after graduate school. In general, for both intellectual and funding reasons, US graduate programs are the most attractive in the world, so that's usually the point where someone who's open to moving will do so. Similarly, probably the most important reason why the best-ranked schools show up so often is that they take the best students into their program.

So, that doesn't prove that you can't go to any institution and be successful. However, I wouldn't underrate the importance of the institution you go to in terms of shaping your ability to do good research and develop the kind of network you need. Being with the very best students (at least in my opinion) has a very big effect in and of itself. Being in the US gives you access to conferences and networks of people in the US, which is what you want to build if you want to be there long term.

Also worth thinking about: what kind of teaching experience will you have at the end of your degree? If you want to be able to get a job at a teaching focused institution, you need to have teaching experience, and you need to have people who can credibly vouch for it. Are you going to be able to get that in Brazil?

So, I would remember: you don't have to start a Ph.D. right after your B.A. It might make more sense to get a job, or work on mathematics unofficially if your wife is only going be in Brazil for a couple of years. If it's going to be for longer, then you have a trickier choice.

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    It's probably true that people getting their PhDs in Brazil probably want to stay there afterwards. Otherwise, as you said, moving early would be a wiser move. That's probably why you don't see people in the US with a PhD from Brazil (although I can name a few). But that gives you no information on their capability of getting a job in the US. – Shake Baby Jul 21 '17 at 3:25
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    @ShakeBaby I think "no information" is a little bit of an exaggeration. Just based on purely network effects, you would expect people getting a Ph.D. in any country to get have an advantage getting a job there. If you want a fancy research job, no school in Brazil is seen in the US as at the level of the departments that graduate almost all research faculty (note, I'm not making a claim either way about actual quality, just the way that people in the US perceive it), and for a teaching job, not having teaching experience in the US is a big disadvantage. – Ben Webster Jul 24 '17 at 15:38
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    @ShakeBaby It's true that if you do something really remarkable then people won't care what your background is (look at Yitang Zhang), but it's a strong headwind in an already pretty tough market. – Ben Webster Jul 24 '17 at 15:40
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    You don't need to go to Zhang's extreme example. If you are doing "MIT level" research, no matter where you come from, you will be competitive. I understand that "no school in Brazil (or anywhere else) is seen at the level of US departments", but that is mainly because they don't now about these schools (since people don't apply to US jobs). If a candidate with "MIT level" research would appear, he/she would be considered no matter what. @BenWebster – Shake Baby Jul 25 '17 at 18:43
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    Note that I'm not saying that all research in Brazil, or even in the top school, is "MIT level". I'm saying that there are a few niches of specialties in Brazil with renowed researchers, and if one get to do a PhD with them, they can have similar chances of doing "MIT level" research as if one were at MIT. @BenWebster – Shake Baby Jul 25 '17 at 18:51
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There's nothing specific to Latin America in this question, as in any place there are good and bad PhD granting institutions. You should follow all known advices in applying to PhD positions in any country (check the reputation of the university, of the department, of the professors, of the journals they publish, etc.)

You don't mention the city you'll be living but most likely, if you are in a large center, there will be a reputable PhD program in Mathematics. By this I mean that you'll be able to work with people that are actually doing research in mathematics and publishing in top journals. Depending on the city, you may be constrained to working on some specific areas of mathematics though.

To answer your question: If you have an active researcher as an advisor, and if you are able to publish good results during your PhD, you will be able to compete for postdoc positions in top centers in the US.

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