My question is mainly for mathematics Ph.D. application in the United States. However, the answers from any other field (or other countries) where undergraduate/master research doesn't play a critical role in admission are also welcomed (by "critical" I mean if one has no research experience, then the chance of acceptance is small).

As we know, in mathematics or theoretical physics, a solid background in some areas (like algebraic geometry) need several years to lay down and some applicants may not have research experience in the area they are interested in.

Suppose the main reason that applicants want to apply to school A is that the math department of school A has a strong algebraic geometry group, but they have no research experience in it. How would they convince the graduate committee that they are truly interested in algebraic geometry in the statement of purpose?

Please note under some circumstances it is important to convince the graduate committee that one is really interested in a particular field. For instance, if they had changed interest from another field, say analysis to algebraic geometry or they are transferring from one school to another to pursue a Ph.D. degree in algebraic geometry, or the department to which they are applying has only a narrow range of research focuses (some elite private schools, for example).

To put in another way, for an applicant without research experience in a certain field, what kind of experiences/characteristics could make the graduate committee believe that they are really interested in this field?

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    Well, why does the applicant believe that s/he is truly interested in algebraic geometry? This must be based on something. Sep 2, 2017 at 3:46
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    I think it makes a difference here whether this is in a US-style system, where the applicant would have only a bachelor's degree, or a European-style system, where they already have a masters. Can you clarify? Sep 2, 2017 at 16:54
  • I have also added some details to emphasize the importance of convincing the graduate committee of one's interest focus under some circumstances.
    – No One
    Sep 2, 2017 at 18:09
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    I don't see why you would have to. Virtually all professors I have interacted with jump without hesitation at the hint that you might be interested in their field.
    – user136
    Oct 3, 2017 at 5:44
  • Possible duplicate of academia.stackexchange.com/q/38237/929
    – StrongBad
    Oct 3, 2017 at 12:09

1 Answer 1


I would have thought that in general the time allotted for a PhD is too short (3 - 4 years full time) to spend too much of that learning the basics of your field to the level of being able to produce original research. Not forgetting that most PhD students start publishing heavily during their candidature, so that really you would be expected to be producing publishable papers within the first 18 months to two years. I can't imagine any mathematical academic taking on a PhD candidate who didn't already show some expertise in the field - maybe a few papers already; certainly previous studies in the discipline. (There may be some exceptions, but I imagine they'd be rare.) If you had read a little about algebraic geometry and wanted to research into it, you would in many cases be recommended to enrol in a few postgraduate courses first - pretty much to test your ability and expertise - before enrolling in a PhD. Also, supervisors aren't going to teach you the area - although you may be recommended some background reading - they are just wanting to encourage your research, and also of course to get their name on your papers.

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    If this is in the US, nearly all mathematics PhD programs take five to six years and have at least a year of required coursework before beginning research. Sep 2, 2017 at 16:23
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    @ElizabethHenning: Agreed - the description in this answer seems to be completely different from the US system. Alasdair, I see your profile says Australia - is this in reference to the Australian system? I've asked the OP to clarify what system they are looking at. Sep 2, 2017 at 16:55
  • Worth noting that this is basically how things work in Europe too. Depending on where you are, you might have some research experience in a field from a Bachelor thesis, the much more experience from a Master thesis, and generally you'd stay within that field for your PhD, though you don't need to have publications at this point, but it's certainly not unheard of.
    – Okazaki
    Sep 2, 2017 at 18:24
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    The short length of the PhD is indeed a serious problem for some of my colleagues in Europe (particularly in the UK, where there is an actual hard deadline). Colleagues doing research that requires a large amount of background find it difficult to recruit PhD students that are likely to be successful. The result is either substandard dissertations, sometimes with the hope that the student will develop further during postdocs, or subfields where almost all the researchers do their PhDs in the US. Sep 2, 2017 at 22:19

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