I'm an Australian maths undergraduate student, and our academic year ends at the beginning of December. I understand that PhDs in the USA (and elsewhere?) generally start before this time, about September. So, if I want to pursue a PhD overseas, I have a long time to kill in between my undergrad and postgrad degrees.

Consequently I've been investigating the possibility of cramming the remainder of my undergraduate degree into one fewer semester, so that I can graduate at the beginning of July (2014), just in time to start a PhD overseas.

However, this would mean I would have to send out applications in December this year, before I have actually finished my degree. I am particularly concerned because in Australia the last year of an undergraduate maths degree is an "honours" year, which comprises the main research component and the most serious coursework.

Does anyone have advice or experience?

Would I be substantially more competitive for a top university if I delayed for a year and had an honours thesis and good results from many advanced classes under my belt, compared to applying early and having only a promise of an honours thesis? Or, would it be a minor issue with good letters of recommendation?

  • Some departments/universities allow you to start at times other than the Fall semester. I started in the Spring semester (January). Apr 23, 2013 at 16:05
  • Austin, I was led to believe this was not the case (in America, at least). Is this only a possibility with smaller universities? Is the application deadline the same?
    – Matt
    Apr 23, 2013 at 16:53
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    @Matt: Every department is different. Some have spring admissions; others don't. Moreover, the distinction is independent of other splits like large/small or public/private or top-10/other. You just have to check each department individually.
    – JeffE
    Apr 23, 2013 at 17:05
  • If you do not have a master's degree, it will be very difficult for you to get a PhD position in most European universities—the UK is an exception to this. You would need to enroll in a master's program and complete that before you are hired as a research assistant for a PhD.
    – aeismail
    Apr 23, 2013 at 20:14

2 Answers 2


The academic year does start around September in the USA and I think most European countries. At least in Europe, this doesn't necessarily mean that you would have to start your PhD in September. For example, I did my PhD in the UK and started in June.

Note that your 'competitors' won't have finished their degree yet either when they are applying. They will be slightly further along, having already started their final year, but not significantly so, I think.

Is cramming the rest of your undergraduate degree into one semester less at all a realistic option?

I do think you are likely to get stronger letters of recommendation once you are in your final year, because you will have been doing more advanced work and will probably have closer contacts with faculty.

I don't think that having some time between your honours year and your PhD is necessarily a bad idea. My husband started his PhD only two weeks after finishing his MSc, and he really could have done with more of a break. I had almost a year between my MSc and PhD, but I spent six months of that doing research.

One of my friends from Australia managed to get part-time teaching work at his undergraduate university until he went to the UK for his PhD. Or if money isn't too much of an issue, you could take the opportunity to go travelling.

EDIT: I'd just like to add, along the lines of Dave Clarke's comment, that you should bear in mind that your honours year will likely be a lot more challenging than previous years, and so 'accelerating' this year might turn out to be a bad idea. I certainly worked harder in my fourth year of university (honours in New Zealand, so quite a similar system to Australia) than I have in any year since.

  • Thanks Tara, I hadn't considered that my competitors also would not have finished their degree. In my case it's possible to finish early because I took some extra courses earlier in my degree. I understand the situation in Europe is a little different to the USA -- in the US a PhD combines coursework and research components, whereas in Europe I believe I must study an separate master's degree first? I expect such a degree would be less flexible for starting time, because coursework would operate on a yearly schedule?
    – Matt
    Apr 23, 2013 at 17:05
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    +1 for "I don't think that having some time between your honours year and your PhD is necessarily a bad idea."
    – JeffE
    Apr 23, 2013 at 17:07
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    In the UK you needn't necessarily do a master's degree before your PhD. My friend from Australia went straight into his PhD from honours and did well (this was in maths). Most UK students (at least in maths, I can't say for sure for other subjects) have no research experience before starting their PhD, so if you do some research in your honours year, you will be fairly well prepared. And even if you do have to do coursework, it's quite likely that second-semester entry would be possible.
    – Tara B
    Apr 23, 2013 at 18:11

I would not accelerate things, to avoid getting worse grades that you want.

If you find that you have a half year of free time, fill this usefully either by working (earn some cash, gain some experience), travelling (spend some cash, gain some experience) or by doing research (perhaps a professor will even pay you to do something useful for 6 months, or maybe you can get a 6 month RA position).

Getting good scores will obviously help you. Working or travelling ... well, you'll thank yourself later. And research experience will help your application (and CV).

  • +1 The risk of getting worse grades by accelerating the final year is definitely worth taking into account! And as for the rest, I definitely agree. It can be really hard to find time for non-work travelling later on.
    – Tara B
    Apr 23, 2013 at 18:15

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