What is this “Graduate School thing” again?

Recently a former REU student stopped by to tell me of her plans. She will graduate within the next semester and plans to attend graduate school afterwards. But she told me something surprising: she really doesn’t know what one does in graduate school.

Even though I don’t want to admit it, I have this conversation with undergraduates pretty often. So let me present a FAQ about graduate school.

Do you have to have a Master’s Degree before you apply for a Doctoral Program?

No! Definitely not. In fact, it’s tradition for domestic students to enter a doctoral program directly from an undergraduate program.  It’s been my experience that most international students enter doctoral programs with a master’s degree, but that may be because the competition amongst international students is pretty fierce. It wouldn’t hurt your application if you do have a master’s degree, but I think it’s unusual for domestic students to have such a degree.

My grades and GRE scores aren’t great. Does this mean I won’t be able to get in anywhere?

Well it depends on how bad your grades and scores are — but there’s still a good chance you’ll be fine. It is true that some schools have an absolute cut-off for GPAs — for example, you must have at least a 2.0 in your major for us to even consider your application at Purdue — but not all do. And a growing number of schools don’t even require the GRE — we certainly don’t at Purdue.

Let’s say you still feel your grades and GRE scores are horrible. Consider entering a terminal master’s degree program or a post-baccalaureate program. You can go to grad school for a couple of years, take graduate-level courses, and have a nice GPA for a doctoral program. Both Miami University of Ohio and San Francisco State University have great Master’s programs, and, for example, the Center for Women in Mathematics has a great post-bac program for women.

Will I really be in graduate school for 8 years?

While this is the case for some people, it’s not the case for all. There are lots of factors which come into play here: on the negative end there’s how many years you’ll need to spend preparing for and passing qualifying exams, on the positive end there’s how many years of funding you’ll be guaranteed. Many programs have a target of five years for graduation.

I had one graduate student who passed all of his exams the first week he was in graduate school and another who took over two years. They both finished in the same amount of time. I had another student who didn’t want to finish at all because he said he loved being a graduate student and had 6 years of guaranteed funding anyway.  I tried to get both to finish as quickly as humanly possible but these other factors were largely out of my control as an advisor.

Will graduate school be a miserable experience?

This really depends on the person. Yes I do know people who had horrible experiences — facing blatant racism and sexism by professors and/or fellow students, having a difficult time passing qualifying exams, and even struggling with issues with the doctoral advisor. I know several students now who are going through a rough time in graduate school. Unfortunately it happens and I can’t deny it.

But there can be many wonderful things about graduate school. When I was a student I decided early on that my social life would not revolve mathematics. I became an RA who planned many social activities for students from nearly every department on campus and I got very involved with the Black Graduate Students Association. In fact, though they weren’t free of problems, the best years of my life were in graduate school.

About Edray Goins

Edray Herber Goins grew up in South Los Angeles, California. The product of the Los Angeles Unifi ed (LAUSD) public school system, Dr. Goins attended the California Institute of Technology, where he majored in mathematics and physics, and earned his doctorate in mathematics from Stanford University. Dr. Goins is currently an Associate Professor of Mathematics at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. He works in the eld of number theory, as it pertains to the intersection of representation theory and algebraic geometry.
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2 Responses to What is this “Graduate School thing” again?

  1. Anon says:

    These answers are gloriously unhelpful, even anxiety-invoking.

    The first two questions could be answered in a sentence (“no” and “grades are important, but apply anyway”).

    The second two take relatively rare experiences (excessive time to graduation and blatant discrimination) and elevate give them undeserved status by devoting so many words to them.

    I’ve not heard of anyone taking eight years for a Ph.D. in mathematics, and very few even at 6+. If you can count the number of occurrences of some phenomenon on one hand, an answer like “this is the case for some people” is disingenuous.

    Finally, sexism and racism are issues that a person must confront in many places. Addressing concerns about a difficult graduate school experience by jumping immediately to these items gives the mistaken impression that they face greater discrimination in a university than in, say, a career, which I don’t believe is justified.

  2. Eric Key says:

    It would be useful to know which programs require a Masters degree before admission to the PhD program and which do not. Furthermore, while a program might not say the Masters degree is required, the number of students admitted without one might be within epsilon of 0 and time to completion and support might not allow for the difference in preparation.

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