Incoming Sophomore - How to Prepare For PhD/Am I Cut Out

Forum for the GRE subject test in mathematics.
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Outrageous Guide
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Joined: Wed Jun 12, 2024 10:57 pm

Incoming Sophomore - How to Prepare For PhD/Am I Cut Out

Post by Outrageous Guide » Wed Jun 12, 2024 11:25 pm

This is a long post, but I wanted to put as much information out there as possible.

Basic Information:

I have just finished my first year of university as a domestic male. I am dual majoring in Computer Science and Mathematics, with a minor in Statistics. My cumulative and major GPA is 4.0, but I attend a no-name state school with decent engineering and not much else. I have completed the calculus sequence, linear algebra, differential equations, combinatorics, real analysis, and some statistics (as well as much of my computer science degree). By the end of the fall semester, I will have completed all the required portions of my mathematics major and most of my computer science major, and will begin branching out into additional classes in my areas of interest (cryptography and statistics) and hopefully begin taking graduate courses in my late second or early third year, though my university is picky about allowing this.

My goal with graduate school is a PhD in applied math and becoming a professor (it's bland, oversaturated, and difficult to do, I know). My main interest for a long time was computer science, particularly cryptography. It was only in my first year of college that I added a math major and began being interested in the idea of graduate school for applied mathematics. I have had no real difficulty in high school or college with math on a conceptual level, and have done well in all my classes. However, I have next to nothing outside of my academics, and after reviewing other people's experience with graduate applications, I have found that I am floundering.

Can I still salvage this and get into a decent graduate school for math? What can I do to start improving my application and chances? Right now, I have nothing save for decent academics. I am not sure if I am even good enough to go to graduate school - I have had no real trouble in my classes, but I lack the mathematical creativity for more obtuse proofs (especially in combinatorics and cryptography, my area of interest). I just spent a day on an extremely simple pigeonhole principle proof because I discounted an obvious solution from the start. My tunnel vision and unoriginality will only hinder me going forward, but right now I want to know if I stand a chance of even getting in to a PhD program.

Regarding research, I am working on a personal research project with a faculty mentor, but it's likely not publishable and it would take some time to complete even if it was. I applied to many REUs this past summer, but got waitlisted or rejected from all of them ("we regret to inform you" my ass). I found a weaker summer program at a local college, but this bodes very poorly for future applications.

What sorts of journals should you aim for to bolster your resume? Are there any other year-long programs a-la summer REUs that I should look out for? I know that research is a key component to graduate applications, and though I'm not very good at it, I want to have at least something better than "I have some programs I made for fun and half of a personal math enrichment project."

As far as teaching experience goes, I used to do tutoring in high school, and want to continue doing so for my application. My university has a tutoring program, but I applied and was rejected to be a tutor for next year. Has anyone had success with tutoring through or similar programs?

Regarding competitions and other elective awards, I am doing extremely poorly. I took the Putnam this year and got nothing, but I knew how to do two of the problems that I didn't look at. I am extremely prone to tunnel vision (another potential problem for further mathematical study) and never really did any competitions or olympiads before - I just picked a problem I liked and started working, wasting my time. All this to say that I am not hopeful for future Putnam results, and am kicking myself for the fact that I wasted my one year to get a decent score by just not doing the problems I knew how to do. I am not aware of any other collegiate level mathematics competitions that would be helpful for graduate applications - please let me know if there is another way to bolster this section of my competitions.

Right now, it's looking very grim. Many of my softer applications for REUs and summer programs were rejected, and I don't like my odds for graduate school. I will start preparing for the GRE soon with some practice tests, and I will update when I have projected scores for a better idea of how things look.

I have always been good at math, but never great. I coasted through all of my classes thus far with no trouble but didn't do too much outside of that. I've been trying to get my ass in gear these past few months, but I'm not sure if I'm cut out for grad school, or if I'll even be able to get in. At this point, it might be better to just pivot to industry. If anyone further along in the process than me has advice to start tailoring an application early, please let me know.

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Joined: Sun May 21, 2023 2:22 am

Re: Incoming Sophomore - How to Prepare For PhD/Am I Cut Out

Post by KovenFan » Mon Jun 17, 2024 1:17 am

I am in a similar situation. I'm a freshman, but I sometimes get anxious that nothing I can do is enough to break the limitation of going to a no-name school.

I also feel it reduces my chances of getting into REUs. I'm also an international student so I only have about 10 very competitive REUs that I'm eligible for.

It seems outside of becoming a Putnam fellow or doing some crazy individual research, I'm probably destined for some school in the #30 and below ranking.

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Joined: Mon Jun 17, 2024 1:50 pm

Re: Incoming Sophomore - How to Prepare For PhD/Am I Cut Out

Post by copilot » Mon Jun 17, 2024 1:54 pm

It’s great to hear about your academic achievements and your interest in pursuing a Ph.D. in applied mathematics! Let’s break down your situation and explore how you can enhance your chances of getting into a decent graduate school:

Strong Academics:
Your 4.0 GPA is impressive! Admissions committees pay attention to this, especially for math programs.
Continue excelling in your coursework, especially in advanced math classes. Consider taking more challenging courses if available.

Research Experience:
While not mandatory, research experience significantly boosts your application. Seek out research opportunities with professors or research groups.
Look for summer research programs or independent projects related to applied math or cryptography.

Letters of Recommendation:
Cultivate strong relationships with your math professors. They can write compelling letters of recommendation.
Professors who know you well can speak to your mathematical abilities, work ethic, and potential.

GRE Subject Test:
Some programs require the Math Subject GRE. Prepare thoroughly and aim for a competitive score.
It’s a way to demonstrate your math knowledge beyond coursework.

Statement of Purpose:
Craft a compelling statement of purpose. Explain why you’re passionate about applied math and your long-term goals.
Discuss your research interests, any relevant experiences, and how the program aligns with your aspirations.

Mathematical Creativity:
Don’t worry too much about lacking creativity in obtuse proofs. Many successful mathematicians build their skills over time.
Focus on understanding core concepts deeply and gradually explore more complex problems.

While academics matter, having other interests can make you a well-rounded candidate.
Consider joining math clubs, attending conferences, or participating in coding competitions related to cryptography.

Program Selection:
Research graduate programs carefully. Look beyond big-name schools; smaller programs can offer excellent opportunities.
Consider factors like faculty expertise, research areas, and funding availability.

Remember, graduate admissions are holistic. Your passion, dedication, and growth potential matter. Even without extensive extracurriculars, your strong academics and genuine interest in applied math can make a difference. Best of luck on your journey!

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