Mathematics Logo

Preparing For Grad School

If you plan to pursue graduate study (including Masters programs) in a field other than mathematics, we urge you to consult someone in that field for advice. Some of the general advice given below may be helpful, but it won't substitute for advice from a professional in your field of interest.

If you're planning to go to business school, check with the MIT Global Education & Career Development Center (E39-305). Many business schools send representatives to campus to interview prospective applicants, to answer questions about their schools, and so on. These interviews are arranged through the Global Education & Career Development Center. Some schools come early in the year, so don't delay.

Graduate Work in Mathematics


Applying to Graduate School

Juniors: It is best to take the mathematics Graduate Record Exams (GRE) subject test in your junior year. The subject GRE in Mathematics is a paper based exam. It is adminstered locally at Roxbury Community College, Simmons College, and Suffolk University, on dates in September, October, and April. See the GRE website for details and a practice exam booklet.

Seniors: If you plan to study mathematics in graduate school, and if you haven't yet taken the GRE, sign up immediately to take it in the fall. Start thinking about applications early in the fall. Application deadlines typically fall in December and January.

Common Questions

To which universities should I apply?

You certainly need to talk to your advisor and to people familiar with your specific areas of interest.

We list below a few of the top ranked mathematics departments, but we emphasize that this ranking is not based on objective criteria. It is simply obtained from opinion polls taken among various mathematicians. As such, it may interest you, but no one should choose a school just on the basis of an opinion poll. It is very important to consult someone who knows about your particular areas of interest. A school may be very good in some areas of mathematics and not as good in some others. A more complete survey of graduate programs in the US can be found on the AMS site.

Your advisor can help you to select schools appropriate for your interests and acacemic record.

Rankings of departments in other fields can be found in the report An Assessment of Research Doctorate Programs in the United States. This report is available in the Global Education & Career Development Center.

What are the sources of financial aid?

Some of the publications listed below contain descriptions of fellowships that are available. The National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowships and the National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate Fellowships are the principal such fellowships. Links to these programs can be found on the AMS site. Another excellent fellowhsip is offered by the Hertz Foundation.

The good news is that almost no one who enrolls in a PhD program in mathematics pays directly for his/her graduate study. Most graduate students are supported through teaching assistantships (TAs). They work by teaching recitations, grading papers, etc., in return for tuition and living expenses.

A teaching assistantship is really a partial fellowship. Stipends are usually enough to live on, and they are generous in terms of the work expected. This is because the student is also expected to put a lot of effort into his/her professional training. However, the number of hours an average TA spends working varies significantly from school to school. At the end, when admissions to graduate schools are complete, it may be reasonable to investigate this and to take it into account in your decision on which school to attend.

Who should serve as references?

You should choose people who can write letters stating how well you're likely to do in graduate school.

Think of the person who will read your application in graduate admissions — he or she will be a professor in a mathematics department who wants to know whether you're potentially a mathematician. The person who taught you 18.03 and still smiles at you on campus can't write nearly as good a letter as the one for whom you did good work last semester in a senior seminar or in an upper-level mathematics subject.

If you have had a successful REU or UROP, the supervisor for that program is a good possibility. Your advisor is another good possibility. He or she can comment on your overall record in mathematics. Bring as much information to your recommenders as possible; resume, information about UROPs or other research, any mathematics papers you have written, your statement of purpose (even in draft form), etc.

You will want to speak to your advisor about this, but it will probably be a mistake to hide things that you fear may be interpreted negatively. It is better to face them squarely, for example by bringing them up in your personal statement.

Personal Statement

Spend some time on your personal statement. The exact format is unimportant, but explain, to the extent that you can, the origin of your interest in mathematics. Mention very briefly, using technical language, a specific example or two of mathematics that you have found especially interesting. But don't write about a subject unless you know something about it: nonsense is deadly.

Some Useful Publications

  • Peterson's annual guide to graduate study. In MIT libraries.
  • Prentice Hall Guide to Scholarships and Fellowships for Math and Science Students. From 1993, but has lots of information.
  • A listing of the graduate math related departments in the country, with information about size, number of degrees, assistantships, fellowships, etc., compiled by the AMS and available at http://www.ams.org/programs/students/findgradprograms/findgradprograms.
  • Announcements of assistantships that are sent to us by graduate schools are posted on the bulletin board to the left of the Math Majors' bulletin board.

Strong Mathematics Graduate Programs

Top six: Chicago, Harvard, MIT, Princeton, Stanford, UC Berkeley

Next ten: Brown, Caltech, Columbia, Cornell, Michigan, Minnesota, NYU, UCLA, Wisconsin, Yale.

There has been little movement at the top of the rankings in the past 20 years, but what this means isn't clear. For contrast, only two of the top six schools listed above are in the top ten in the Chronicle of Higher Education's 2005 ranking of "scholarly productivity" of mathematics departments.

As stated above, schools should not be chosen solely on the basis of the rankings. It is very important to speak to someone familiar with your areas of interest.

Graduate Programs of MIT Math Majors *
Year 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016
Number of first majors 45 82 61 68 76 73 84 85 101 97 104
Number of second majors 30 33 34 37 51 51 38 44 46 45 49

GRADUATE PROGRAM *

Mathematics  8  8  8 13 13  8  9 13 10 14  6
CS (including MEng.)  6  9  6 13 19  5  9 14  8 13 10
Physics  3  5  5  8  5  7  1  4  5
Other** 11 11  8  3 18 11  5  6 10  5  7

* Data are based on senior exit surveys, which are necessarily incomplete.

** This includes economics, biology, engineering, law school, medical school, etc.