Why Grad School?
You might have heard someone say something like "The only reason to get a PhD in math is to be a professor". This is a widely spread myth that needs to be busted. For example, data from the American Mathematical Society show that around 40% of individuals who earned PhDs in the US in 2017 and 2018 went into industry. The career path of Cathy O'Neil (aka "mathbabe") (which has included academia, finance, data science, and data journalism) is a really good example of a few of the many options for someone with a PhD in math!
There are many reasons to consider graduate education in math, and it is important to know that many students enter math PhD programs undecided about what they want to do when they graduate.
Questions to ask yourself
Here are some questions to keep in mind when deciding if graduate school is right for you.
- Am I interested in doing math research?
- While you don't need to know if you want to do math research for the rest of your life, PhD programs are research training programs. If you're convinced that you don't want to ever think about doing research again, then a PhD program is probably not the best fit. However, even if you didn't love a research experience you had in undergrad, you might find that you do like the research you can do in grad school. Math grad students are very autonomous and (for the most part) get to choose what problems they think about and work on each day. So if you love math and want to learn and explore more mathematics through your own investigations, a PhD program might be right up your alley!
- Do I have career aspirations that require significantly more mathematical background than I currently have?
- There are many career paths beyond academia that require significantly more mathematical background than an undergraduate education typically offers. For example, many finance and tech companies have positions that require either a PhD in math (or related area) or extremely extensive industry experience.
- Do I have a good understanding of what grad school is like and think I would enjoy it?
- Many students who apply to grad school might not have had the opportunity to interact with grad students enough to really understand what grad school is like. Based off of stereotypes, it might be easy to think that you'd really hate or really enjoy grad school (depending on your background). One way we hope that grad student mentors can help with is to help give you a better understanding of what grad school is like so that you can be more informed when trying to decide if you'd enjoy it or not.
Some common worries and misconceptions
There are many things students are often concerned about when thinking about whether or not to grad school. Some concerns are actually things you should not be worried about! Here are a few of those things.
- I'll have to pay to go to grad school
- Because of how masters programs work in many other subjects, or other types of professional training like med school, law school, or business school, many people are under the incorrect impression that you have to pay to go to math grad school. You should never pay to go to math grad school. In fact, you will be paid to get your PhD! Stipends vary from school to school; see the math department's grad student financial support page for an idea of what the MIT stipend is like. It is also important to note that your health insurance should also be covered by the university. Many universities have quite good health insurance policies as well as good healthcare provided by university hospitals.
- Even if I am paid in grad school, I won't be able to support myself and will need help from my parents or loans
This is a very common worry among those who have not had someone in their family go to grad school before.
What can often happen are experiences like this one from a current MIT grad student:
"After I got into grad school and decided to go to MIT, my dad didn't believe I would be paid. Nobody in my family had gone to grad school before and he thought math grad school was like med school or business school. Even when I showed him the webpage that states the stipend, he still didn't believe that people got paid to do math grad school. It wasn't until I got my first paycheck that he believed me!"
Many of us had to deal with similar issues and can help you navigate these.
This worry should not prevent you from applying to grad school. While nobody is going to get rich off of grad school stipends, the stipends are enough to make you financially independent. Many grad students find that they're able to save a bit of money each year, and even do some traveling.
- Even if I can support myself, I won't make enough to make payments on my undergrad student loans
- This is a very important concern shared by many students. Luckily, there is an easy have your loans deferred during grad school. This means that you won't be required to make any payments on your student loans for the entire time you're in grad school (your first payment will be due about six months after completing your programs). Depending on the types of loans you have, some loans will be completely frozen during deferment, and others will accrue interest during the deferment period.
- In any case, even though they are not required to make loan payments, many graduate students find that they are able to pay off at least a portion of their undergrad loans while in grad school.
- "If I get a PhD in math, I won't be able to get a job outside of academia" or "The only reason to go to graduate school is if I want to become a professor"
- As discussed earlier, this is just wrong. As another piece of evidence, grad students at MIT commonly get e-mails from tech and finance companies indicating that the companies are interested in giving them internships or offering them jobs if they don't want to stay in academia after they graduate. This might seem strange because your research may be completely unrelated to what the company does. However, many companies feel that math PhDs have the required skills to efficiently master skills relevant to the company's focus. They also often have many examples of math PhDs who have done this!
- Only geniuses or those with a really strong math background can pursue a PhD in math
- This is an incredibly harmful myth that needs to be shattered! What is a "genius" anyway? A lot of us have this delusion that how good mathematicians solve problems is by having insights magically come to them without much effort, and are good at what they do because they are "geniuses" and not because they work hard. But this really is just a delusion.
- Math quickly becomes so sophisticated and complicated that no-matter what background you come into grad school with, in order to solve problems everyone needs to work hard and spend time doing math. Like everything else, doing mathematics well requires time working at it, and everyone improves over time. Starting off with more background and opportunities than others is useless if you're not willing to put consistent time and effort into studying mathematics and working on your research. See Terry Tao's anecdote about how falling prey to this myth nearly led him to fail his qualifying exams.
The following experience from a current MIT grad student provides another perspective busting this myth:
"When I was in high school, I took advanced classes in every subject except for math. To me, math wasn't fun and I thought that I just wasn't good at it, so I didn't even try to pursue it. I only realized how much I actually enjoyed math mid-way though undergrad and added my math major at the beginning of my junior year. Two years later, I started a PhD in math."
- I need undergraduate research experience to do PhD in math
- While doing undergraduate research can really help you decide if you want to attend math grad school or help you learn more math, it isn't a prerequisite for attending math grad school. Moreover, no one expects undergrads to come into grad school with papers proving nontrivial results. An independent reading project on an advanced topic culminating in an expository paper, or working out an interesting example of a complex theory in full details is just as valuable as a research experience as an "official" research project. See the Research experience Page to answer more questions about undergrad research.
- If I go to grad school, I won't have a life outside of math
- All of the GUMMI mentors will tell you that this is totally wrong! While it is true that math grad students spend a lot of time doing math, we also spend a lot of time not doing math. Take a look at the Mentors Page to get an idea of what we like to do outside of math, or, better yet, talk to us!