Grad school admission Q's... from a grad student

Quick background: I earned my BS in Math earlier this year at Portland State University, and just completed my first quarter in the MS Statistics program at the same school. I went into the program half-heartedly, and I’m really not into it.

I recently decided I’d rather find an MS program in Applied Math, or something similar that concentrates on Numerical Analysis, Differential Equations and the like. I’ve been looking at various universities across the nation, and have found several programs I like. Some things I’m wondering about:

  1. Thesis. I’ve been surprised at the number of programs that either don’t require a thesis or make it optional; usually the alternative is to take a couple of extra courses. If given the choice, I’d much rather just take the extra classes, but does an MS without a thesis “carry the same weight”? I’m envisioning a job interview once I’m armed with my MS:

Interviewer: “Tell me about your thesis.”

Me: “Uh, I didn’t do one.”

Interviewer: “I see.” (makes note of such, concludes interview)

  1. The GRE. Some schools require it, some recommend it, some don’t want it. I’ve never taken any kind of exam like this (SAT, ACT, etc), so I truly have no idea what they are like. Most of the universities I’ve looked at have February application deadlines for the Fall Semester, but I read somewhere that it takes four to six weeks after taking the GRE for the results to be released. So even if I scrambled and took the test at the earliest opportunity (beginning of January), chances are the scores wouldn’t make it to the schools before the deadline. But wouldn’t I need to prepare for, like, MONTHS before taking it? Would I be best off just applying to schools that don’t require the GRE?

  2. GPA. Long story short: didn’t care about college in my first go, got shitty grades; took eight years off, returned with a better attitude and got my degree. My undergrad GPA at PSU is 3.42, my major GPA is 3.5, but my overall GPA is 2.7. On top of that, this first quarter doing the stats program, not being too into it, I screwed up a bit… got 2 Bs and a C, for a 2.55 GPA. Did I shoot myself in the foot, or is it possible that schools will favor my undergrad performance more?

ETA: I’m not looking to get into Yale or MIT; I’m mainly looking at state universities.

Huge important question - what do you plan to do with the degree once you have it? That will influence the answers.

I haven’t been in grad school, but my research indicates the following:

  1. Apply yourself in your existing program. Your ability to do graduate-level work is the number-one consideration, and actual graduate classes are the best indicator of this. Your 2.55 GPA in the first quarter is flunk-out territory, and you need to pull your socks up. You may get a chance to do some explaining in an application essay or interview, but grades speak for themselves.

  2. Try some sample questions, and decide whether you can do well. It’s worthwhile to give yourself time to improve your GPA – especially if you’re applying to schools that don’t use the GRE – so I would wait rather than skip it (easy to say, I know). The ETS website has some sample Qs and information:

  1. Whether to go with a “no thesis” program depends on what kind of job you plan to do – some employers will care, others won’t.

I’m just a grad school applicant, but I’ll give advice all the same.

Take the GRE. It’s basic math and vocabulary. You can cram on the vocabulary if you start now, and I’d hope by now you wouldn’t have too many problems with basic high school math. If you need to take a math subject test, that is going to be harder.

Your low grad school GPA will be a big problem, and either you need to come up with a very convincing explanation or you will need to keep going, bring it up, and apply at a later date. “I wasn’t into it” is not a very impressive thing to tell a potential graduate school. They are looking for motivated people, after all.

The best thing to do would be to write the graduate schools you are interested in. It’s not like undergrad- they will be willing to get to know you before you apply, and that can really help you.

Nope. The best predictor of performance in your future graduate work is performance in your past graduate work. Bring those grades up.

Also whether you have to really work at the GRE General test really depends on if you generally “test well” on standardized general tests like the SAT, etc. or if you find such tests problematic. Your best bet is to take a practice exam (many of the review books come with a CD containing practice exams) and see where you are.

I did an MS thesis, but I did my MS officially because I was switching grad schools after my advisor died, and no one has ever asked me about it. No one asked about my dissertation after I got my first job either. I never thought much about them when I interviewed MS students, though a really cool one in the field was a good subject for discussion.

Can’t say much about the other questions, it has been too long.

Well, shit. Bringing it up won’t be a problem - even if I only get one A and the rest Bs next quarter, my GPA will rise above 3.0. And I have no doubt I’ll do at least that: I’m registering for regular math classes instead of stats, and I’m already getting excited about it.

The problem is, my PSU transcript won’t reflect that until the end of March. I wrote above that most schools have a February deadline, but that’s actually to secure a TA position. So I could wait until March to apply, but then chances are I’d wind up without funding and have to pay out-of-state tuition.

Note to self: in the future, don’t fuck around.

Oh yes, and to answer the question about what I want to do: I don’t know, exactly… crunching numbers and/or modeling in some way for industry or the government. Preferably in a science or research role, rather than for business, finance, etc.

Take a year off. You can apply for the year afterwards. Also, I don’t think it makes much difference if you do the non-thesis option instead of the thesis one. I don’t think anybody cares.

The only way I can see grad schools looking more at your undergrad grades is if you dramatically change topics. “See, I thought I wanted to be an accountant, but it turns out I hate math. Now I’d like to try being an English Major” (not that I’m an expert.)

And in my “recent” interviews, most of which did not require a Master’s degree, no one has ever asked about a thesis (admittedly, I don’t think a thesis is common in my field). In fact, hardly anyone has asked about grad school. I’ve talked it up, sometimes, because “Yes, we covered that in school” seems to trump “Um, nope, don’t have any experience with that topic”.

But I also second the idea of taking a year off. Figure out what you really want before you invest more time and energy into this pathway.

  1. I suppose it varies by subject, but in engineering I don’t think there’s any practical difference between thesis and no-thesis masters options. In your subject, I would say that the “surprising number of programs” not requiring a thesis indicates that it’s not so important. In any case, your best bet would be to talk to faculty members after you get into your new program and get their opinion.

  2. Most programs, in my experience, base their grad student offers on three things: grades, GRE scores, and faculty recommendations. If you have borderline grades and/or mediocre recommendations, the GRE can make you look like a stellar applicant (or…not). If you do apply to schools requiring the GRE, then definitely take time to get familiar with the test and maximize your chances of getting a good score. That doesn’t take months, really, but a couple weeks might be cutting it short. (I’m fairly sure you can retake it and erase your old score, but a better plan is to ace it the first time.)

  3. Your grad school GPA is problematic. Do you know what grades your peers are earning? I ask because, in my limited experience, a 3.0 in grad school indicated a bare minimum of competency. Lower and you were on probation.

Since you are not planning to continue on to a PhD, a non-thesis option is fine. You might do well to focus on programs that have internships or capstone projects that get you some real exposure in the workplace. A lot of government agencies have internship programs, so that could help you confirm that it is really a good environment for you. If by science you mean working with a bunch of PhD scientists, you will want to consider that being a non-PhD among PhDs can be kind of draining.

My preparation for the GRE was never more than a week, and most of that was reminding myself about math formulas I hadn’t used in years. Presumably you’re more current on those. On the other hand, I imagine the expected quantitative scores in math programs are pretty high. I think it makes sense for you to take it. It will give you a sense of how competitive you are for various programs. Programs that require the GRE generally get more respect than those that don’t, IME. The GRE is now computerized, so you would know your scores for your own purposes before February and be able to informally communicate your scores before the deadline. Some schools may be OK with that. If your scores are good, they may offset some of the bad GPA.

The GRE now has a writing component. You’ll want to familiarize yourself with the type of writing expected. I doubt a math program would weight that very heavily, but you don’t want to completely blow it, either.

I read recently that statistics is one of the most marketable degrees right now. I’m not mathy enough to understand how someone could find applied math that much more interesting than statistics. But you may want to take a serious look at how marketable the two degrees are and how much different the actual work you will be doing once you get the degree is before you jump ship.

There’s another thing that might hurt me. PSU is a commuter school; during my time there as an undergrad, I went to campus on a daily basis to attend my classes only, and went home strait after. This past quarter as a grad student wasn’t any different.

I almost never had any contact with professors outside of class, and there are only a couple I’ve had more than once. I can think of one that I sort of know, well enough that I’d feel comfortable asking him to write a letter for me. I’m sure others would remember me if they saw me, but I’m positive they wouldn’t know my name without my telling them.

I mean, walking into a former professor’s office, saying “Hi, remember me? I’m GESancMan, I took a class from you a year ago and got an A. Would you write a letter of recommendation for me?” doesn’t seem like what grad schools are looking for when they state “someone who is familiar with your work in mathematics.”

The only other person I can think of to hit up is my former boss, who I worked for for twelve years. But he was the owner of the restaurant I managed; he knew me before I went back to school and even decided to major in math. What’s he going to say, “GESancMan was good at counting the cash?”

I know, I know - all the more reason to take the GRE, which I definitely plan to do now that I’ve read the responses here.

Let me tell you my answer from the perspective of having been on and even chaired grad school admissions committee. First off, at some schools that have conceded to the bureaucrats first crack at rejecting applicants, you wouldn’t have a chance on account of the undergraduate GPA. But to me the fact that you came back after eight years and did quite well would be a plus.

But–and this is a HUGE but–you current grad school record would be a killer. I couldn’t imagine recommending admission for someone who blew off grad school like that. Sorry, but that’s how I feel.

No need to apologize! I blew it this past quarter, though I must admit I never thought one C would be so detrimental.

Let me ask you this: I’ve had one quarter so far. Let’s say next quarter I earn two As and a B. Now my GPA is 3.11. Am I back in the running, or is that C still a red flag?

I’m not sure where the idea that the OP blew off anything comes from. They tried a program, didn’t do well, but stayed in it long enough to get the grades back up. That’s not blowing something off, it’s being responsible and finishing what you started, no matter how difficult.

For a math program, the GRE can only really disqualify you. The GRE tests high school math. If you don’t get an 800 or close to it, then you’re almost certainly out. Math departments won’t care about what english score you get as long as it shows you can string together a sentence.

GPA: Put a few lines in your statement of purpose but a bad grade is a bad grade.

Thesis: Are you getting a masters for credentials or the ability to demonstrate independent research?

Except the OP has not, yet, got his grades back up, and any transcript delivered by February will reflect his current 2.55.

It doesn’t really matter if “blowing off” grad school is a fair assessment. What matters is that the best hard indication of the OP’s performance in grad school are his grades in graduate classes, which right now aren’t all that great.

To the OP: Hari’s a better source than I am, but I would think you have essentially no chance of being accepted into a program until you finish the next term (and raise your GPA), which also gives you a chance to ace the GRE and make friends with some faculty. Having a plan on getting from here to there will help.

You can draft letters of recommendation. Many professors and managers appreciate it. Don’t go gushing about how you are the most brilliant person ever, but put together a few bullet points that describe whatever positive things that professor could realistically say about you. Something like “GE undertook an ambitious project for my course in Challenging Math in which he examined such and such concepts.” Hopefully you have something better to say than “GE’s attendance was OK and he completed most of the assignments on time.” Make it clear that the recommender is free to make any changes they feel are appropriate.