Preparing for graduate school in Mathematics

Preparing for graduate school

The courses you should take to prepare for graduate school will depend on whether you are considering pure or applied mathematics or statistics. Consult your advisor for a list of which courses are most appropriate for you. Here are some guidelines. For pure mathematics, we recommend the courses 111, 112, 153, 154, 105, 113 and 103. Keep in mind that many of these courses are only offered every other year. For the most part, these courses will also prepare you for the Math Subject GRE (Graduate Record Exam). WARNING: The deadline for signing up for the Math Subject GRE is very early. In 2013 it is September 13. The website Math Subject GRE has a breakdown by topic of recent sample exams. Many of the questions on the Math Subject GRE emphasize 122, so you should probably take it as well.

For applied mathematics, we recommend 22, 153, 154, 122, 123, 144, 155, 166 and 103. Other useful courses include 164, 105, 176 and 165.

For statistics, we recommend 122, 123, 176, 153 and 154.

Consider doing a summer research project with a faculty member. Remember, when it is time to apply you will have to ask for letters of recommendation, and the best letters come from faculty members who know you well.

Picking a graduate school

Consult with your advisor about whether you want to go into a masters or Ph.D. program and which schools are most appropriate for you. Also use the website Graduate Schools. This is a list of the top 50 graduate programs in mathematics. Each name is linked to that department's website. The ranking is most appropriate for people interested in pure mathematics. For applied mathematics, see Professors Mohler and Ostrov. This website also gives information about professors in our department who went there and which ones have had successful SCU graduates. For information about graduate programs not on this list, use your favorite search engine to get to the school's website, and go from there. Do not just apply to schools in the top 10. Many SCU graduates have found schools ranked 10 - 40 as the most appropriate.

Deciding between a Masters Degree and a Ph.D.

People with a Masters Degree in mathematics most often 1) go into industry and get a more interesting job than they could have with a Bachelors Degree, 2) teach at a community college or 3) continue on to a Ph.D. People with a Ph.D. in the U.S. most often become professors at Universities, but sometimes go into industry and get a very interesting job. If you are quite unsure and are willing to commit the next two, but not the next five years of your life to graduate school, then start with a Masters Degree.

Applying to graduate school

You apply to a particular department, not a university. So, for example, your application might go to the U.C. Santa Barbara Department of Mathematics. Download or request the application materials from the graduate program's website. Specific due dates can be found there (they usually range from early December to late January). Three important parts of every application are GRE scores, a personal statement, and letters of recommendation. For more information about the GRE, consult Math Subject GRE. The general test is computer based and you need to schedule an appointment. The Mathematics Subject GRE is offered twice in the fall. See Official GRE Website for registration and exam dates as well as the date the scores will be sent to graduate schools you specify. For Fall 2013, last date to register is September 13 for the October 19 exam. Most departments will not accept subject test results from exams taken later than December. That website also has a sample exam. Other sample exams can be checked out from Professor Schaefer.

One way to make your personal statement stronger is to use the website MathSciNet to find out what professors are working on in the department you are applying to. (This website needs to be accessed from on campus - ask your advisor if you have trouble accessing or using it). In your personal statement, you can mention which of these topics are of interest to you and which professors you might like to work with.

For letters of recommendation, be sure to give your letter writers sufficient notice. You will often need three of these. Make sure to get to know some professors. If you sit quietly in a class, do very well and never visit the professor, then that professor will not have much to say in a letter.


For most applications to graduate programs, you are automatically eligible for teaching assistantships or fellowships (ok, maybe you have to check a box on one of the forms). It is farily common for part of the acceptance package to include one of these forms of financial aid. In either case, you will receive something in the neighborhood of $15,000 per year. This is enough to live on, but not enough to buy a new car or travel to Europe. In either case, tuition is often waived. So in a sense, you get paid to go to graduate school in mathematics. The funding package offered is often a deciding factor for choosing a graduate program. Another (fairly competitive) fellowship is offered by the National Science Foundation. Check the website NSF fellowship for deadlines and application materials.

After being accepted

Try to visit the departments you are most interested in. Some may even help pay for your visit. Visit the faculty you would like to work with. Talk to graduate students to find out about the atmosphere for students. Women should talk to female students about the treatment of women (unfortunately an issue in a few departments).

Thanks to Dan Ostrov and Rick Scott for help preparing this page.

Back to WWW Math Resources.

Last update 6/27/13 by E. Schaefer.