Choosing a Graduate School Path that Fits You
Graduate school is an advanced program of study beyond a bachelors degree, leading to a specialized degree in a variety of mathematical sciences disciplines, including theoretical and applied mathematics, statistics, data science, and computer science. On this page we answer frequently asked questions and provide some useful resources.to help you choose the graduate school path that is the best fit for you.
Why consider graduate school?
With a graduate degree, you will develop deeper expertise which will qualify you for a variety of careers. If you love mathematics, graduate school is also a chance to learn more, and to do more with what you learn.
What kinds of jobs does a graduate degree lead to?
A graduate degree in the mathematical sciences will lead you to a variety of interesting careers, including jobs in business, government, research, non-profit institutions, and teaching. Not all students apply to graduate school because they know exactly where they want it to lead (and those who do often change their minds!). Some students apply to graduate school because they like math and want to learn more, or even because they aren't ready to look for a job or don't know what else they want to do. Regardless of why you apply, we have lots of information and tools to help you choose your direction.
Explore the range of careers for people with training in mathematics:
- BIG Careers includes AMS resources on jobs in Business, Industry, and Government.
- BIG Math Network provides information on careers in Business, Industry and Government for students in the mathematical sciences.
- 101 Careers in Mathematics is a book with over 100 career profiles written by people with degrees and backgrounds in mathematics.
- See our Mathematical Moments to see the many exciting discoveries and applications of mathematics.
Following the 2018 midterm elections, 22 Congressional Representatives and 2 Senators have doctoral degrees, one in Mathematics!
The AMS Employment Services provides job listings for people with PhDs or close to completing one.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics is an agency of the U.S. Department of Labor that provides comprehensive employment and salary data.
Which area of math is right for you?
You don't need to know exactly the career path you want to pursue, although the resources above might help you narrow your focus.
The mathematical sciences are comprised of a broad array of disciplines. Look for graduate programs that can take you in a direction that interests you. Universities often have separate graduate programs or even separate departments of mathematics, applied mathematics, computer science, statistics, and data science, or some combination of these.
Learn more about specific mathematical sciences and related careers from these professional societies:
- The American Statistical Association and This Is Statistics
- Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM)
- Data Science Association
- Mathematical Association of America
- Informs: Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences
Most graduate programs offer several options, so you can narrow your focus or even change direction as you work your way through your studies.
Some master's degrees prepare you to enter a PhD program, while others are professional degrees, which prepare you to enter a specific career outside of research, such as teaching. Some are a combination of both.
Some students enter doctoral programs as soon as they finish a bachelor's degree, while others get a master's first. A master's degree usually requires two years of full-time coursework, and sometimes a research-based thesis or other capstone project. With a master's you can still continue on to more advanced study.
Doctoral degrees usually prepare you for mathematics research in academic, government, or business institutions. They give you the training needed to work with complex mathematical applications in any of these settings. A PhD typically requires 2-3 years of coursework, comprehensive exams, and independent research to create new knowledge, guided by your advisor. This research, written as your PhD thesis, is called your dissertation. Your PhD degree may take anywhere from 5-7 years to complete.
Paying for graduate school
Financial aid is available for graduate school, and many graduate students don't pay any tuition at all! Most graduate students finance their education through a combination of funding sources. Financial aid is available for graduate school, often in forms of grants or jobs. As a PhD student in the mathematical sciences, you will typically work as a teaching or research assistant, which pays a stipend and covers all or most of your tuition.
The median annual salary of mathematical scientists in May 2019 was \$92,030, with 10% earning more than $162,060.
Assistantships are campus-based work assignments that provide you with valuable professional experience in teaching or research, and an opportunity to work with students and faculty. Assistantships are usually awarded by departments as part of the admission process, and typically provide a stipend (a small salary) and waive tuition and some fees.
Fellowships are typically granted to individuals to cover their living expenses and tuition while they carry out research or work on a project. Awards are usually based on an individual's merit as measured by grades, GRE scores, publications, and letters of recommendation. For some fellowships, you need to apply to organizations tat are independent of your university, such as the National Science Foundation (NSF).
Grants are most often awarded to cover expenses associated with carrying out research or other specific projects, such as travel, materials, or computers.
You can explore funding opportunities at these resource sites:
- The AMS Awards, Fellowships, and other Opportunities list includes opportunities for students and other mathematical scientists. You can filter to find information about fellowships and grants.
- National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program recognizes and supports outstanding graduate students in NSF-supported science, technology, engineering, and mathematics disciplines who are pursuing research-based Master's and doctoral degrees at accredited United States institutions.
- Graduate Fellowships for STEM Diversity (GFSD) are provided by a partnership between government agencies and laboratories, industry, and higher education institutions. GFSD's goal is to increase the number of American citizens with graduate degrees in STEM fields, emphasizing recruitment of a diverse applicant pool. Any U.S. citizen can apply, regardless of race or gender.
What should you think about in choosing where to apply?
Once you have a general idea of where you want this journey to take you, do some research to identify the academic programs that are the best fit for you. A grad school that is highly specialized or has a strong reputation in an area you're interested in might be the best fit for you, but it might not be. In addition to choosing an academic program, you are also choosing where you will spend the next several years of your life, and you'll be most successful where you can thrive as both a student and as an individual.
Is the GRE subject test required? What coursework do you need? What resources are available to students who need to fill gaps in their background? Even if you don't meet all of the requirements, you can still apply. There might be something else in your application that makes you stand out. On the other hand, be realistic about whether you feel prepared for what the program will require of you.
Not sure if you're ready?
If your interest is piqued but you're not sure you're ready for graduate school, consider applying to a post-baccalaureate program..These programs allow students to strengthen their backgrounds and fill in gaps in their coursework before applying to graduate school, typically through one year of coursework following the bachelor's degree. There are also summer bridge programs. This is a partial list and others can be found through internet searching. Some students who want to earn a PhD start with a master's degree first.
Do the faculty work on mathematical topics that interest you? Look at their websites to see the kinds of courses they teach and research they do. If you are not sure about your interests, you may want to find a department that is larger and more varied, so that you have more options to explore. Look carefully at the range of options available in each program. Different mathematical disciplines are sometimes in separate academic departments, or sometimes in the same department. Even within a department, students often have choices about specializing.
Quality of the program
It's tempting to look at online graduate school rankings, but keep in mind that the rankings may be based on criteria that are different from yours. Many deans and advisors question the validity of ranking systems. Instead, look for information about the faculty-student ratio, the acceptance rate, average time to degree, the percent of students who complete their intended degree, and the kinds of jobs alumni move on to. How big is the program, and how many students complete degrees each year? If you can't find that information online, you can ask the department's graduate director.
Doctoral students often work as teaching assistants (TAs) or research assistants. As a TA, you might lead discussion sections, grade papers, or do other teaching-related work. In exchange, part or all of your tuition is waived and you receive a regular paycheck, called a stipend. At some state schools, tuition waivers may not cover the out-of-state portion of the tuition. You can also apply for fellowships and scholarships. Ask how much TAs earn, and for how many years would you be guaranteed a stipend? Will you have to pay tuition? Is health insurance included?
Getting a PhD is usually free! Many doctoral students work as teaching or research assistants, which earns them full tuition and a stipend.
Who are the faculty, students, and staff? If your race, gender, ethnicity, or other identities are important factors for you, do you feel comfortable in the department environment? Are there affinity groups on or off campus that are a fit for you? Will you be able to find a welcoming peer group?
Do graduate students have opportunities to get involved in research? Do they gain experience making research presentations, writing research papers, and attending conferences? Does the department provide funding for travel to conferences?
Investigate the diversity of students, student organizations, housing, and campus support services. Is childcare available and what does it cost? Is there a religious or cultural community on campus or in the broader community? What other activities and communities are available on and off campus? What is the quality of campus facilities such as libraries, computer labs, and sports facilities? What computer resources will you have access to?
What are the requirements to get a degree? Ask about courses, qualifying exams, and any other requirements you need to meet. How many courses are required and how often are they offered? How many courses are offered in the areas that most interest you? Will the coursework help you meet your professional or educational goals? Do students work together in study groups for coursework and exams?
Do you want to be in a specific geographic region to be near (or far from) home? Will studying in a particular location help you meet personal or professional goals? Will you enjoy living in an urban or suburban environment? Be prepared for a new climate, but don't let it intimidate you!
Speaking of community…
What kind of student community is there? Do students work collaboratively, individually, or competitively? Can you find a community of peers in the department or elsewhere on campus? Is there an AMS Graduate Student Chapter? Students who feel like they are part of a community are more successful in graduate school. There are some tools for finding a mathematical community on our Equity, Diversity and Inclusion page.
Where are graduates of the program working? Are they going into careers that you might be interested in? What resources are available to help you connect with jobs in academia, business, or government? Are internships available? Required?
Overall employment of mathematicians and statisticians is projected to grow 33 percent from 2019 to 2029, much faster than the average for all occupations.
Where can you learn more?
We suggested many questions for you to ask as you make the exciting decision about pursuing more advanced education in the mathematical sciences. Here are some resources to help you find some answers!
A good starting point is Find a Graduate Program in Mathematical Sciences which allows you to search for graduate programs in the United States based on degree level, geography, specialization, and other characteristics. Some graduate programs place display ads on that page to better explain their programs to prospective students. From there, look at the websites of any programs you are interested in. The websites for the university itself can have some helpful information on it as well.,
Also look at the Survey of Graduate Students and Postdoctorates in Science and Engineering from the National Science Foundation.
Contact the department's Graduate Program Director (or someone with a similar title) by phone or email to ask more questions, including any of the questions we describe above.
Talk with current and former students. Do they like the program? What are its strengths and weaknesses? Are they content with their choice of grad program? You might be able to find student contact info on the department website, or you can ask the Graduate Program Director for some students to connect with. Your professors might have some information to guide you as well.
If you're able to visit the school, sit in on a few classes and attend some seminars. Spend some informal time with the grad students. How do the students interact with each other? How do students and faculty interact? Spend time exploring the department and get a feel for the people and the local professional culture.
The annual Grad School Fair at the Joint Mathematics Meetings gives meeting participants the opportunity to speak with representatives from 40-50 U.S. graduate programs.
Discussions of graduate student life— by and for graduate students— can be found on the AMS Graduate Student Blog.
There is no such thing as the "best" graduate program. You are looking for the program that is best for you.
And when you are ready, our guide on Applying to Graduate School can help you prepare applications that highlight your strengths.