Is it a good idea to turn down a top graduate program?

Forum for the GRE subject test in mathematics.
Alexmahone
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Is it a good idea to turn down a top graduate program?

Postby Alexmahone » Sun Jul 28, 2013 6:57 pm

I'm an undergraduate studying math and will be applying to grad school in the future. The top graduate programs are MIT, Harvard, Stanford, Princeton, Berkeley and Chicago. However, I doubt I would be near the top of the class at these places (if I got admitted, that is). This could have a negative impact on my academic performance as I have always been near the top of my class during my undergrad.

I think I would do better academically at a slightly lower ranked place like Michigan, UCLA, Columbia, Yale, NYU (Courant) where I would be closer to the top of the class.

What do you think? Should I avoid applying to the top 6 graduate programs?

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Gasquet
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Re: Is it a good idea to turn down a top graduate program?

Postby Gasquet » Mon Jul 29, 2013 1:23 am

Do you want to be a AlexMahone/BradBellick at a Tier I school or a Burrows/Scofield at a Tier II school?

There are two general theories:

1) Go to the best grad school that you can get into. Prestige matters.
2) Go to a grad school where you would be the best student.

Alexmahone
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Re: Is it a good idea to turn down a top graduate program?

Postby Alexmahone » Mon Jul 29, 2013 2:57 am

I just think that going from the top of the class (in my undergrad) to, say, middle of the class in Harvard may have a damaging psychological effect, which could affect the quality of my thesis. Do you agree?

I just think I may be able to produce better mathematics at a less intimidating place.

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Gasquet
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Re: Is it a good idea to turn down a top graduate program?

Postby Gasquet » Mon Jul 29, 2013 4:15 am

Well, it definitely could. It seems that you feel that it would affect you, so maybe your decision isn't as hard as you think it is.

Just playing devil's advocate:
1)The advantage of going to a top school is that it would typically have "better" students. The students you interact with on a daily basis would play quite a big role on the mathematics you produce.
2)Math grad school isn't going to be easy anywhere you go. Having like-minded students around you always helps.
3)IMO, any top 20 school would be intimidating in it's own right(although, maybe not as much as the top 6).
4)Prestige matters. The same student from Princeton is going to be given preference in both a job and in academia over the same student from say, Arizona.

Not trying to change you mind, just presenting the other side. All said and done, if you feel that you will not be able to survive in a place like Harvard(and it's completely normal to feel that), then it makes absolutely no sense to go there.

kuz
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Re: Is it a good idea to turn down a top graduate program?

Postby kuz » Mon Jul 29, 2013 2:51 pm

Alexmahone wrote:I'm an undergraduate studying math and will be applying to grad school in the future. The top graduate programs are MIT, Harvard, Stanford, Princeton, Berkeley and Chicago. However, I doubt I would be near the top of the class at these places (if I got admitted, that is). This could have a negative impact on my academic performance as I have always been near the top of my class during my undergrad.

I think I would do better academically at a slightly lower ranked place like Michigan, UCLA, Columbia, Yale, NYU (Courant) where I would be closer to the top of the class.

What do you think? Should I avoid applying to the top 6 graduate programs?

Bear in mind that coursework is not an important part of graduate school in mathematics, so your grades there should be essentially irrelevant once you've passed your generals. In fact, there is often no essential coursework at all - at Princeton, you don't have to take any classes, and those you do choose to take tend to have no assessment whatsoever. So the perception of "top of the class" is based on how intelligent your peers are based on your conversations with them, and in this case it becomes quite beneficial to have bright people in your class as they can help you learn new areas and give you insights into research problems.

For what it's worth, I was near the top of my class at my undergrad, but at Princeton I certainly don't feel like one of the more talented students. But that just means there are more people to learn from (and sometimes I surprise myself when I'm able to help some of the smarter students in return).

Alexmahone
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Joined: Sun Jul 28, 2013 6:56 pm

Re: Is it a good idea to turn down a top graduate program?

Postby Alexmahone » Mon Jul 29, 2013 3:18 pm

kuz wrote:Bear in mind that coursework is not an important part of graduate school in mathematics, so your grades there should be essentially irrelevant once you've passed your generals. In fact, there is often no essential coursework at all - at Princeton, you don't have to take any classes, and those you do choose to take tend to have no assessment whatsoever. So the perception of "top of the class" is based on how intelligent your peers are based on your conversations with them, and in this case it becomes quite beneficial to have bright people in your class as they can help you learn new areas and give you insights into research problems.

For what it's worth, I was near the top of my class at my undergrad, but at Princeton I certainly don't feel like one of the more talented students. But that just means there are more people to learn from (and sometimes I surprise myself when I'm able to help some of the smarter students in return).


I agree that there may be more people to learn from at a place like Princeton. At the same time, knowing that there is no way I can possibly distinguish myself at Princeton is bound to have a negative psychological effect; don't you agree?

kuz
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Re: Is it a good idea to turn down a top graduate program?

Postby kuz » Wed Jul 31, 2013 1:12 pm

Alexmahone wrote:
kuz wrote:Bear in mind that coursework is not an important part of graduate school in mathematics, so your grades there should be essentially irrelevant once you've passed your generals. In fact, there is often no essential coursework at all - at Princeton, you don't have to take any classes, and those you do choose to take tend to have no assessment whatsoever. So the perception of "top of the class" is based on how intelligent your peers are based on your conversations with them, and in this case it becomes quite beneficial to have bright people in your class as they can help you learn new areas and give you insights into research problems.

For what it's worth, I was near the top of my class at my undergrad, but at Princeton I certainly don't feel like one of the more talented students. But that just means there are more people to learn from (and sometimes I surprise myself when I'm able to help some of the smarter students in return).


I agree that there may be more people to learn from at a place like Princeton. At the same time, knowing that there is no way I can possibly distinguish myself at Princeton is bound to have a negative psychological effect; don't you agree?

I completely disagree. As a graduate student in a university's maths department, you shouldn't be trying to distinguish yourself from other graduate students in your department, but rather from other graduate students around the world specialising in the same research area as you. That means having betting papers and better networks by the time you get your PhD, and having bright peers helps with both of those. I think having the attitude that you have to "beat" your classmates, in graduate school at least, is probably the wrong attitude to have.

Alexmahone
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Re: Is it a good idea to turn down a top graduate program?

Postby Alexmahone » Wed Jul 31, 2013 2:26 pm

kuz wrote:I completely disagree. As a graduate student in a university's maths department, you shouldn't be trying to distinguish yourself from other graduate students in your department, but rather from other graduate students around the world specialising in the same research area as you. That means having betting papers and better networks by the time you get your PhD, and having bright peers helps with both of those. I think having the attitude that you have to "beat" your classmates, in graduate school at least, is probably the wrong attitude to have.


Thank you for your advice.




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