Incoming class size

Forum for the GRE subject test in mathematics.
apap
Posts: 14
Joined: Wed Oct 26, 2011 11:22 pm

Incoming class size

Postby apap » Thu Mar 15, 2012 3:19 am

Is it preferable to be part of a large pure math PhD incoming class or a smaller one?

Here's my two cents: A larger class would foster a more supportive environment and it would also guarantee that a wide array of first year grad classes will be offered. On the other hand you would also have to be more competitive in getting the attention of your advisor and making your advisor recommend you over the other numerous graduate students in your year finishing their PhD the same time as you. I don't know which one of these outweighs the other. What do you guys think?

yoyostein
Posts: 36
Joined: Tue Feb 28, 2012 12:14 am

Re: Incoming class size

Postby yoyostein » Thu Mar 15, 2012 6:11 am

Hi, I found someone's opinion on the net:
Sadly, Stanford was not the right place for me. Although it had many excellent aspects, the department's small size made me feel a bit claustrophobic (many other students loved it, however) and the general slant of the department's research didn't appeal to me. The following year, I transferred to UC Berkeley, which has a huge department that fits my research interests. My girlfriend and I live halfway between Stanford and Berkeley and commute to school. My happiness at finding a school that's right for me is worth the daily train rides.
(http://www.maa.org/students/choose_gradsch.html)

Personally, I like privacy, and being able to have some time alone.

The guy above is rather lucky to be able to choose between Stanford and Berkeley!

By the way, does anyone have any idea how transfers work?

owlpride
Posts: 204
Joined: Fri Jan 29, 2010 2:01 am

Re: Incoming class size

Postby owlpride » Thu Mar 15, 2012 1:13 pm

My 2 cents on the size issue: I think Stanford (with 16 incoming students my year, ~70ish grad students total) is a good size. Small enough not to get lost in the crowd, large enough to allow for reading groups and student seminars.

By the way, does anyone have any idea how transfers work?

Grad school transfers seem to be extremely rare and decisions made on a case-by-case basis.

The only department I know which seems to take transfers on a regular basis is Berkeley, but they seem to only take students with outside funding. (And mostly students from other top 10 programs after they have failed their qualifying exams at home.)

I have another friend who tried to transfer after his first year because he didn't like the atmosphere in the department he was at, but he got rejected everywhere.

gromov
Posts: 38
Joined: Sun Feb 13, 2011 6:49 pm

Re: Incoming class size

Postby gromov » Thu Mar 15, 2012 4:30 pm

There is one huge variable: what field you go into, and how many graduate students are going into that field. At a larger program, I think you almost won't even interact much (unless you go to social events) with students not in your field, whereas you will see the same students over and over again otherwise.

A small program where a lot of people are clustered into your field can be the "right size" (I'm not sure this is true, but I'd imagine if you're studying number theory at Princeton, despite a small class size, there's going to be little problem finding people interested in what you do), but a small program where everyone does pretty different things means you might not have as many chances to organize common learning groups, unless you and other students are in adjacent, even if different, fields.

I agree a program of size ~ 15 (and maybe max 20) with a fair number of strengths is probably a good number to not get lost in the crowd. At 25-30, you run a much greater risk of a ton of students across years clustering to the same advisers, and maybe getting less attention.

echo
Posts: 18
Joined: Fri Dec 16, 2011 7:41 pm

Re: Incoming class size

Postby echo » Thu Mar 15, 2012 5:59 pm

Going to a small program has distinct advantages and drawbacks: you will get more personal attention, you will know everyone in your department and will not be quite as lost. However, based on my personal experience, I would not recommend going to a small program unless you have a good idea of whom you want to work with. Having been to a few visit weekends recently, I think students underestimate the importance that choosing a thesis adviser will have on your graduate school experience and beyond. If you are unsure about what you want to do, going to a big program will give you much more latitude when it comes to finding someone who is working in the area you want to be working in.

I am currently in the process of transferring. As owlpride suggests, it only happens relatively rarely. A few pointers on the process:
1) If you are thinking at all about transferring, you need to get straight A's (not as hard as it sounds) and make a strong good impression on professors who will write recommendations for you, especially if you would like to trade up to a more prestigious program.
2) You need to find 3 professors who will write strong letters of recommendation for you (maybe one of them can be someone from undergrad) who will be able to say that you are one of the top students in your cohort.
If you have a good reason for leaving, most professors will be very understanding. Make sure to include why you want to transfer in your personal statement.
3) You will basically apply to all the grad programs as if you were a new grad student. You may need to repeat some requirements and you will definitely need to take their quals even if you have already passed some.
4) Study hard for and take the subject GRE exam again if you got lower than 80%. Teaching will help you improve a lot since you'll be more familiar with calculus.

With all of these things, and a little good luck, I got some pretty good offers. It's really hard work making it happen, but it's definitely not impossible.

mrcrzister
Posts: 11
Joined: Wed Mar 07, 2012 3:54 am

Re: Incoming class size

Postby mrcrzister » Thu Mar 15, 2012 6:04 pm

what is typically a size (in range) of a small department, medium, and large? People keep talking about this and i have no idea what small you are referring to.

bloopbeep
Posts: 10
Joined: Sat Dec 10, 2011 11:05 am

Re: Incoming class size

Postby bloopbeep » Thu Mar 15, 2012 6:55 pm

Echo,

Thank you for your post with advice on transferring. What exactly did you tell your professors when you approached them with the idea of transferring? Were they upset? Was the director of the PhD program upset?

Also, I see you have a really high MGRE score(congratulations!), but it seems your application was not as successful(relatively) as other's with similar GRE scores/GPAs (with admits to UCSD & Chicago). Why do you think this is? Do applications like these come down to publication amounts? I don't mean to belittle your success at all and am really happy for you. I'm more a bit confused/surprised. What more exactly could you have done with a MS applying to top PhD programs?

I hope my questions aren't taken offensively; thanks for your input!

echo
Posts: 18
Joined: Fri Dec 16, 2011 7:41 pm

Re: Incoming class size

Postby echo » Thu Mar 15, 2012 8:06 pm

I was very upfront. I explained that I wanted to be at a department where my area was more prominent and that I wanted to be more competitive when I go on the job market. I think some were more disappointed than others, but I think they understood where I was coming from. I obviously waited until I had offers to inform the graduate director in case nothing good happened, in which case I would have stayed where I am now.

I think you have to take in perspective that almost all of the top 20 programs have accept rates under 10% which means that unless you are a future fields medalist, a certain amount of luck is needed to make your application stick. My application was probably judged a little harsher considering that I'm going to have a master's degree coming in, and certain schools may be more hesitant than others to take me. I think the one thing that made my applications rise to the top of the pile at the places I got into was that I had a good research match, which would in particular allow me to start reading and research immediately on arrival. Like I said above, people underestimate the importance of having a good advisor which can open a lot of doors for you.

I would say a small department has roughly <=60 grad students, a medium size <=100 and large being greater than that, but this is as you suggest a very fluid characterization, and it's probably more important to count how many ladder faculty they have.

gromov
Posts: 38
Joined: Sun Feb 13, 2011 6:49 pm

Re: Incoming class size

Postby gromov » Thu Mar 15, 2012 8:11 pm

Echo said it very well. Unless you're a clear star, I think there is a high degree of randomness. Even "very good letters" can't necessarily secure you a spot, because there aren't exactly that many spots, and the competition is international. I do imagine that a student looking to transfer and with noticeably more years may be judged somewhat harsher.

Having a high GPA and scores makes sure you'll most likely get a good offer. To have the best chances at the most popular schools, it's important to have some of: very excellent letters from mathematicians whose words will count; perhaps some publications (this is less important by far, as far as I can tell); knowing someone in the department who is excited about you (if the department is on the rather small side, and only takes people who have a clear research fit).

owlpride
Posts: 204
Joined: Fri Jan 29, 2010 2:01 am

Re: Incoming class size

Postby owlpride » Thu Mar 15, 2012 10:24 pm

what is typically a size (in range) of a small department, medium, and large?

Great question! According to the 2010 NRC survey, the "typical" size of a math PhD program is 30-70 students in total. There are only 12 programs with more than 100 students, and a whole bunch with fewer than 30. My undergraduate college had a PhD program with about 6 students total (one per year).

kiurys
Posts: 20
Joined: Wed Nov 09, 2011 11:40 am

Re: Incoming class size

Postby kiurys » Sun Mar 18, 2012 2:07 pm

How would you categorize (small/med/large) a department with 36 faculty and 79 grad students (i think this includes both phd and masters students)?

gromov
Posts: 38
Joined: Sun Feb 13, 2011 6:49 pm

Re: Incoming class size

Postby gromov » Sun Mar 18, 2012 4:26 pm

I know only a tiny fraction of the schools out there, but that strikes me as medium-sized as far as graduate students.

To me, on a per-entering-class basis, small is 5-10; medium is 15-20; 30+ is on the somewhat larger side.




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