Thinking About Grad School & Math (Help Wanted)

I have discovered that finding grad schools to apply to is an incredible hard and confusing process – especially if you’ve been out of academia for several years and don’t have people to advise you on how to best pursue your interests. For me, my passion for Mathematics has gradually obscured what I might want to specialize in down the road. I am torn between my life-long passion for Computer Science, my undying love of Mathematics and it’s rigor, and my unexplored interest in Physics. During my undergrad I double majored in Computer Science and Mathematics, but the effects of that decision has been a double-sided coin.

I reached out to my boss (who happens to be a Physicist) about his thoughts on how to best pursue my interests in Mathematics and the fields that it has been applied to. I’m waiting to hear back from him, but I’m hoping there are other knowledgeable voices on the internet that can provide me some guidance. I will try to keep this post up-to-date with some of the suggestions I hear from you all, both for my own reference and for the reference of others that may be in my situation.

==== MESSAGE BEGINS ====

I’ve been thinking more and more about what I would want to study in grad school while desperately (and unsuccessfully) trying to find programs. Perhaps I’m just easily distractible and weary of the state of CS, but I’ve been drawn more and more towards Physics – which is unfortunate given my lack of experience in the topic. Given my Math background I am able to read some physics papers and appreciate the connection between Math theory and our physical world – it’s truly amazing stuff – but now I have my interests torn between Physics, CS, and Math. At the same time, I’ve found myself becoming more and more of a analytical/rational person versus an experimental/empirical person – something that seems to be at odds with a lot of current research/experiments/simulations in both CS and Physics (computers ruined us all). It really makes me believe that I want to strengthen my Math background to understand and contribute to theory research in either field.

Something that is disturbing to me is it seems like there aren’t many Math Masters programs – as university’s are changing from offering Masters to only offering PhDs – and when they do offer Masters it’s normally a path to PhD at the same university. I’m a bit worried about pursuing a PhD becoming too specialized, especially because I don’t have an explicit research goal in mind yet. It seems like these days the suggestion is to “learn the math as you go along” and study in a non-Math program, but that seems at odds with my interests in inter-disciplinary research and the sort of mathematical rigor I want to contribute.

Because of this trend in graduate education and my fear of becoming too specialized, it almost seems like I’m left with Math PhDs – which I’m not sure would be suitable for me. During my undergraduate I double majored in both Computer Science and Mathematics which could be a positive when applying to programs, but what was not a positive was that division of my attention inhibited my ability to delve deep into either topic. This negative influence only became worse as my health was declining during my studies. I was able to do well in my Computer Science courses given my extensive prior experience with the field but my Math courses definitely suffered. While I might be able to get into a Computer Science PhD program (although I don’t know where or who to study with), I am not so hopeful about a Math PhD program. Not having published any in either field is even more concerning when I am constrained to just applying to PhD programs.

As is the case with other scientific fields, there seems to be a divide between “Theoretical/Pure” studies and “Applied” studies which further adds to my confusion. For the Applied Math programs I found, it seems that early on you need to state your intent regarding the field you want to do applied math in – which with my scattered interests seem to not be compatible. On the other hand, I’m not sure how applicable “Pure” Math education is to other fields. In both cases I would also be somewhat concerned about the marketability of a Math Ph.D. rather than something more specialized like Theoretical CS, though this is a lesser point.

Thoughts?

==== MESSAGE ENDS ====

If you’ve made it this far, thanks for reading! If you have any tips (I’m really hoping you have some) please email me at me<at>freddy.us or by following one of the links on my home page.