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

Alexmahone

Active member
Jan 26, 2012
268
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 guys think? Should I avoid applying to the top 6 graduate programs?
 
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Jameson

Administrator
Staff member
Jan 26, 2012
4,043
In a word, no.

That is not at all the correct thinking about universities my experience. First off, in grad school grades become less important because there is no next step. There's no next level to apply for later so you don't need to be at the "top of your class" for that reason. Even if it were true though you still shouldn't do it for that reason, as #20 at Harvard carries way more weight than #1 at a lower-tier school.

I don't know your academic history but keep in mind to say that the top programs are hard to get into is really understating it I think, but this shouldn't be the way to go about thinking of schools. What fields are you focusing on currently and interesting pursuing? Once you know that you can find out what schools have math departments with professors who have similar interests and work from there. Definitely talk to your professors and academic advisers about school selection and applying. They will give you useful information based on your background.

Good luck! :)
 

Alexmahone

Active member
Jan 26, 2012
268
There's no next level to apply for later so you don't need to be at the "top of your class" for that reason. Even if it were true though you still shouldn't do it for that reason, as #20 at Harvard carries way more weight than #1 at a lower-tier school.)
But don't you agree 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? I just think I may be able to produce better mathematics at a less intimidating place.
 
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Chris L T521

Well-known member
Staff member
Jan 26, 2012
995
But don't you agree 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? I just think I may be able to produce better mathematics at a less intimidating place.
I did my undergraduate degree in mathematics at a liberal arts college in Chicago and I was at the top of my class there. However, when I started graduate school at UC-Santa Cruz, a research one, I was surprised at how much I didn't know. Sure, it may be a bummer at first, but it's something you can't gloat upon forever, otherwise you'll be left further behind. I was bummed out at first, but I got over it quickly and that didn't really affect the quality of my work; I just dealt with it and pushed myself harder and harder to learn material that wasn't taught to me in undergrad. In the end, I believe that made me a better mathematician. Unfortunately, I left my program because I couldn't pass my prelim exams, not because my grades or research were under par. As of now, I'm currently looking for work as I'm preparing to reapply this fall for Fall 2014 admission.

Graduate school is a completely different beast when compared to undergrad. Grades aren't much of a concern anymore; it's more of whether or not you have the brains and drive for research. If there is someone at the top schools that research what you're interested in, I would say give it a shot and apply; you really have nothing to lose doing so (except for the ~$100 application fees for some of those schools... XD).
 

Fantini

"Read Euler, read Euler." - Laplace
MHB Math Helper
Feb 29, 2012
342
But don't you agree 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? I just think I may be able to produce better mathematics at a less intimidating place.
I don't agree. :) The focus of the graduate program is to help and force you to develop certain thinking habits and skills which are the craft of research. Moreover, research isn't done in an isolated environment. The biggest reason people want to be in the top programs is not that they want to be seen as first in class, but that they find themselves in an atmosphere with a great flow of ideas. It shouldn't be a surprise that they continuously generate great thinkers: they created a climate where that is encouraged and enforced. Invariably some of that will be lost should you choose a less prepared place and you will suffer the consequences.

Cheers!
 

dwsmith

Well-known member
Feb 1, 2012
1,673
One thing you have to consider is does that school even issue grades. For instance, my gf was an undergrad at Darmouth, now she is in the medical school at Dartmouth, and my friend from undergraduate is in a PhD program at Dartmouth.

Now, at the graduate level Dartmouth doesn't issue grades, you get pass or no pass whereas undergraduates get the traditional A-F grade. For graduates, you pass if you get higher than let's say a 80. I just made that number it could be 75 or it could be 90 depending on the class, professor, etc. So in this case, how do you rank students? Well Johnny received all passes and Bob received all passes. Who is in a higher percentile bracket? It is a different case if you are receiving no passes but this shouldn't happen anyways.
 

Alexmahone

Active member
Jan 26, 2012
268
One thing you have to consider is does that school even issue grades. For instance, my gf was an undergrad at Darmouth, now she is in the medical school at Dartmouth, and my friend from undergraduate is in a PhD program at Dartmouth.

Now, at the graduate level Dartmouth doesn't issue grades, you get pass or no pass whereas undergraduates get the traditional A-F grade. For graduates, you pass if you get higher than let's say a 80. I just made that number it could be 75 or it could be 90 depending on the class, professor, etc. So in this case, how do you rank students? Well Johnny received all passes and Bob received all passes. Who is in a higher percentile bracket? It is a different case if you are receiving no passes but this shouldn't happen anyways.
I'm not worried about grades as such. I'm more worried about the negative psychological effect that can stem from no longer being at the top of the class.

Even if there are no grades, I would know roughly where I stood in the class by interacting with the other students.
 

dwsmith

Well-known member
Feb 1, 2012
1,673
I'm not worried about grades as such. I'm more worried about the negative psychological effect that can stem from no longer being at the top of the class.

Even if there are no grades, I would know roughly where I stood in the class by interacting with the other students.
The only response I can think of is which is definitely not a political correct response.

Stop being soft

Last thing, even if you are in the top at school X, there will be people at school Y who are better mathematicians than you are. Being near the top at one school doesn't mean anything since there are many school and colleges where there will be someone better.

So in the light of this, I refer to my spoiler.
 

ZaidAlyafey

Well-known member
MHB Math Helper
Jan 17, 2013
1,667
In my point of view I hope I am the worst student in my class so I have the incentive to be better and improve myself . Being at the top of class doesn't add anything it just tells you are the best so no improvement hence stay at your level . It is better to have a challenging environment where you stay alert that you have to look after you weaknesses especially in the grad studies.

I hope I am in the best and most challenging university in the world but sometime we can't get what we wishe :D
 

topsquark

Well-known member
MHB Math Helper
Aug 30, 2012
1,123
My experience (as others have pointed out) is that you look for what you can get from it. In grad school you can learn not only from the Professors but also the "top" students. Think of starting a study group for example.

Even though it was a catastrophe for my career my time at Purdue U. was a wonderful time for me...the whole atmosphere, talking with students who could actually understand what I was talking about, the seminars, and taking classes taught by Nobel Prize winners, etc. It was the best experience I've ever had in my schooling. I was far from the top of my class (well there were a couple classes I aced) but the experience was well worth it.

Besides, if the grad programs are anything like my experience at Binghamton U. and Purdue U. it's easy to get a B. A's and C's are a lot harder. Most of the students you will run into are likely to get the B's as well so don't worry about the Psych damage you might be doing to yourself. It simply doesn't apply.

Find a good school that can teach you what you want to learn in an environment that gives you the best experience and go for it, whether or not you will be in the top of your class. It's all about what you can learn, not your grades.

-Dan