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Maths PhD: Is there any point?

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    I'm currently at Cambridge doing Maths, I'm expecting a (good) 2.i for my BA and I should be doing Part III next year. I'd expect to get a pass or maybe a merit if I'm lucky but I think that a distinction is probably out of reach.

    I enjoy my work and I'd like to be an academic: I'd like to do a PhD. Is there any point applying if I get a 2.i overall? Should I take this as a sign that academia isn't for me? Yes, it's Cambridge and yes, it's hard but it's still a 2.i and not a first. I'd always assumed that a first (and usually a good one) is the mark of academic potential: get a 2.i and academia probably isn't for you (at least, I think this is the case in Maths; I think it matters less in other subjects where exams are more subjective or in areas where lab or clinical skills are important). While there are cases of people being average undergrads but ending up as great researchers (Simon Donaldson or Stephen Hawking, say), I doubt I'm the exception to the rule: I work very hard (maybe too hard) and I can't think of any good excuses why I haven't got a first (other than being vaguely neurotic).

    I'd like to feel confident that if I did do a PhD, that I'd be taken seriously and have a good academic career ahead of me. Would I have any chance of getting in to Cambridge, Oxford, Warwick or Imperial as a graduate student? Would it matter if I went elsewhere? Would a weaker undergraduate degree be taken as a sign of low potential and end up restricting access to good post-docs or research positions? It'd be nice to get a position doing research at a Russell group University afterwards.

    Thanks!
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    If you enjoy the work and you can find the funding for a PhD, do one. However, I would recommend doing a PhD for that reason alone. While there are academic jobs for some at the end of them, the field is necessarily crowded and competitive. Doing a PhD in order to get an academic job may warp your career plans and expectations.

    Lots and lots of people do PhDs with a 2.1. It is the 2.1 - preferably at the high end - that is the grade that qualifies you for postgraduate study. I would not be surprised if you need to do an MA first of all. But a 2.1 is perfectly normal and is a mark of high achievement. And maybe in maths you can enter directly from UG. You might have to set your sights 'lower' than the top universities you mentioned. There is lots of excellent research going on at other unis. (What area would you specialise in on your PhD? Where are the field-leading academics based? Go where they are if possible.)

    Finally, and I mean this in the nicest way possible: phrases like "It'd be nice to get a position doing research at a Russell group University afterwards" make you sound immensely naive. Of course it would. It would also be nice to have a tenure-track position and bottomless research funding. Pursue the academic career path if you'd like to get a position teaching at Bolton Polytechnic and researching on the side. Still on board? If so, go ahead and do that PhD.

    But make it about what you want to do and what interests you, not some predetermined end, eg an 'academic career'. Academic careers are not all that glamorous.
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    (Original post by DaveTheDog)
    I'm currently at Cambridge doing Maths, I'm expecting a (good) 2.i for my BA and I should be doing Part III next year. I'd expect to get a pass or maybe a merit if I'm lucky but I think that a distinction is probably out of reach.

    I enjoy my work and I'd like to be an academic: I'd like to do a PhD. Is there any point applying if I get a 2.i overall? Should I take this as a sign that academia isn't for me? Yes, it's Cambridge and yes, it's hard but it's still a 2.i and not a first. I'd always assumed that a first (and usually a good one) is the mark of academic potential: get a 2.i and academia probably isn't for you (at least, I think this is the case in Maths; I think it matters less in other subjects where exams are more subjective or in areas where lab or clinical skills are important). While there are cases of people being average undergrads but ending up as great researchers (Simon Donaldson or Stephen Hawking, say), I doubt I'm the exception to the rule: I work very hard (maybe too hard) and I can't think of any good excuses why I haven't got a first (other than being vaguely neurotic).

    I'd like to feel confident that if I did do a PhD, that I'd be taken seriously and have a good academic career ahead of me. Would I have any chance of getting in to Cambridge, Oxford, Warwick or Imperial as a graduate student? Would it matter if I went elsewhere? Would a weaker undergraduate degree be taken as a sign of low potential and end up restricting access to good post-docs or research positions? It'd be nice to get a position doing research at a Russell group University afterwards.

    Thanks!
    The thing is, undergraduate is a) exam based and b) broad. You're not going to be a professor of all of maths, you're going to try and make a contribution to a tiny part of it, like number theory or whatever. Sure, if you want an EPSRC grant a first and a distinction help and the EPSRC maths PhDs I know usually have distinctions in Part III, but not always- far from it in at least one case.

    If you'd been put on earth at a different time and ended up at Cambridge five years ago or five years from now, who knows how you'd have done? Sure, it might have been much worse, but in my experience people know there's a ton of reasons that people don't quite hit the level that others do at that point in their lives. For the same reason, people know that some 17 year olds just weren't very mature, got Bs rather than As, didn't exactly go to the top places, but something clicked thereafter and they did well. Some are better at exams than others, but since the closest you're going to get to an exam after Part III is a viva, the difference between a 67 average and a 72 average to the average researcher is not a great deal.

    TSR is a horrible pit of teenagers with a few As telling you you're not up to it if you didn't go to a certain university, didn't get enough As, didn't get a first. Sure, if you managed to hit all of those indicators at once, there's a chance you shouldn't kid yourself that your 2:2 from Salford after getting CCD in your A-Levels is setting you up to be the next Lord Kelvin or Ludwig Wittgenstein, but in your case there are enough things going for you to suggest that if you think outside the box, apply to departments that have well known staff in what you want to research, then you can certainly make a shot of it. PhDs are very different to other degrees too, so it won't necessarily be the case that Cambridge is where you even should look to be if you get the firsts and distinctions: a few top staff in a subgroup of pure mathematics might be enough to make you think of plenty of other places.

    [EDIT: This doesn't mean just Oxford, Warwick, Imperial either- it's one thing saying on average you'll find great students and staff at X more often than Y over the years, but it's another thing to say Y therefore doesn't have any/many people of that calibre and isn't right for your degree. This is extra-specially true for PhDs.]

    Plenty of students with firsts and prizes and so on are horrible PhD students.
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    (Original post by DaveTheDog)
    I'm currently at Cambridge doing Maths, I'm expecting a (good) 2.i for my BA and I should be doing Part III next year. I'd expect to get a pass or maybe a merit if I'm lucky but I think that a distinction is probably out of reach.

    I enjoy my work and I'd like to be an academic: I'd like to do a PhD. Is there any point applying if I get a 2.i overall? Should I take this as a sign that academia isn't for me? Yes, it's Cambridge and yes, it's hard but it's still a 2.i and not a first. I'd always assumed that a first (and usually a good one) is the mark of academic potential: get a 2.i and academia probably isn't for you (at least, I think this is the case in Maths; I think it matters less in other subjects where exams are more subjective or in areas where lab or clinical skills are important). While there are cases of people being average undergrads but ending up as great researchers (Simon Donaldson or Stephen Hawking, say), I doubt I'm the exception to the rule: I work very hard (maybe too hard) and I can't think of any good excuses why I haven't got a first (other than being vaguely neurotic).

    I'd like to feel confident that if I did do a PhD, that I'd be taken seriously and have a good academic career ahead of me. Would I have any chance of getting in to Cambridge, Oxford, Warwick or Imperial as a graduate student? Would it matter if I went elsewhere? Would a weaker undergraduate degree be taken as a sign of low potential and end up restricting access to good post-docs or research positions? It'd be nice to get a position doing research at a Russell group University afterwards.

    Thanks!
    It depends why you're doing a PhD and what area of maths? Is it to stay in academia afterwards or will you be pursuing a job outside, possibly as a quant in an investment bank, where a PhD (Pure (Analysis) or Applied / Stats but not Algebra) is a requirement for most positions?

    It is even possible to get "only" a 2:2 and do well in postgraduate studies, followed by a career in academia so I wouldn't rule it out.

    Many who enjoy their undergraduate studies and think they will stay in academia actually change their minds during their PhDs, (reasons range from attractive pay in banks, too competitive to secure employment in universities from well qualified candidates abroad, etc.)

    Doing Part 3 would be a good idea. That'll make you get a taste of life as a postgraduate. Alternatively, take a Masters at OWI (ie not Cambridge) to experience academia at another univerisity.
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    The Cambridge 2.1 math degree is comparable to a first from somewhere else. Proof is you can apply to Part III with a 2.1 whereas people from other institutions are expected to have or gain a (high) first class degree. BTW, I hold an offer for Part III too.
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    If you have a strong mathematics background but don't feel like you want to or is up for a maths PhD, you might want to consider going into research in engineering, which is very mathematics heavy.
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    Thanks for the replies. For the time being, I'm interested in academia (I'm mostly doing pure maths) and I'll stay dreaming of Oxbridge, at least (but probably aiming for anywhere that'll pay me). I suppose it's not impossible that a career elsewhere might be on the cards at some point: career progression and salary will be better in finance (none of the agony and ecstasy of research either). Lots to think about. I might talk to my tutors...
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    The one big thing you have going for you is plenty of time. So relax, follow your nose, and it'll lead you where you want to go... talking to your tutor probably a good idea.
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    (Original post by nonswimmer)
    Lots and lots of people do PhDs with a 2.1. It is the 2.1 - preferably at the high end - that is the grade that qualifies you for postgraduate study.
    In maths, a first is pretty much a necessity for the few funded places available.

    EDIT: Since I presume the negs are expressions of doubt, I should say that I am basing this off all of the PhD students in my department, the experience that I and friends from my undergrad course had when searching for positions and PhD students I know from different departments. The reality is that where there is competition (and in the majority of cases there is) a first is an essential requirement in practice whether you agree with the merits of that or not.
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    Your PhD doesn't define you, apply to a few places you want to go to and see how you feel. Different universities have different application procedures but all will pay your travel expenses.

    On the other hand, finding a post doc position afterwards at a university of choice will be extremely hard, afaik you need to be willing to travel and be very willing to work elsewhere if you want a job at a decent university. Seeing as I haven't started my PhD yet, I can't say anything more about this, however I can say I've had three offers of funding from UCL, Warwick & got on the HKPFS funding in Hong Kong, and will graduate this summer with a class i MMath from Manchester, but I failed my first year (I got 28% in one course, and other low marks across the whole year). Read into that what you like, I see it as they are not too fussed about exam results.

    A 2:1 will probably be enough to be invited for a chat with potential supervisors or however the university runs things I suspect. Assuming you can demonstrate you have good research skills and can get references that confirm this - perhaps the most important of all.
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    I did my PhD because it was interesting, and life's too short to be bored. I did a LOT of teaching throughout, met lots of interesting people, went to conferences, published a couple of papers, finished, did a year of post-doc, then went and did something totally different outside academia, and since then I've found myself doing something totally different again. Sometimes life just happens. Do I make daily use of my PhD? Not really. Do I regret doing it? Not for a second. What was the alternative? To have stayed in a job where I was bored? What's your alternative? To go and work for an investment fund? Where's the fun in that. Far more fun to aim for a low Erdos-Bacon number and see where that takes you.
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    (Original post by Pkysam)
    I did my PhD because it was interesting, and life's too short to be bored. I did a LOT of teaching throughout, met lots of interesting people, went to conferences, published a couple of papers, finished, did a year of post-doc, then went and did something totally different outside academia, and since then I've found myself doing something totally different again. Sometimes life just happens. Do I make daily use of my PhD? Not really. Do I regret doing it? Not for a second. What was the alternative? To have stayed in a job where I was bored? What's your alternative? To go and work for an investment fund? Where's the fun in that. Far more fun to aim for a low Erdos-Bacon number and see where that takes you.
    Where did you find the money to go 'to conferences... did a year post-doc' and just do a 'PhD because it was interesting'?
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    (Original post by CUFCDan)
    Where did you find the money to go 'to conferences... did a year post-doc' and just do a 'PhD because it was interesting'?
    A post-doc is a real job and will pay as much as an entry level position in industry if not more. And if you are any good you are also paid to do a PhD and given grants for conferences and such.
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    (Original post by CUFCDan)
    Where did you find the money to go 'to conferences... did a year post-doc' and just do a 'PhD because it was interesting'?
    My PhD was fully EPSRC funded, which paid for conferences, equipment, plus a salary. You say "just do a PhD because it was interesting" like there is ever any other reason to do a PhD. Sometimes I wonder if people have forgotten that the "purpose" of higher education is not so we can better serve our overlords in the finance industry, and that study for the sake of study, because it's interesting or to find things out, has intrinsic value in itself.
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    (Original post by DaveTheDog)
    Thanks for the replies. For the time being, I'm interested in academia (I'm mostly doing pure maths) and I'll stay dreaming of Oxbridge, at least (but probably aiming for anywhere that'll pay me). I suppose it's not impossible that a career elsewhere might be on the cards at some point: career progression and salary will be better in finance (none of the agony and ecstasy of research either). Lots to think about. I might talk to my tutors...
    I mean engineering academia, especially in controls. Most high profile controls professors I know have mathematical background. Maths aren't that important in industry engineering
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    Control :sogood:
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    (Original post by + polarity -)
    Control :sogood:
    Aww yeah, h-infinite optimal control :cool:

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