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

  1. #1
    MHF Contributor alexmahone's Avatar
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    Is it a good idea to turn down a top graduate program?

    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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  2. #2
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    Re: Is it a good idea to turn down a top graduate program?

    I think the only thing you gain (or save) by not applying to the top schools is admission fee. Graduate school (especially Ph.D. program) is not about grades; it is about your research, being stimulated by faculty and spurred by student competition, and making connections that will serve you in your job search. In my experience, getting a C for a graduate course is unusual. Besides, you generally don't specify your GPA in your CV (maybe only for the first position), while you specify the school and your adviser.

    On the other hand, it makes sense to select a Ph.D. program not so much by the university ranking as by the potential adviser and the presence of other faculty doing similar research. Even a regular research state university with a suitable adviser can give you an excellent education. I would also recommend deciding early if you want to stay in academia or go into the industry, learning what it takes for each option and assessing your progress to that goal.
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  3. #3
    MHF Contributor alexmahone's Avatar
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    Re: Is it a good idea to turn down a top graduate program?

    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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  4. #4
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    Re: Is it a good idea to turn down a top graduate program?

    This may be true for you specifically. I would guess that the majority of people (myself included) achieve better results when they are pushed more by their environments. I remember having some envy towards fellow students who understood more, though I don't think I felt intimidated by them. However, these feelings are long forgotten, and they weren't commendable to begin with to take them into account.

    I would distinguish between an intimidating school and an intimidating work place. The latter may not be good for you because you are constantly expected to produce better results than you really can. In contrast, it is unlikely that you flunk graduate school by being an average student. (I am watching "Grey's Anatomy" now, and it seems that this may not apply to medical school.) Your grades will not be important for your future career. You can learn to accept your limitations and allow positive aspects of a top university: excellent professors and more active scientific life, to encourage you to achieve more.
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