This question is on mathematics, career, and personal life.

I.) Assumptions.

i.) Suppose that I am a Junior in college majoring in mathematics at a top research institution in the U.S. I have "mostly" good grades in mathematics (say, around 2/3 of my grades are A's or A-'s), but I have some B's and B+'s. I've taken a good number of graduate level courses with at least half of them A or A-'s.

ii.) Earlier in my college career, there was a noticeable dip in my grades (A's becoming B's and B+'s) due to personal issues.

iii.) My goals:

  • (Short term:) enroll in a top pure math graduate program in the U.S. (ideally a top 6 institution) where there is a strong research community in my field as well as other fields in mathematics which may be helpful to my own research or broadening my perspective.

  • (Long term:) become a professor in pure mathematics at a top 30 institution (or equivalent) studying geometric topology or some related field.

II.) My Questions:

a.) Is it appropriate to talk about personal matters in one's personal statements or rec letters, if it has negatively impacted one's academic performance?

b.) What are grad school admission committee's views in regards to personal hardships? I know the short answer to this is "it depends," so I would appreciate getting the various viewpoints available on the MathOverflow community. I am sure it also depends on the school; school-specific viewpoints would be much appreciated.

  • 12
    $\begingroup$ this is not an answer to your two questions, hence a comment: I have found it counterproductive to take "becoming a professor" as a goal in life, in particular at an early stage of one's career as a scientist; I would approach graduate school as an opportunity to learn skills that will serve you well wherever life takes you, and explore a great variety of career options. $\endgroup$ Jun 13, 2020 at 21:12
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    $\begingroup$ I'm not sure whether this question is of interest for an international audience. $\endgroup$
    – YCor
    Jun 13, 2020 at 22:31
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    $\begingroup$ My only experience with admission committees was applying to Berkeley. It is possible I got admitted in to graduate school by good fortune, even though I left undergraduate study five years earlier. And stellar recommendation letters are good too. However, I wrote a personal essay where I mustered all my confidence and talked about using my industry experience to help me in my graduate studies. I think I would not have been accepted if I did not display that kind of attitude. Again, acknowledge, but don't dwell. Gerhard "Believe That You Are Worthy" Paseman, 2020.06.13. $\endgroup$ Jun 13, 2020 at 23:34
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    $\begingroup$ I find the focus on "top N" a bit unhealthy $\endgroup$
    – erz
    Jun 14, 2020 at 0:34
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    $\begingroup$ You set your goals too high, which is OK if you don't get unhappy by not achieving them. In order to get into a top graduate school you need to be in the top few percent (1%, 2%, 5% etc., depending on the school). Your grades will not justify this as the majority of applicants are straight A's. If you have interesting research papers (preferably with no co-author), or have showed extraordinary talent to your recommenders, that might counterbalance it. I suggest that you apply to at least 30 graduate schools. Some schools do ask recommenders to mention special circumstances they are aware of. $\endgroup$
    – GH from MO
    Jun 14, 2020 at 1:33


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