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Programs 2.2, is my PhD dream over?

  1. May 11, 2008 #1
    Hello everyone,

    I'm a Cambridge student having completed my BA&MSci in theoretical physics. I did well in my my first two years (first) but in my last two years, I struggled with family and personal problems, went through long period of depression and finnish both with lower second. Every path seemed to be closed to me at that time. I took a year off to go do social work in Nepal and Lebanon, also to rebalance and recharge myself. Now I'm back and do want to have a shoot at it. I do consider myself as relatively bright and passionate about physics. The area I'm solid on is quantum optics (I did my thesis on biexciton) and quantum collective phenomena (I love Ben Simons course if you know).

    But how likely are good physics instutition will consider accepting me? Especially I want to do theoretical physics. Should I explore option in something more experimental? What advice do you have for me?

    Much appreciate.
  2. jcsd
  3. May 11, 2008 #2


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    The research councils used to insist on at least a 2:1 for funding, or you had to do an Msc to 'make up' - I don't know if that is still true.
    Assuming this is the NatSci course aren't the first two years pretty much general physics/chem/maths?
    Talk to lecturers / potential supervisors in the groupd you are interested in and see if they have any suggestions.

    I would take objection to the idea that if you aren't good enough to be a theoretical physicist there is always experimental physics - but since you are a cambridge ugrad I will assume that it isn't your fault!
  4. May 11, 2008 #3
    I'm profusely sorry if I offended anyone by that statement. What I actually mean by that is the available funding for experimental research are much more, hence more availability on places.
  5. May 11, 2008 #4


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    Well, I can't sugar coat it. Marks are the game when it comes to acceptance to graduate school. You need to make the minimum level for the school you're interested in. And generally speaking you get accepted into the department first (at least that was how it worked where I'm from). Once you're in, you choose a sub-field to specialize in. This decision can often be influenced by funding available to students in each subfield when they aren't entering with a full scholarship.

    I don't know what the cut-offs are these days. It would be worth speaking to the graduate advisor of any school you're interested in to gauge how close you are and whether any of your extenuating circumstances will alter the acceptance process.

    The other thing to remember is that things don't get easier in grad school. People who stuggle in undergrad also struggle in grad school.
  6. May 11, 2008 #5


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    And people who breezed through ugrad also struggle in grad school!
  7. May 11, 2008 #6
    I second to that quote!
  8. May 11, 2008 #7
    I've gathered that the only strong correlates for grad school performance are:

    Research experience.
    Extremely poor undergrad GPA.

    High GPA is a decent correlate, but plenty of people do well as an undergrad and totally flounder as a grad student. Others do a fairly mediocre job as an undergrad but do just fine in a research environment. Plus, nothing is going to save you from the nightmare of quals...

    With a 2.2, you probably don't *want* to jump straight into a Ph.D program. You'll be wasting your time and theirs until you fix whatever issue(s) that are causing the problem. I believe the most successful path to eventually getting a Ph.D in this case is to find related work to develop relevant skills and good work habits, while busting your ass trying to master the concepts you're weak on in your off hours. Then come back in a few years and try for a MS or possibly Ph.D - you'd be surprised what a little age and experience does for your prospects.
    Last edited: May 11, 2008
  9. May 12, 2008 #8


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    I should probably point out that the OP is not talking about having a 2.2GPA, but in fact has a lower second class degree in the UK system (since he said in his post that he went to Cambridge).
  10. May 12, 2008 #9
    Oh, that makes more sense. I only have any clue about what it means for a damnyankee. ^_^
  11. May 12, 2008 #10


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    Unfortunately, that grading system is something I know too little about to have any idea how that would compare to what I'm more familiar with. So, I'll assume based on what has been said about it already that it's not a good rank/score/whatever. I don't know the options available in the UK, but if s/he were a US student, I'd recommend that when the poor performance is in the last two years of university, even with some explanation of family problems, you need to do something to demonstrate to graduate schools that you have bounced back and can handle the upper level coursework now. Is there an option in the UK to take a few advanced courses without doing it for a degree? That's one thing I would suggest in the US, just sign up for a graduate level class or two on a pay-per-credit basis without actually enrolling in the whole program, and show you can handle the work involved. Or, if you can get into a master's program, use that as a stepping stone into a PhD program.

    Not sure what's feasible within the UK system though.
  12. May 12, 2008 #11
    You can always get into SOME school, but probably not the prestige ones. There are schools that'll take anyone, and they're not necessarily bad.
  13. May 12, 2008 #12


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    I think a 2:2 converts to roughly a 3.0 GPA (is that bad??) Anyway, the point is that in order to get into PhD studies at most universities in the UK you require a 2:1 (upper second class degree). Note that this is normally not only a university regulation, but is a research council regulation: you won't get funding if you don't have a 2:1. There are other options: if you do a Master's degree somewhere and do well enough in that, then you can be eligible for research council funding, and thus can also be taken on by departments.

    There are a few points I'm confused by, though. Firstly, how do you hold a BA and an MSci? The latter is a four year undergraduate masters qualification, and the former is a three year bachelors qualification. I also didn't know that Cambridge even offered MSci degrees?? By the Msci do you just mean that you did a master's year? Did you do Part III? If you did Part III, and didn't fail, then I'd imagine you'll be taken on by at least one department in the country.

    I can't really give any more advice until I know more about your situation! However, one final thing, if you were having problems in your last few years, then you should have mentioned that to your university: that way your grade gets adjusted if you have a good enough case, and so you never need (nor really can you) to mention the reason again.

    I think he could indeed get into a Master's but, as I said above, it seems like he already has one??

    I don't think your other suggestion really works in the UK either, MB; I don't think it's possible to enroll in a college and only take a handful of courses.
  14. May 12, 2008 #13


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    MSci is the new name for Part III - it's an extra year on the end of the 3year undergrad NatSci to make up for the fact that students don't learn anything at A level any more (end rant)
    You get the BA after part II - but you wouldn't normally bother claiming it if you are getting an MSci anyway - I don't know if you still get the free MA as well!
  15. May 12, 2008 #14

    matt grime

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    You can't simply translate 2:2 etc into GPA. Also you can't simply translate 2:2 at Cambridge into 2:2 at any other uni: it is well known that people are asked to leave Cam after one year and a fail, yet they get 1st class degrees from elsewhere.

    So, the bare facts: since you didn't take time out with your personal issues, you can't, I'm afraid to say, rely on people accepting them as a reason for your grade. It is frustrating; I've been there myself. University's award places based on degree class, and they have to justify their funding to various councils. This usually means they require 2:1s or better.

    What you can do is talk to admissions coordinators at various places and see what they say. You might find something, who knows. But don't take it badly if they can't help - often their hands are tied. One thing to do would be to get a bloody good personal reference (letter of recommendation) from someone who knows your situation.
  16. May 12, 2008 #15
    Nobody seems to have suggested this yet, but I was just thinking, you might apply for grad school in the U.S.? A name like Cambridge has quite a bit of prestige and, judging from the posts of others, it appears you were at least a decent student there (I'm unfamiliar with the education system).
  17. May 12, 2008 #16
    Thank you everyone for your response. Its very encouraging.

    The system in Cambridge is such that after 4 years you hold both qualifications. So MSci in Cambridge is not considered equivalent to MSc program from other university? I never know this fact. I have actually look at the Master program and PhD program in Imperial, the syllabus in my fourth year is actually very similar to the 1st year in Imperial PhD (when they have to take compulsory courses, its called Mphil year i think?). So i dont know how useful its going to be doing a Master course else where. But if it helps then I definitely will consider.
  18. May 12, 2008 #17


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    Higher ed naming all got horribly complicated ( conspiracy or cock-up )
    MSci is a 4th year added onto the undergrad course - as I said, it's to make up for the watering down of A Level content - it's effectively what used to be an honours degree and is required to do a PhD. The name is unfortunately confusing with an MSc 'a masters' which is a separate one year taught/research degree.
    Cambridge also has a part III in maths which is considered to be equivalent to a Masters (actually considered to be bloody difficult!).

    A masters is only useful to you if it allows you to get research council funding for a PhD or convinces a potential supervisor that you have 'made up' for your ugrad.

    Have a look at other areas of physics - it's very easy to only consider one topic simply because you enjoyed a single lecture or course.

    And of course there is always the 'get a job option'! Industrial research can be a lot more interesting than the academic PhD->PostDoc->PostDoc->.... slog
  19. May 13, 2008 #18
    Well, a bit off-topic, but I got a question about the Master, MSc and MA:
    Does a 4-year MSci Physics course (from a place like Imperial) compare to a German Diplom? (now being called Master, for which you need about 5 years)
  20. May 13, 2008 #19


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    It's always hard to compare - it also depends on the institution and the person.
    But in recruiting I figure an MSci to be an honours degree from >5years ago and a Dip I would consider equal to a UK MSc (ie full masters).
    We used to have quite a few German students doing an MSc or the first year of a PhD and writing it up as an MSc, as a faster alternative to a Dip.
  21. May 13, 2008 #20
    Hi jaykay,

    I just thought I'd add my 2p.

    First of all, you say that you'll have a BSc and and MSci. Is one of those honorary though? Does it count as a 2:2 in both the BSc and the MSci or does it count as a 2:2 in one and a pass in the other?

    First of all. The following are minimums that would make you eligible for STFC funding (and pretty much any other form of funding):

    BSc 2:1
    MSci 2:1
    MSci 2:2 (possible but hard)
    BSc 2:2 + MSc

    Most department websites simply say you need a 2:1 in your undergraduate degree, however *technically* a 2:2 MSci would be enough. Some departments do actually state this although say that its quite a rare feat.

    Most MSci courses have a policy where students with less than a 55% average at the end of their second year (sometimes third) automatically get transferred to the BSc course. While this might sound harsh, I think its actually a good system. They don't explain this to you but this is the reasoning I believe is behind it (although no one's ever told me this):

    If you have a below 55% average before your fourth year then to get a 2:1 average you have to get a very high average for the fourth year. By that point, you've usually already completed about 60% of your total assessment, making it very hard to bring your grade up. If you are serious about wanting to go on to a PhD, however, a 2:2 BSc + MSc looks better than a 2:2 MSci and so this is what I think the universities have in mind.

    I'm going to assume that the BSc you have is honorary since an MSci is an undergraduate degree and is not a 1 year course. At this point, you're pretty much too late to get a place for a PhD starting 2008 (depending on your field of research of course). You're best bet (although be prepared to have to pay for it) is to do an MSc. Apply for places starting 2009 early next year and you shouldn't have too much of a problem getting a place.

    You *may* still be able to get a place with a 2:2 MSci - The word 'Cambridge' is like gold dust, seriously.

    For what its worth, I got a 2:2 in my BSc (good Uni but not Oxbridge). I'd doing an MSc now and have two offers for funded PhDs starting later on this year. Your PhD dream is definitely not over. ;)
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