Admissions An Extra Edge In Grad School Admissions? (1 Viewer)

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From what I've read, these things seem important for any student considering graduate school:
- GPA, with particular emphasis on higher level classes within a student's major
- Good GRE scores, especially on the quantitative section
- Some undergraduate research experience, an REU through the NSF if possible
- Strong letters of recommendation from professors you get to know on a personal level
- A well thought out statement of purpose
- Choosing graduate schools that align well with your future research interests

But, these are things that all competitive candidates for graduate programs in math or science are going to have...

I am curious what types of things an undergraduate can do above and beyond these things that an admission committee might find impressive?

Graduate courses as an undergraduate?
Having an administrative position within a major related club (treasurer, president etc.)?
Placement within a national competition, like the Putnam?
Completing an undergraduate thesis with a faculty member?
Being a TA?
Trying to attend conferences?

What separates the merely "good" students from the "accepted into top 20ish program" students?
 
I am curious what types of things an undergraduate can do above and beyond these things that an admission committee might find impressive?
Not really that much. The problem is that if you say "do this to get into grad school" then very quickly everyone will be doing it. The other thing is that you reach a point in which what will get you into school A will kill your application to school B.

Graduate courses as an undergraduate?
Somewhat useful. However one big problem is that you probably will not be ready to take graduate courses until after the deadlines for applications go by.

Having an administrative position within a major related club (treasurer, president etc.)?
Totally useless for graduate school admissions.

Placement within a national competition, like the Putnam?
Useful for some programs, but only if it's a really big name competition and you get a really good score. This is also not easy to do since in order to place well in math competitions you have to spend a lot of time training (not that this is a bad thing).

Completing an undergraduate thesis with a faculty member?
Depends what the thesis is on.

Being a TA?
Somewhat useful on the grad application. *Extremely* useful once you get into grad school.

Trying to attend conferences?
Not useful at all in the grad application. *Extremely* useful for your grad school work.

What separates the merely "good" students from the "accepted into top 20ish program" students?
Nothing.

By that I mean that there isn't this really huge bright line between "good" and "super duper awesome." You have people at both ends of the spectrum. There are people that have zero chance of getting into any grad school at all, and people that are super-duper awesome that you think they are going to get a Fields award at age 25. There's is however a huge range of people in the middle, and most people fall somewhere in the middle because in this sort of distribution, most people end up average.

One thing I'd strongly suggest you do is not to obsess too much about getting into a "top" grad school, and just work on getting into any grad school. The big danger that I've seen with physics and math students is not that they don't get into an awesome school. If you don't get into an awesome school, and you keep fighting you'll muddle through. The big danger is that you burn out or have some personal crisis that pulls you out of the game permanently.
 
The big danger is that you burn out or have some personal crisis that pulls you out of the game permanently.
what do you mean by that? You mean dropping out of the phD program? How big of an impact will that have on one's career?
 

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what do you mean by that? You mean dropping out of the phD program? How big of an impact will that have on one's career?
If one needs a PhD, it could be devastating.
 
Not really that much. The problem is that if you say "do this to get into grad school" then very quickly everyone will be doing it. The other thing is that you reach a point in which what will get you into school A will kill your application to school B.



Somewhat useful. However one big problem is that you probably will not be ready to take graduate courses until after the deadlines for applications go by.



Totally useless for graduate school admissions.



Useful for some programs, but only if it's a really big name competition and you get a really good score. This is also not easy to do since in order to place well in math competitions you have to spend a lot of time training (not that this is a bad thing).



Depends what the thesis is on.



Somewhat useful on the grad application. *Extremely* useful once you get into grad school.



Not useful at all in the grad application. *Extremely* useful for your grad school work.



Nothing.

By that I mean that there isn't this really huge bright line between "good" and "super duper awesome." You have people at both ends of the spectrum. There are people that have zero chance of getting into any grad school at all, and people that are super-duper awesome that you think they are going to get a Fields award at age 25. There's is however a huge range of people in the middle, and most people fall somewhere in the middle because in this sort of distribution, most people end up average.

One thing I'd strongly suggest you do is not to obsess too much about getting into a "top" grad school, and just work on getting into any grad school. The big danger that I've seen with physics and math students is not that they don't get into an awesome school. If you don't get into an awesome school, and you keep fighting you'll muddle through. The big danger is that you burn out or have some personal crisis that pulls you out of the game permanently.
Cool, twoquant. Thanks for the helpful post. Looks like I'm going to focus on trying to do the things at the beginning of the original post.
 
what do you mean by that? You mean dropping out of the phD program?
Yes or burning out before you get there. The absolute most important thing that graduate schools look for are for people that they are sure will not drop out of the program, since having someone drop out of a Ph.D. program is both painful and expensive for everyone involved.

How big of an impact will that have on one's career?
It's not a matter of your career, but it's a matter of your life. Dropping out of a Ph.D. program is pretty close to getting a divorce or getting a dishonorable discharge from the military on the personal trauma scale.

Something that needs to be emphasized is that Ph.D. grad school isn't "school" in the way that undergraduate or graduate programs are. It's your life. For the next five to seven years, the doctoral program will be your life, and it is a lot like either enlisting in the military or joining the priesthood.
 
If one needs a PhD, it could be devastating.
It's not a matter of your career, but it's a matter of your life. Dropping out of a Ph.D. program is pretty close to getting a divorce or getting a dishonorable discharge from the military on the personal trauma scale.

Something that needs to be emphasized is that Ph.D. grad school isn't "school" in the way that undergraduate or graduate programs are. It's your life. For the next five to seven years, the doctoral program will be your life, and it is a lot like either enlisting in the military or joining the priesthood.
I see. Its just that I heard somewhere that at one physics phD program about 50% of the class dropped out. I wanted to know how quitting the physics phD program, and leaving with an MS would affect them for looking for engineering jobs
 

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There's one thing I've wondered about how attending conferences can affect your application to a phd program. Sure going to a conference is seemingly meaningless as far as admissions go, but if you received money through a grant to attend conferences that you had to write a proposal for, doesn't this say at least something positive above you?
 
I attended a conference while I was applying to graduate schools, and it helped me get accepted in an indirect way. It wasn't the fact that I went that got me in, but I met a professor there on the selection committee. Their astronomy program was trying to expand, and the professor pushed my application through.

So conferences might be a good place to network. I volunteered to work for a few hours helping set up the conference, so I get free registration.
 

fss

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I am curious what types of things an undergraduate can do above and beyond these things that an admission committee might find impressive?
...really good grades, really good research (publications), and really good recommendations.

What separates the merely "good" students from the "accepted into top 20ish program" students?
See above.
 
I see. Its just that I heard somewhere that at one physics phD program about 50% of the class dropped out.
One statistic that you should try to find is the number of people in the program that drop out.

I wanted to know how quitting the physics phD program, and leaving with an MS would affect them for looking for engineering jobs
Pretty badly. The trouble is that an MS Physics will not qualify you for most engineering jobs that require certification. You will be able to get some jobs (science journalism, community college teaching, and maybe software development), but it's going to be a big of a struggle.

Also there is the personal element. If you have to drop out of a Ph.D. program, it's likely to totally mess up your personal life for a while.
 
There's one thing I've wondered about how attending conferences can affect your application to a phd program. Sure going to a conference is seemingly meaningless as far as admissions go, but if you received money through a grant to attend conferences that you had to write a proposal for, doesn't this say at least something positive above you?
Not much. It could be that you had a really nice advisor that had extra money in his budget. The admissions committee is not going to know enough about how and why you went to have that influence the decision.

Having said that, going to conferences is a perfect example of why you should not totally change your life to make admissions committees happy. It's one of those things like eating a healthy diet and getting regular exercise that *will* help you a lot in your graduate school career, but which committees ignore.

I'd argue that if you are an undergraduate, it's worth while to attend conferences even if you have to buy your own plane tickets.
 
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I see. Its just that I heard somewhere that at one physics phD program about 50% of the class dropped out. I wanted to know how quitting the physics phD program, and leaving with an MS would affect them for looking for engineering jobs
Heh, for a second I read this as "I wanted to know how to quit the physics PhD program." If anyone can tell me how to do that without feeling really, really bad, let me know. I guess Twofish is right, it's sort of like a priesthood, except only for a smaller fraction of your life. :smile:

I know some people in the particle astrophysics community (which is what I work in) who tell me that some of the bigger physics departments like UCLA accept a whole bunch of grad students to use as cheap TA labor, and then get rid of them via their exceedingly difficult qualifying exam. Actually at my school too, a lot of people failed the qual and got kicked out this year. I too would be interested to hear some hard statistics on this.
 

fss

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Pretty badly. The trouble is that an MS Physics will not qualify you for most engineering jobs that require certification.
Erm, what? Getting certified as an engineer (at least in the US) has little to do with dropping out of a PhD program. There's no distinction made between a Masters' degree obtained in the course of dropping out of a PhD program or a Masters' obtained as the original goal. Even if you have your doctorate you're still required to obtain licensure in order to legally "practice" as an engineer.

You will be able to get some jobs (science journalism, community college teaching, and maybe software development), but it's going to be a big of a struggle.
It is very possible to get an engineering job with a Masters' degree in Physics.
 

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