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Admissions Application list too ambitious for non-traditional student?

  1. Dec 30, 2016 #1
    I was hoping I could get some feedback from anyone who might have insight into the grad school application process. I've applied to 11 schools so far, but I don't know how to tell if they're all a bit too optimistic. I was hoping that someone could recommend a "safety" school or two.

    About me:

    I'm a bit of a non traditional student. About 4 years ago, I decided to switch careers and pursue physics. My first degree is a bachelors of fine arts in an unrelated field. This spring, I'll graduate from a midwestern school without much physic prestige with a BS in physics and a minor in math. I'm in my early 30's, and have a bit more "real world" experience than my peers (I'm not sure if this matters). My GPA is about 3.2, but I've made dean's list for the past 2 semesters, grades have been improving in advanced classes.

    My biggest concern is my test scores. I've had to support myself through school and my work schedule has made it difficult to perform as well as I hoped on the GRE (I did pretty terrible in fact).

    GRE Scores:

    pGRE - 540
    GRE Verbal - 156
    GRE Quant - 157
    GRE Writing - 4.0

    -About 1 year of research experience. Presented a poster at American Physical Society conference.
    -Teaching experience: High school teacher for 3 years, TA for 1 year & Adjunct for 2 years (not physics obv)
    -Mechanical proficiency: I like to tinker and build things. I know this comes in handy in the lab.
    -I think I'll have excellent letters.

    -Low test scores.
    -Less than stellar GPA.
    -No real publications.

    I've applied to:

    Ohio State
    North Carolina State
    U of Rochester
    U of Virginia
    U of Pittsburgh
    Case Western Reserve
    North Carolina Chapel Hill

    Any thoughts on my list? I was thinking about finding another 1 or 2 schools that I have a decent chance of getting into if possible. My biggest worry is getting into nowhere after making a drastic career change for the past 4 years.

  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 31, 2016 #2
    It might not hurt to add a few more lower-ranked schools to that list. What subfield are you applying for? Maybe you can get some suggestions here about where to apply.

    For what it's worth, not getting in this admissions round is not the end of the world. You don't only have one shot. I know people (also early 30s who did a drastic career change) who didn't get in and, because they had real world experience, were able to find a job until the next round of applications and then got in (after aiming lower).
  4. Dec 31, 2016 #3

    Vanadium 50

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    Roughly twice as many people take the physics GRE as enroll in grad school. A 540 is the 16th percentile. In grad school, a C is considered failing, and a 3.0 is usually the minimum GPA to continue. A 3.2 is not far above that. A lot of schools are going to be turned off by this, and unfortunately you don't know which ones in advance, so Dishsoap is right - apply to more schools if you can.
  5. Dec 31, 2016 #4


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    There is also another option that you may want to consider, IF you do not get an acceptance in this round.

    Try looking for schools that offer up to a Masters degree in physics. There's a good chance that you can get admitted to those. The strategy here is for you to do very, VERY well in the program (i.e. get high GPAs). Then reapply to PhD programs with the hope that your new, higher GPA will show the admission committee that you are improving tremendously, and that you are capable of doing graduate work.

  6. Dec 31, 2016 #5

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    Zz, have you ever seen this work? It's common PF advice, but I can think of no examples where it has actually worked. The closest I can come up with is a fellow with a BSEE and MSEE who was short about a year in physics, and the question was whether to admit him and give him a year to take undergrad physics classes to catch up. Having an MSEE helped with the question of whether he could handle grad school, but even so this was a special case: he was a member of a traditionally underrepresented group so there were non-Departmental funds involved.

    Also, the MS-only schools are not necessarily strong. Cal State Long Beach graduates the most students of MS-only schools, 12 per year, but requires only 6 units of thesis research over 2 years. Number two is Cal State Northridge (10 per year), and they don't even require a thesis. The next eight are Fisk, Louisiana Tech, Miami of Ohio, Puerto Rico (Mayaguez), Appalachian State, Cleveland State, San Francisco State, UMass Boston and UMass Dartmouth. Some of them have OK programs, and I know Creighton does a very good job, but I question how much a 3.8 at, say Appalachian State will mean to Duke or Rochester.
  7. Dec 31, 2016 #6
    Thanks for the feedback everyone. To answer a few questions:

    The subfield I'm currently performing research in is experimental condensed matter. I enjoy this, and am probably most likely to pursue this, but I'm also interested in experimental nuclear physics as well.

    I neglected to mention what's going on with my GPA. Since both of my degrees are from the same university all of my classes are compiled into one GPA. My current GPA of 3.2 factors in classes from my first degree which I didn't take very seriously. I looked into removing them but there were several bureaucratic reasons preventing that from happening. My actual physics GPA is something like 3.4 to 3.5, although my transcript doesn't show that.

    I know most MS programs aren't funded, and at this point in my life it would be difficult for me to pursue something where I'm not paid (even modestly).

    If anyone has any recommendations for schools which are slightly less competitive (or general advice), I'd greatly appreciate it.

    Thanks again.
  8. Dec 31, 2016 #7


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    Yes, I've seen it worked for 2 people that I know of who now have PhDs in physics. One went to DePaul University here in Chicago to get his Masters, the other, I can't remember where he went.

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