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Applying for grad school years after finishing undergrad

  1. Nov 5, 2014 #1
    I graduated with my BS in physics/astronomy in 2010, and at that point I was super burnt out on school, and knew that I would not be able to handle grad school, and had no interest at all in doing research. Since then, I have been working in informal science education (including a one year grad certificate), mostly in science museums, but I also did an internship doing education at CERN. Currently my job is creating and teaching hands-on science activities for kids. I really enjoy this, and am good at it.

    But recently I've been feeling that I really miss physics. I miss being immersed in that type of environment. I miss being challenged and working hard. I want to learn more and do research. I also want the potential for increased job opportunities and a higher salary. I feel that I am mentally ready for grad school and have the correct attitude to be successful. I was really inspired by my summer at CERN, and would like to get a PhD in something along the lines of experimental high energy/particle/cosmology.

    But I have forgotten everything. I've been trying to study for the physics GRE, which I plan to take in April, and it's overwhelming because I couldn't answer a single question on the practice exam I tried. I'm digging up all my textbooks and will try problems, and I'm also using Khan Academy to review (really, to re-learn) all the math.

    Additionally, I don't think I'd be a very competitive candidate, because I went to a relatively small unknown undergrad institution, only had a 2.9 GPA, and had a couple research internships in which I did not distinguish myself and I did not really enjoy doing them (they were not on topics that I had much interest in). I did not try as hard as I could/should have during my undergrad. I had some professors who's classes I did well in, and they liked me, but I don't know what kind of letters of recommendation I would get 5 years later. But, I was super involved in SPS the whole time, including being president.

    I'm looking for two things from this forum now:
    1. A reality check. Can I even get into any schools, assuming I do well on the GRE? (What if I don't do well?) I'm hoping to apply for schools a year from now, and begin school in fall 2016.
    2. Advice for the best ways to a) study for the GRE, and b) prepare myself for grad school in general.

    Thanks for the help!
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 5, 2014 #2

    Vanadium 50

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    I am afraid you have quite an uphill climb ahead.

    Something like twice as many students take the GRE as enter grad school. That means that you want to be in the top half. There is a long, long way between not being able to answer a single question and the top half. You also have to be thinking a move ahead - suppose you got in somewhere. How are you going to pass the qualifying exam?

    Next, a 2.9 is very very low. In grad school - where it's more difficult than undergrad - C is failing. Many schools have policies in place where they simply cannot admit anyone below a 3.0. Those who have a GPA in the low 3's make it up some other way - like GRE scores.

    The third component of the admissions packages are letters of recommendation. Liking you is irrelevant - they will be assessing how suited for graduate school you are. If you didn't rtry as hard as you could have, expect this to come out in the letters.
  4. Nov 5, 2014 #3
    My suggestion for you is to re-take some of your physics courses! Some Universities have programs where you can enroll to take as a non-matriculating student. This would mean that you won't get graded, but it might also depend on the University. Even better idea would be to apply to a masters program! This way, you can take classes ( even refresh on some undergrad classes), study hard to get good grades = high gpa, and get research experience! You will have even stronger letter of recs than. Most important reason why I am suggesting re-taking courses, either as non matriculating or masters, is so that you will feel more prepared for grad school ( quals, advanced courses).

    Masters program in the U.S are not normally funded, but if you dig deep enough you might be able to find some that are.

    You will have more doors open if you raise your gpa! high pgre would be good too, but depending on where you want to go not necessary. Aim for above 50%

    For the PGRE:

    Go through Halliday and Resnick: https://www.amazon.com/Fundamentals-Physics-David-Halliday/dp/1118230647

    This will cover most of the pgre topics: Classical Mechanics, E&M, Basic Stat Mech and Thermo, Basic QM, the basic stuff you need to know for specialized topics ( particle physics, condensed matter etc), Optics, Special Relativity

    **Look through Griffiths QM** or, your favorite QM book.
    Here is a complete list of stuff you should focus on studying: https://www.ets.org/gre/subject/about/content/physics

    Spend time solving a lot textbook physics problems. This is just to make sure you really understand the concepts! There are a lot of concept questions on the pgre, so it's important to get these down.

    Once you feel comfortable with your concepts, look at the pgre problems. These are completely different beasts! Sometimes you can eliminate answer choices without doing a single calculation. Look at the *oldest* (86) exam and just work on the problems without timing yourself. See how long it takes you to do it. If you are spending too time much on solving a problem, there is definitely an easier way to do it!

    Here are the solutions: http://grephysics.net/ans/all-solutions_list.php
    You will see that some people were able to answer the questions without doing much. That's where you want to get to with the pgre.

    Starting with the 92 exam, practice time management! Can you solve a problem under 1.7 minutes? My suggestion would be to take set a timer for 17 minutes and do the first 10 problems. Repeat for the next 10 etc. *the whole exam = 100 questions 170 mins*

    Practice pgre style problem solving strategies and time management with the 96 exam again!

    Finally, save 2001 and 2008 to take as practice tests under test conditions! Current tests are similar to those. Maybe you should take 2001 before doing any preparation and evaluate yourself? Or just take it after a month of studying and then study some more before taking 2008.

    These awesome people already made flashcards and you can get it for free: http://www.phys.cwru.edu/flashcards/

    I hope something I said helped! Good luck! You can do it! =)
    Last edited by a moderator: May 7, 2017
  5. Nov 7, 2014 #4
    Thanks for the realistic viewpoint. I know that it will be extremely difficult, but, considering my qualifications, would you consider it a waste of time to study for the GRE and try to get into grad school? If you were in my situation, would you even bother? As for passing the qualifying exam, that does worry me, but isn't that two years in?

    My low GPA, and my lack of trying hard, is mostly from my misguided attempts at minors in CS and math. For some reason I decided to take optional, difficult classes during my last semester, at the peak of my burnout, and I did not do well in them. I got A's and B's in my physics classes, though I know that doing poorly in math classes still does not reflect well on me. I know that the professors that I would ask for letters would write positive ones, assuming they remember me (which they probably would, since I was very involved in the department).

    bluechic92, you were very helpful! I don't know that I would be able to re-take classes while also having a full time job, but I do like the idea of getting a master's. Are master's programs generally less stringent about admission than PhD programs?

    Thanks for the advice about studying for the GRE!
  6. Nov 7, 2014 #5
    If you really want to learn more physics and be able to do research/ get research oriented careers, then it is not a waste of time. If I was in your situation, I would do it. In fact, it is what I am doing because I am sort of in your situation. I took a year off and now I am in the process of applying. I think I might go for a masters first too.

    Grad schools will also care more about your physics gpa than your overall. If your physics gpa is at least 3.3+ you have a shot at decent programs ( providing pgre is decent too). The higher the gpa is always better.

    Yes Masters programs are easier to get into, some don't even require the PGRE. However, you should take the general one.
  7. Nov 8, 2014 #6

    Vanadium 50

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    It is very common to read advice like "just get a master's!" here, and, like this time, it is usually given by people who haven't actually done that, but think it will help. If getting a Master's was the ticket into a good graduate school, one would expect a good fraction of such students in graduate school. That's not what one sees.

    Now, I am afraid I have some bad news for you. About 20% of the GRE problems should be solvable by someone who passed first year physics. If, as you say, you can't solve any problems, you're at the level of someone starting a physics degree, not finished with one. It's OK to be angry, but you should be angry at your undergraduate institution: they took your money and told you they educated you in physics, when the tests say otherwise.

    Zero correct corresponds to a 380, or 1% percentile. This is strong evidence that you are not prepared for graduate school. Even at the Masters level. I'm sorry to have to tell you that.
  8. Nov 8, 2014 #7
    I suggested Masters so the OP can get a chance to get refresh his or her physics knowledge , get the opportunity to take advanced/grad courses, and gain research experiences ( hopefully this also leads to strong LORs). If the OP gains admissions to Masters and does well, he or she will have a stronger application for PhD programs providing PGRE scores are good too. There have been people who have been admitted to PhD programs after Masters, so it is possible. Also it depends on how one defines "good graduate schools" and one's goals. There are plenty of good programs that are not in the top 30 or 50.

    There are people who have went onto PhD in physics despite having a bachelors in it, so it is possible. If there are Masters program that accept students without a Bachelors in physics ( students will have to take some undergraduate courses too), then I am sure the OP can find a program where he or she can thrive at too.

    Yes this will all be hard, but not impossible.
  9. Nov 8, 2014 #8

    Vanadium 50

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    Yes, yes, I get this a lot from undergrads: a Masters should help. Then I say "look at the admitted PhD classes - where are all the MS grads?" Then the undergrad retreats to "a Masters can't hurt". Which is probably true - it would be true so long as the gain is epsilon and not zero. The problem is that a microscopic gain has to be weighed against the costs in both time and money of another 1-2 years.

    I have looked through many graduate admissions packages. I can not recall ever seeing a student do poorly as an undergraduate and then do well as a masters student. It may be because those students don't exist. It may be because if those students do exist, they stay at their MS institution for a PhD and thus never apply. But in any event, I can tell you that this strategy is nowhere near as helpful as undergraduates think it is.

    As far as the OP, we have a student who says, when given a Halliday and Resnick level problem with multiple choice answers, she cannot do them. When given 20 or 25 such problems (the number on the GRE), she cannot do any of them. Such a student is simply not prepared for a Masters. I expect to be given grief for being such a big old meanie by saying this, but I think the people who the anger should more properly be directed are the people who took money to teach the OP physics, didn't do a very good job of it, and gave her a degree anyway.
  10. Nov 9, 2014 #9

    Dr Transport

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    I agree with Vanadium, if you can't solve freshman level problems, you didn't get an education to start with, graduate school isn't for you. Do the best you can to find a job commensurate with your skill set and go on. During my graduate career, I saw more than one person who came from a really good undergraduate institution flunk out with a supposedly good background. (Of the ~20 first year students in my second go around, only 4 earned a PhD, the rest didn't get thru the comprehensive exam and either quit or got a Masters. If memory serves me correctly, 3 left after the first semester alone.)

    I took a two year break after a Masters before I went back for a PhD, did it hurt me any, I have not a clue. In the intervening time I taught at a community college part time, so at least I was doing physics problems on a daily basis and lab work weekly. I also spent time screwing around with some of my old coursework to keep up some of my skills. I got thru OK, but it wasn't easy, but if I had waited another year or two, I'd still be building houses and teaching part time to this day.
  11. Nov 9, 2014 #10
    I'm afraid you suffer from tunnel vision; there are plenty of Masters students that were admitted to PhD programs on the accepted profiles of physicsgre.com; because you, Vanadium50, do not notice them does not imply that they do not exist. The strategy of getting a masters isn't a magic cure all, no, but it isn't as useless as you're making it out to be. It's sure as hell helping several old undergrad classmates of mine get into PhD programs after rocky undergrad careers. With regards to the OP, it would be better if the OP were at a point where it wasn't that she couldn't do the problems per se, but rather was unable to do them with the requisite speed needed for the GRE's time constraint. Since that isn't the case, it really doesn't look good for the OP at their current level; but I've seen many students have issues with GRE questions the first time around only to see scores increase highly after dedicated practice. If I were the OP and I was actually serious about giving this a go, I'd aim for taking the October Physics GRE next year and begin practicing for it everyday starting yesterday and attempt to dig up any old references one could use for letter of recommendation now. I would make a judgement on whether to seriously apply or not based on that score, and I'd aim for very low ranking schools. The big old meanie does have a point though, if you've really forgotten everything than coursework at the level of Jackson, Goldstein, Sakurai and the like are really not going to be kind to you; so the advice he and Dr. Transport are giving you is worth taking into consideration.
  12. Nov 10, 2014 #11
    Thanks for the advice everyone! I'd agree that my undergraduate physics department was not very rigorous and I do feel that I missed out on some knowledge. Not to be defensive, but I probably overstated the degree to which I failed that practice exam. Certainly, it's embarrassing how much I couldn't do, but I definitely got more than zero correct. And I took it cold, after not opening a textbook for four years.

    Right now I do have a career that I enjoy and find fulfilling, so continuing on my current path is my plan if grad school really isn't for me.

    This is my current plan (I was going to attempt the April GRE, though that might be a waste of money; I'll gauge how ready I am when it's time to register). I will see how studying for and taking the GRE goes, then decide from there if grad school is for me. I'm aware that it's a long shot, but I'm not going to not try for something that I want, despite earlier mistakes that will make it difficult. I may not end up going to grad school if I don't do well on the GRE, but I definitely won't go if I don't even try. And I'm not putting all my eggs in the grad school basket, and I won't be crying myself to sleep if I don't make it.

    Special thanks to Vanadium; a realistic meanie is exactly the kind of person I was hoping would respond. I may not be prepared for grad school ever, and I hope you don't think I'm being overly optimistic, but I can't not try, you know?
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