Applying for PhD despite very weak undergraduate GPA

In summary: Applied Physics provides students with the necessary background to pursue careers in industry, research laboratories, or teaching positions in universities. Included in the curriculum are courses in physics, mathematics, engineering physics, and computer science."Based on these descriptions, it seems like the program would be a good fit for you. However, you should be aware that the program has one and only one course in the standard grad school core curriculum, so your story isn't "got straight A's in hard school" - it's "got a 2.6 as an undergrad and an A in first semester math methods". This means that you will need to make a case to the faculty in your program that you are worth taking on. If you are
  • #36
ohwilleke said:
When you are 30 and have 5-6 years experience as a physicist in industry and you have two or three of solid, technical, academic journal publications under your belt (maybe one directly through work, and one or two in collaboration with professors who you barter resources and time for authorship with), and you've got solid test scores (with lots of test prep) and good recommendations, your undergraduate grades won't seem nearly as relevant to someone evaluating you as a non-traditional student in a small PhD program.

Frabjous said:
@ohwilleke ‘s industrial approach is also a very good suggestion.
That was a good approach decades ago when major US corporations strongly funded core R&D labs, with certain divisions having a quasi-academic environment (within Bell Labs and IBM Watson, in particular). But times have changed, and those opportunities are a lot harder to come by. [I personally was working at Bell Labs when they announced that the Physics Research lab was being terminated (I was at a different lab).]
 
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  • #37
CrysPhys said:
That was a good approach decades ago when major US corporations strongly funded core R&D labs, with certain divisions having a quasi-academic environment (within Bell Labs and IBM Watson, in particular). But times have changed, and those opportunities are a lot harder to come by. [I personally was working at Bell Labs when they announced that the Physics Research lab was being terminated (I was at a different lab).]
I agree that this would only work for a limited subset of industrial or government positions.
 
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  • #38
EsbMtrx said:
First off, I'm a woman.
That will help you at a handful of schools. Ask around.

EsbMtrx said:
I'm not sure why you think I'm not serious about this.
Because you aren't hitting the issues head on. You need to prove that you are readu for a PhD program, and right now, the evidence is that you are not. Instead you are spending time in a program that even if you are successful will provoke the reaction "Yeah, she got a MS, but the program had few core courses and it took 3x longer than usual for her to complete it."

Further, when it was pointed out that you really needed a Plan B, your Plan B was tp increase the number of acceptable institutions by 5. (There are five DOE science labs with HEP programs) Granted, they are big, but they are no less competitive than universities (amd more so than many).

What you need to do is:
1. Fix your academic deficiencies and demonstrate that you have done so. The first step is to find them,
2. Come up with a credible Plan B, ideally one that positions you to apply to grad schools down the road.

And two words on research:
"Best student this year" is an average letter.
"It doesn't matter how great their research is if they can't successfully complete the coursework." - you can count on this being said over and over again as applications are being reviewed.
 
  • #39
ZapperZ said:
So far in this thread, the end-game seems to be getting into an PhD program, which is not a career goal.
If we get away from the notion that a career will last many decades until we retire, then getting into (and, of course, completing) a PhD program can be a career goal: that is, if we take the perspective that over our working lifetime, we will have multiple careers (or multiple phases in a career, if we wish to use that phrasing).

At least in the US, a physics PhD program is typically fully funded by the university (via fellowships, teaching assistantships, research assistantships, and tuition waivers). The student receives advanced formal coursework and research training. He gets to do one or more research projects that (presumably) he is interested in and (ideally) he is passionate about. And he does not necessarily need to be concerned whether these projects have practical utility or economic value.

The PhD program is not necessarily a stepping stone to something else. It can have value in and of itself. And especially for a student interested in an esoteric field such as string theory or cosmology, that is an important perspective to adopt. Exceptionally few students (even if they complete their PhD at a top-tier research university) will continue on to a career in those fields.

So when a PhD student completes his program, he moves on ... to his next career, or to the next phase of his career. A PhD program in Physics provides a student with a combination of depth and breadth in many technical areas and a broad array of skills and experiences that can be applied to many fields ... if the newly-minted Physics PhD is mentally prepared to make a transition [and (ideally) has multiple Plan B's prepared in advance]. And even for those whose next phase is still in physics, disruptions in the job market can occur at any time and can cause subsequent transitions.
 
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  • #40
CrysPhys said:
If we get away from the notion that a career will last many decades until we retire, then getting into (and, of course, completing) a PhD program can be a career goal: that is, if we take the perspective that over our working lifetime, we will have multiple careers (or multiple phases in a career, if we wish to use that phrasing).

At least in the US, a physics PhD program is typically fully funded by the university (via fellowships, teaching assistantships, research assistantships, and tuition waivers). The student receives advanced formal coursework and research training. He gets to do one or more research projects that (presumably) he is interested in and (ideally) he is passionate about. And he does not necessarily need to be concerned whether these projects have practical utility or economic value.

The PhD program is not necessarily a stepping stone to something else. It can have value in and of itself. And especially for a student interested in an esoteric field such as string theory or cosmology, that is an important perspective to adopt. Exceptionally few students (even if they complete their PhD at a top-tier research university) will continue on to a career in those fields.

So when a PhD student completes his program, he moves on ... to his next career, or to the next phase of his career. A PhD program in Physics provides a student with a combination of depth and breadth in many technical areas and a broad array of skills and experiences that can be applied to many fields ... if the newly-minted Physics PhD is mentally prepared to make a transition [and (ideally) has multiple Plan B's prepared in advance]. And even for those whose next phase is still in physics, disruptions in the job market can occur at any time and can cause subsequent transitions.
OP seems to have one track in mind: academia. Yes, there are options for a PhD who couldn't get a job in academia, but we've had members here who have been single-minded and extremely unhappy with the alternatives, many of which do not have the word "physics" in the job title. OP should face that question head-on sooner than later. I don't think she'd want to wake up 10 years from now teaching remedial algebra at a community college and wondering how she got there and how to get out.

I'm an engineer, not a physicist, but one of the nice things about engineering is that almost all of them can get a job with "engineer" in the title if they want one.
 
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  • #41
russ_watters said:
OP seems to have one track in mind: academia. Yes, there are options for a PhD who couldn't get a job in academia, but we've had members here who have been single-minded and extremely unhappy with the alternatives, many of which do not have the word "physics" in the job title. OP should face that question head-on sooner than later. I don't think she'd want to wake up 10 years from now teaching remedial algebra at a community college and wondering how she got there and how to get out.
I believe the OP is aware of the consequences. I raised the issue earlier:

CrysPhys said:
And even if you do get into a PhD program and even if you do successfully complete it, what happens if you do not land a position as an academic researcher in particle physics? Will you be prepared to say, "OK. I've completed that phase of my life; time to transition to a new phase." ? Will you be content to move on to another field in which you can apply your knowledge, skills, and experience? Even if that other field is, e.g., industrial R&D, finance, or data analysis?
And she replied:
EsbMtrx said:
I would definitely be content working in a support role in a lab at BNL. If after a PhD I do not land a position as an academic researcher, then I would be okay with moving with that part of my life. At the moment I just really want to study more physics.

I suppose my Plan B looks something like either going for a support role in a lab and if that doesn't work out then I would really enjoy a career in machine learning / AI related field. So yes, the Plan B would be something like going for a data analysist position if an academic reseearcher / support role at a lab doesn't work out.
There are PhD programs that do lead to extended career phases; and there are PhD programs that don't. But just because they don't doesn't mean they're not worthwhile ... as long as the PhD students are aware of the consequences. Think of PhD students in the humanities, those who write theses on Sanskrit poetry or Babylonian myths or Sumerian cuneiform. If they have the means and passion for their work, why not fulfill their passions for their years in grad school? ... As long as they're prepared to move on afterwards.
 
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  • #42
CrysPhys said:
There are PhD programs that do lead to extended career phases; and there are PhD programs that don't. But just because they don't doesn't mean they're not worthwhile ... as long as the PhD students are aware of the consequences. Think of PhD students in the humanities, those who write theses on Sanskrit poetry or Babylonian myths or Sumerian cuneiform. If they have the means and passion for their work, why not fulfill their passions for their years in grad school? ... As long as they're prepared to move on afterwards.
I think people tend to overestimate their "means" and/or underestimate the opportunity cost of learning something primarily to satiate a passion (a million dollars?). But maybe you're right and she's fully aware of the risks/costs.
 
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  • #43
russ_watters said:
I think people tend to overestimate their "means" and/or underestimate the opportunity cost of learning something primarily to satiate a passion (a million dollars?).
That's because for some people their top priority is not maximizing their income over their lifetime. If you want to follow your dream (your heart, your passion), even if only for a duration of several years, often it's easiest when you're young ... before you take on the responsibilities of marriage and family.

But my daughter learned that some people do it in reverse order. Her mission was to save the polar bears (well, the environment in a broader sense). She went to college in DC, and while there she had internships and summer jobs with non-profit environmental advocacy organizations. Some of the harsh realities she learned: (1) non-profits don't pay much, and (2) DC is an expensive place to live in. She also learned about the career trajectories of the execs at those places. Most had started out in finance, business, or law. When they were younger, they worked for large Wall Street firms, corporations, consulting firms, or law firms. Jobs that made them piles of money ... enough so that by their ~early-to-mid 40's they could step down in income and work for a non-profit in DC, for causes they strongly believed in.

As for me, during one of my transitions to a new career phase, I took a test run at becoming a private tutor. I'm in an area with enough parents who send their kids to private schools and hire private tutors, with the express goal of maximizing their kids' chances of being admitted to Harvard or some other elite school. I did fairly well, and I found that having a PhD in physics, as well as an elite school on my resume, could lead to a higher billing rate. I decided at the time not to pursue a career as a private tutor, but transitioned to a career as a patent agent instead. But here's the interesting twist. In the midst of the pandemic (I was retired by then), I trained to become a volunteer ESL (English as a Second Language) tutor. My initial motivation was to help out a woman who works at a rink I skate at; her native language is not English, and she needed help. So now, instead of raking in bucks by tutoring dumb rich kids in math and science, I volunteer my services for free by tutoring immigrants in English.
 
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  • #44
russ_watters said:
Yes, there are options for a PhD who couldn't get a job in academia, but we've had members here who have been single-minded and extremely unhappy with the alternatives, many of which do not have the word "physics" in the job title.
That's because these people make the mistake of letting their jobs define their lives.

Personally I transitioned from "physicist" to "quality improvement engineer" to "systems engineer" to "systems architect" to "network architect" to "network engineer" to "patent agent". "Physicist" was in an industrial R&D lab, "engineer" and "architect" were in telcom companies, "patent agent" was in law firms.

But at the same time, I transitioned from "single" to "husband" to "father". And these personal roles strongly influenced my choices of professional roles. As the job market changed, I could either stay a physicist and move to follow the jobs; or I could stay put (in terms of location) and change jobs. Some of my colleagues insisted in maintaining their professional roles as their number one priorities. Some moved to different states every 2 to 3 yrs, dragging their spouses and kids with them. Others split their families: spouses and kids stayed put, while they moved to another state, rented apartments, and came home during weekends.

I always considered my wife's career on equal footing as my own. And when my daughter was born (actually before she was born), I promised her she'd always be my number one priority. So keeping my family intact was far more important to me than working in a job with "physics" in the job title.
 
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  • #45
Frabjous said:
Your health issues gives the admissions committee an excuse for ignoring your undergraduate grades, BUT you need to give them a reason to look for that excuse. A large percentage of students do not complete their PhD program; you need to demonstrate that you will not be one of them.
1) Demonstrate an ability to do research.
2) Do well on the Physics GRE. You will need more than Halliday and Resnick to do this.
3) You mention being able to take classes at a neighboring university. You should choose among classical mechanics, e&m, quantum and stat mech. Obviously you will need good grades.
4) Exploit the networks of you advisor and BNL collaborators for prospective universities. A recommendation of unconditional support from a known person can go a long way.

Be aware that you can do all of this and still not reach your goal.

@ohwilleke‘s industrial approach is also a very good suggestion.
Thank you for the advice!

I've spoken with more of my professors and they've mentioned similar things: demonstrate an ability to do research, the PGRE (although they also mentioned less and less programs are valuing that nowadays but I still plan on taking it), and courses at a neighboring university.

For the next Fall and Spring semesters, graduate level Mechanics and QM are being offered respectively so I think it'll be a good idea to register for those and demonstrate that I can handle work at the graduate level.
 
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  • #46
Vanadium 50 said:
That will help you at a handful of schools. Ask around.Because you aren't hitting the issues head on. You need to prove that you are readu for a PhD program, and right now, the evidence is that you are not. Instead you are spending time in a program that even if you are successful will provoke the reaction "Yeah, she got a MS, but the program had few core courses and it took 3x longer than usual for her to complete it."

Further, when it was pointed out that you really needed a Plan B, your Plan B was tp increase the number of acceptable institutions by 5. (There are five DOE science labs with HEP programs) Granted, they are big, but they are no less competitive than universities (amd more so than many).

What you need to do is:
1. Fix your academic deficiencies and demonstrate that you have done so. The first step is to find them,
2. Come up with a credible Plan B, ideally one that positions you to apply to grad schools down the road.

And two words on research:
"Best student this year" is an average letter.
"It doesn't matter how great their research is if they can't successfully complete the coursework." - you can count on this being said over and over again as applications are being reviewed.
1. Both my professors and others in this thread have suggested taking courses at neighboring universities to fix my academic deficiencies. Do you think that will help or do you have any other advice?

2. I'm honestly not sure what you mean by credible Plan B. When you first mentioned Plan B I thought you meant a plan for if I don't get accepted to a PhD program which I already have thought about, isn't really necessary to discuss here, and frankly not what I need advice on. Can you explain a bit more by what you mean when you say credible Plan B?
 
  • #47
The odds are very very low that you will become a professor at a university with an active, supported, HEP research program. Certainly single digits of percents and more likely sub-percent. No, not zero, but small.

You ned to come up with a plan if this does not pan out. An ideal plan would allow you to apply to graduate schools in parallel.

And yes, the PGRE went away for a lot of places during Covid,and is only slowly coming back. That will hurt you. You not only have a low GPA, but a low GPA fro,m NYU which is notorious for grade inflation. You need something to counterbalance that.
 
  • #48
Vanadium 50 said:
The odds are very very low that you will become a professor at a university with an active, supported, HEP research program. Certainly single digits of percents and more likely sub-percent. No, not zero, but small.

You ned to come up with a plan if this does not pan out. An ideal plan would allow you to apply to graduate schools in parallel.

And yes, the PGRE went away for a lot of places during Covid,and is only slowly coming back. That will hurt you. You not only have a low GPA, but a low GPA fro,m NYU which is notorious for grade inflation. You need something to counterbalance that.
Ok thank you for clearing that up. I think we got off on the wrong foot due to the earlier misunderstanding so I'd like to apologize for any earlier hostility or aggression in my tone or posts.

I've been doing some thinking and got an idea after looking into some more programs. A loose plan that comes to mind is applying to some sort of Master's program that's advertised as a "bridge" program to Physics PhD's. For example, the City College at New York City offers a Master's in Physics specifically for people who are looking to do a PhD in physics but feel their undergraduate education in physics was since they didn't major in it. While my situation is different, it might help. The Master's program at CCNY is much more rigorous and would allow me to make up for my academic deficiencies, I believe and perhaps even apply for the PhD program at CCNY itself. I believe Stony Brook has a similar program but I have to double check. If I do a 1 year Master's program at a better university, then that they may better position me to apply for PhD programs. I feel more confident in applying to other Master's programs with an updated transcript and more research experience. I will definitely look into more programs that are similar.

Does this sound like the beginnings of a credible Plan B to you?
 
  • #49
CCNY? I'd make an appointmenty with Tony Liss (he's a dean or something, and an excellent high energy physicistt) and talk turkey. I'd ask questions like:
1. What fraction of program alumni eventually get PhDs?
3. What fraction of those go on to get faculty positions?

I also notice that all your schools are in the greater New York area. I am aware that New Yorkers consider the land beyond the New Jersey Turrnpike as a barbarous wasteland, but you need to consider that there is more than just the east coast, Probably the best HEP program in the country is UCSB. Berkeley is no slouch. Michigan is excellent. So is Stanford, If you are restricted to this area because of ties, your odds of reaching your professional goals fall even further.
 
  • #50
Vanadium 50 said:
CCNY? I'd make an appointmenty with Tony Liss (he's a dean or something, and an excellent high energy physicistt) and talk turkey. I'd ask questions like:
1. What fraction of program alumni eventually get PhDs?
3. What fraction of those go on to get faculty positions?

I also notice that all your schools are in the greater New York area. I am aware that New Yorkers consider the land beyond the New Jersey Turrnpike as a barbarous wasteland, but you need to consider that there is more than just the east coast, Probably the best HEP program in the country is UCSB. Berkeley is no slouch. Michigan is excellent. So is Stanford, If you are restricted to this area because of ties, your odds of reaching your professional goals fall even further.
Oh yeah I absolutely agree with you. I just haven't done the research into looking at schools outside of the east coast so those are the programs I know off the top of my head. I'm definitely not restricted to the area and plan on looking across the country. I'm going to send out emails and try to talk to people from those programs and see what they think, ask questions like you just suggested. Do you think it's a good idea for me to be transparent about my undergraduate grades or would that turn them away? I was thinking I should since if I plan on applying, they would see my transcript anyway so might as well explain the situation from the get-go. Just something like: this is what happened in undergrad, I'm currently in another Master's program but my career goal is XYZ and I believe this program will position me better to do that.

What do you think?
 
  • #51
I think you guys have been overly harsh on the OP.

I too had a 2.7 undergrad GPA (although my school is notorious for grade deflation but still, I was not performing as well as I should've in the exams)

When I spoke to my undergrad supervisor about doing research in hep-th (the most competitive field) in the future I was laughed at, something that I still remember to this day.

I then did a MSc in Europe during covid, I took all graduate modules (e.g. QFT in curved space, super string theory) and got nearly 100% in every one of them, one thing I also realised at that time is I am a very bad test taker in the traditional way (maybe OP can relate?), i.e. I was really bad at reciting stuff under timed pressure. Luckily all my exams during my MSc were open-book and it was a bless.

I was also *extremely* lucky to work with one of the giants in my field, which resulted in 3 papers (inc one PRL).

So when I applied for PhDs I get into all of the places that I applied to (some of them even said on the website "minimum entry requirement is 3.7/4", but I applied anyway) . Overall I think what helps is:

1. getting a good GPA in MSc. (although I even doubt if that's necessary, read my edited comment at the end)
2. I spent 2 long paragraphs in my PS to explain my poor undergrad GPA (basically what I said above about the test taker stuff), my prof told me to not mention my undergrad at all, but I think mentioning it might actually helped my application.
3. 3 papers in hep-th and very strong recommendation letters, which is probably the 1st order contribution to my entire profile.

So don't stress about it too much, as others have said, focus on your research, and let your papers to speak themselves.

Edit: another thing that I remembered when writing this, I also know someone who had horrible undergrad GPA (even worse than mine which is rare), but managed to publish in one of the most prestigious journals in pure maths (I forgot if it's Annals or something), he was in pure maths so I don't know if admissions work differently but for him he didn't even get a masters, yet still got into most prestigious places. So yeah, the pt.1 above might not even be necessary.
 
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  • #52
EsbMtrx said:
Do you think it's a good idea for me to be transparent about my undergraduate grade
As opposed to springing it on them later? Surprise!

What's the worst case? That they aren't interested in anyone with a GPA that low, no matter the remediation. Isn't it better for you to find out sooner rather than later so you can focus on places that are?
 
  • #53
Vanadium 50 said:
What you need to do is:
1. Fix your academic deficiencies and demonstrate that you have done so. The first step is to find them,
2. Come up with a credible Plan B, ideally one that positions you to apply to grad schools down the road.
@Vanadium 50 , what would you suggest that the OP do to demonstrate that she has fixed her academic deficiencies, on top of doing well on the PGRE?

The OP has already stated that she will be finishing her Masters in applied physics. Would you suggest that she complete another bachelor's degree in physics?

I see a lot of snark from you, and no real actionable advice on this thread.
 
  • #54
Once she gets a 95%+ on the GRE, we can discuss what else she should be doing.
 

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