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Admissions Applying to Grad School with no research experience

  1. Aug 9, 2017 #1
    I'm a domestic student planning on applying to PhD programs in physics this fall but I am concerned with my lack of research experience. I realize this is an odd position to be in but I'm deeply interested in physics and think I'm an otherwise good candidate for graduate study. I'm interested in studying theory (either HEP or condensed matter I haven't yet decided) and my undergraduate adviser said that having research experience isn't really important for theory. However I can't help but feel that this advice may be inaccurate/outdated. I have a 3.67 GPA with a 4.0 GPA in physics classes. My physics GRE is 880 and my general GRE is v165/q165/w5.0. In addition I have taken a couple of graduate classes in physics and have done some independent study on normally graduate topics like GR and QFT.

    Part of the difficulty for me is that by grades and test scores I feel like a very qualified applicant and I'm uncertain how severely the lack of research experience will affect my competitiveness. Is there a satisfactory way that I can address this shortcoming in my background?

  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 9, 2017 #2


    Staff: Mentor

    Get some computer science courses too especially in computational physics that could offset your lack of research as theory tends to use numerical computation to test out ideas.

    However, you should have a serious talk with your advisors and ask them to help you find the best course of action.
  4. Aug 9, 2017 #3


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    It sounds like you still have a year left before you would be admitted to graduate school. That's plenty of time to get some research experience.

    Remember, things like a senior thesis project count as research experience. Not everyone needs to have spent every summer since first year in a lab.
  5. Aug 13, 2017 #4
    Your profile is very good otherwise. Like others say, try to find some during the next year.

    I'm about to start my first year of physics grad school and I was accepted to 4 programs without research experience and with notably worse GRE scores.

    As long as you set your bar appropriately when applying, you will very likely get into a program you're happy with.
  6. Aug 14, 2017 #5
    A complete lack of research experience will reduce the overall strength of your application. Few students like to mention the name of their undergrad institution explicitly (for privacy, which is reasonable), but interpreting the meaning of a 3.67 GPA (and 4.0 in physics) depends strongly on 1. The academic rigor and ranking of the institution (top 10, top 50, top 100, ranked below 100) 2. BS or BA in Physics 3. credit hours, coursework, and grades in math 3. credit hours and grades in Physics, etc.

    Schools will tend to judge the lack of research experience differently and will consider whether the lack is likely attributable to 1. your personal choice 2. lack of opportunities at your institution 3 other circumstances. If you had several advanced level laboratory courses, have strong letters of recommendation, and otherwise provide good evidence of the kind of skills often developed in research experiences, your application will be stronger than if you have not. But as mentioned above, you still have some time. Work quickly to try and get into research.

    Send a PM and I'd be happy to go over your resume and privately offer better advice knowing more of the above details. With the limited knowledge available, I would tend to recommend you apply to several schools ranked between 50 and 100. If you apply to 5 schools, I'd be surprised if you did not get admitted to at least one. If that process ends up satisfactory, you are good to go into a PhD program next fall. If that process is unsatisfactory, you should have strengthened your research experience considerably your last year of undergraduate, so you will be in a stronger position a year from now and can consider a taking a year or a semester off to reapply after your research experience is improved.

    But no doubt PhD program applications are much weaker without research experience. We encourage the students we mentor to become active in research as soon as possible, and have them sending out resumes to professors and knocking on doors as early as their first semester in college. But you've got a full year left, so I would get to it. Depending on your application due dates, you may not accomplish too much before some applications are due, but you might at least have a project title and the promise of real accomplishments and improved experience by the time you graduate.
  7. Aug 14, 2017 #6

    Vanadium 50

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    Why would you want to dedicate the next ~7 years of your life to research without trying it out as an undergrad?
  8. Sep 9, 2017 #7
    I'm in a somewhat similar position. I lack research experience since it is impossible to find a research in my country in undergraduate level. My school is bad, my gpa is 3.6, I will just have a poster representation at the end of this year and perhaps a summer school in CERN (it is still not clear tho). I wish to apply for HEP theory or complex systems. It is discouraging to see people with so strong profiles. Also this application process will cost me a lot of money, so I started questioning if i should really do it, since considering Trump administration's policy and being an international applicant, my chances are very very low. best of luck for you tho!
  9. Sep 9, 2017 #8


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    Don't worry about comparing your profile too much with those of others. Sure, it's important to have a ballpark idea of where you stand, but you only need to get into one program, and so it's important to focus on figuring out what the best possible matches are for you. Having a poster presentation is great! Lots of people get into graduate school with less. CERN summer school would be an awesome opportunity.

    I might also add that if it's not working out for you, the US isn't the only country in the world with great graduate schools.
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