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Applying to grad school without research exp?

  1. Nov 5, 2007 #1
    From what I understand, the most important part of a grad school application is previous research experience. I don't have any, and was wondering what schools I should be applying to.

    A little more about me:
    Professors don't know me well so letters of recommendation should be weak
    GPA = 3.6 from a brand name university
    I just took the physics GRE, so I don't know what my score is. I think I answered ~60% of the question correctly so my guess is 700-800.
    I want to go into biophysics but the courses I have taken are "pure physics" courses.

    What range of schools should I be applying to (i.e., 60-80, 100-120, etc)? Also, are the rankings online or do I have to shell out money?

    I'm thinking about taking a year off and volunteering in one of my professor's lab in order to buff up my application. It would also give me the chance to retake the physics GRE (I didn't prepare for it the first time around). Is this advisable, or would I be wasting a year of my time (I don't think I'm going to learn much as a lab monkey)?
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 5, 2007 #2
    Hmm I don't know, research is pretty important, virtually everyone who applies to the top 20 schools has research experience. My research was pretty unremarkable (no articles) and my GPA was so-so so I didn't apply to any top 10 schools.

    What is your class standing?


    There are rankings online at www.phds.org (click one of the tabs for grad school rankings)
    US News has rankings but you have to pay.
    Last edited: Nov 5, 2007
  4. Nov 5, 2007 #3


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    People CAN get into grad school without research experience (not everyone has that opportunity available), but what stands out about your description is that you also don't know any professors well enough to get strong letters of recommendation. That will be more of a hindrance than lack of research experience (usually the research experience helps to get you a strong letter of recommendation). And, while your GPA is good, it's not excellent, so you're not going to be able to make up for a lack of strong recommendations by having a stellar GPA.

    I think your idea of taking a year off to work in a lab is a good one. You'll also find out if research really is what you want to do. You don't need to just volunteer...you could look for paying jobs as a technician. You'd be amazed at how much you can learn in a year in a lab. Part of it will depend on how much you apply yourself to the tasks and how much willingness you have to put in the extra time and effort when needed.

    Have you only recently decided to consider attending graduate school? The overall impression I get from your description is that this is a hasty decision, or that you're not fully committed to your decision yet...for example, not preparing for the physics GRE, not getting experience that will lead to good letters of reference, etc. That's another reason a year off might be a good idea for you; it'll give you more time to really be sure you're making the right decision...entering grad school is not something to take lightly, it's a heck of a lot of hard work.
  5. Nov 5, 2007 #4
    I think you should still apply to some schools though. As for a range? I don't know. A State school may be a good bet. Of course, talking with an advisor in your department would be beneficial too :)

    Good luck
  6. Nov 6, 2007 #5
    I think I can understand your situation well because I'm in a similar situation. I'm also thinking of doing research and then applying next fall again. I'm applying this time too, but I know I have a dim chance.
  7. Nov 6, 2007 #6


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    This is another thing I don't understand about the US university system: how can you have spent three (or four?) years at a university and not struck up enough of a relationship with any of your lecturers such that they know you well enough to write a recommendation letter?

    By the end of my degree (I did a four year, undergrad masters) I'd written a dissertation in the fourth year and a project in the third year, both of which involved meeting with (a different) supervisor once a week. So, I had at least two people who knew my work, personality, ability enough that they could write me a reference. I also had an academic tutor for the whole of my university career. Mostly I only officially saw him once or twice a term (to get exam results or chat about my progress), except probably in my first year when we met more often, but I used to go and talk to him quite a bit either asking for help with some work, or advice with other things. He helped a lot when I was thinking about what specifically to do a PhD in, and gave lots of advice, even though he was in a completely different field. Then, there are the other people who have lectured me: I can probably think of at least two who taught me in the final year in a small enough class to know me well enough to write a decent reference. So, that's at least 5 references, and I've not really gone clutching at straws yet.

    I guess I just don't understand the US system. Do you not have any one-one contact with your lecturers/professors?
  8. Nov 6, 2007 #7
    Not if you only go to class.

    For the most part, I only went to class too. But I'd ask the occasional question and go in for office hours. They still agreed with write a letter for me though. I also asked a professor I had a lab with. Labs courses can be a little more personal so that may be an option too. Of course, many undergrad labs are taught by TAs so I got lucky with that.
  9. Nov 6, 2007 #8
    Thanks for all your replies.

    Answering the questions in this thread:
    I don't know what my class standing is. My guess is the average GPA is around 3.5, so I think I'm average gradewise.

    My decision to attend graduate school was recent. I switched from biology to chemical engineering and finally decided on physics my junior year.

    One-on-one time with professors is rare at my institution (for undergraduates at least). This may be idiosyncratic to my college; I'm told that it ranks #3 out of 366 at "Professors Get Low Marks" and "Class Discussions Rare" at Princeton Review. Professors are researchers first and foremost and the actual teaching is done by graduate student TAs. I have an "adviser" but he has yet to respond to my repeated emails, and frankly if he can't be bothered to meet me I don't want to meet him.

    As for differences between education in US vs. other countries, I've been told that the concept of tenure and "publish or perish" is specific to the US.

    Does anybody have advice on what range of schools I should apply to? I don't mind very much if the graduate program is not highly regarded; my university is supposed to be one of the best in physics but I definitely would not want to be here another 4 years.

    When I ask for letters of recommendation, should I go to my humanities professors (the class sizes were much smaller and we actually had class discussions)?

    If volunteering in a lab won't lead to a better letter of recommendation from a professor (I'm pretty sure I'll be supervised by a grad student), would it still be a good idea to stay an extra year? I'm not too excited by this idea; the only reason I would do this is to fluff up my application so I can get into a better grad school and as stated above I'm ok with going to a low-ranked program. I know this is a horrible thing to say, but using the time to decide whether I like research seems unproductive; if accepted to a grad school, I can simply do research there and drop out if I hate it and save a year.
  10. Nov 6, 2007 #9
    mcah5, you go to Caltech? I think that with a 3.5 in physics from Caltech, you should have a decent shot of getting into a respectable graduate program, even without research experience.
  11. Nov 6, 2007 #10


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    Perhaps he's not getting your emails or something. I understand that at Caltech and other such places, then a lot of courses will be taught by TA's (who will, however, be some of the best young minds in the country!) however there's still got to be someone in charge of the course. For example, I've got the notes from a course that Kip Thorne taught, which are very comprehensive, so at least the courses are written by professors.

    If you're applying for physics, then you need someone who knows your ability in physics.
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