1. Limited time only! Sign up for a free 30min personal tutor trial with Chegg Tutors
    Dismiss Notice
Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

Can an average student succeed in Research/Academia?

  1. Oct 13, 2013 #1
    I want to become a researcher in physics (or some other scientific field) but unfortunately my undergraduate grades in physics have so far not been too spectacular i.e. a low 2:1 in the UK. When looking at career profiles of various people in research areas I have considered, everyone seems to have a pristine academic record, won numerous awards or been on the dean's list or something. I however, have no such shine to my name.

    So my question is, can an average student like me succeed or even have a stable career in Academia/Research? If so, what are the next steps do you think I could take?
    Last edited: Oct 13, 2013
  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 13, 2013 #2


    User Avatar
    Education Advisor
    Gold Member

    Average is a non-descript term; there will always be a majority of the students in a given program that are average. It depends on the quality of your institution, and how much weight you personally give such rankings.

    My advice to you would be just continue to pursue what you want to pursue trying your best, if it doesn’t work out it isn’t the end of the world.
  4. Oct 13, 2013 #3


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Education Advisor

    Your GPA is not a perfect predictor of academic success. So yes, it is possible for an "average" student to become a successful researcher. But something that you really should pay attention to is why your marks are low.

    Flags that would indicate you'll have a tough time include:
    - laziness
    - disorganization
    - difficulty comprehending material after serious effort
    - lack of desire to read up on material of your own interest
    - an inability to do anything more than regurgitate what you've studied

    Reasons why someone who may go on to be a successful researcher may not have a great undergraduate GPA:
    - taking a class(es) that you're not ready for
    - your part-time job cuts into your study time
    - too much time spent reading up on what interests you and not enough on exam preparation
    - a single "bad year" where you date someone you probably shouldn't, party too much, etc.
    - medical or family issues

    All of that said, remember that for all intents and purposes getting into a traditional professorship is largely a stochastic process with a low probability of success to begin with, even for students with high GPAs. You need to perform at a certain level just to get a spot at the craps table. How the dice land after that are influenced by many factors. GPA is only one of them, and given that you're at the table, probably not the biggest one.
  5. Oct 18, 2013 #4
    Over 450 views and only 2 replies... Any other opinions/advice from people?
  6. Oct 18, 2013 #5
    Doesn't sound very encouraging.. :uhh:
  7. Oct 20, 2013 #6
    I don't think most have encouraging answers to give you. There is an huge selection bias when looking at the profiles of successful academics, the trend is: good high school performance, good university performance, awards, attended prestigious grad school, got prestigious fellowships, etc.

    I don't have a very good undergraduate record, probably comparable to your 2:1. I fall just below what is required to get a (insanely competitive and practically unliveable) phd studentship in my country, a bottleneck that continually gets tighter and the better students simply end up emigrating. I am trying to go down this path, but my standardized test scores are not too hot either, so it looks like I may very well fail to get into a funded graduate program for a second year in a row. It is rare for students like us to be given a chance, much more so when research funding continues to get tighter.

    In the past some subfields would take students with less than stellar undergrad performance because the fields were not as saturated. Nowadays anything short of excellent record -independent of your skills and understanding- is almost a sure nail in the coffin to doing any kind of science.
  8. Oct 20, 2013 #7
    I guess it seems so... :/ I have noticed that even for less "popular" research fields there might not be many people applying but the entry requirements are very high in comparison...
  9. Oct 20, 2013 #8


    User Avatar
    Education Advisor
    Gold Member

    You're still putting too much weight on your GPA. How highly ranked is university? Have you taken graduate level courses? Are you determined and motivated? Do you have research experience? Average rankings are realities, and not always predictive of academic success.

    You should begin to attempt to pad your résumé with things that take you out of the average category. If you give up based on GPA then everyone else will give up on you too.
  10. Oct 20, 2013 #9
    It's a bit of a vicious circle. At least in my situation and region, the only things you can really do for "resume padding" like getting a chance at research, getting a scholarship for a masters degree to improve one's chances at a phd position, etc. all depend heavily on your grade at the end of the day. There are only 3-4 institutions that carry out summer research programs akin to REU's in my country, and they all get at least 1.5 orders of magnitude more applicants than the number of positions they have. Not much more of them out there in the rest of the EU either. Got interviewed at a big UK scientific institution and waitlisted at CERN's summer program myself (and one institution in the US), but ultimately wasn't selected.

    The best you can do is find a prof that is willing to spend some time guiding you with some research/lab technique/directed study. I was lucky enough to find one that was willing and I'm having some fun with that now, so I would advise the OP to do this before graduating, as it only gets harder later on.

    Also, at least nowadays, getting undergraduate research experience seems to be the norm rather than the exception, at least that has been my gathering after spending 2 years in the US grad school application world.
  11. Oct 20, 2013 #10
    I do not think you are very likely to succeed. Sorry to be negative but this is true. Many phd students at Berkeley fail to get decent academic jobs. Same for Harvard/Cal-tech/etc.

    There are usually ways to turn a phd in mathematics/physics into a reasonable career if you are willing to do some more applied work or can impress professors with contacts to industry. Usually only the very best students in a program (at a non-top usually only the actual best student) get decent academic jobs. The people a tier below should be able to impress enough people to set up a decent job after graduation. Anyone who is not even this strong of a student is probably better off not getting a phd.
  12. Oct 20, 2013 #11
    No, not even close IMO. The average student cannot succeed in research/academia. Consider that most graduate programs wont even look at your application if you have below a 3.0 and the average student barely cracks that (http://www.gradeinflation.com/). And those that do get in to a grad program have years of competition to get the PhD, get the good post docs, and then get the research/academic position with attrition happening at every step. Then of course not all who get a position in research/academia will succeed at it.
  13. Oct 20, 2013 #12


    User Avatar
    Education Advisor
    Gold Member

    This I find silly, there is of course a difference between an average student at Caltech and an average student at a small liberal arts College. To blankety assume an average student will fail without looking at the entire picture is wrong. There will always be average students who will succeed, based on more than just GPA or class rankings.
  14. Oct 20, 2013 #13
    The average grad student at Cal Tech is not good enough to get an academic job at a top 50 school (though they are close). These are the jobs people really want in academia at schools with decent-ish phd programs. Never-mind the average undergrad at Cal Tech and the average student at an average college is so far away from being strong enough they really should not try.
  15. Oct 20, 2013 #14


    User Avatar
    Education Advisor
    Gold Member

    Were talking about someone who hasn't even applied for grad school or completed their UG. The average cal tech student could very easily apply and be accepted at a good grad school in their area of interest. In which they at least have a shot at researching. The OP has time to become not so average with a little more work, so where do we get off telling them all is lost?

    There are plenty of reasons to be pessimistic, your averageness shouldn't be one of them. Especially when we aren't privy to the whole picture. Again, the OP wants to do it, therefor they should at least try and average can mean many things.
  16. Oct 21, 2013 #15
    Interesting webpage, thanks for posting it. It would be nice to find one that would enable comparison of university grades in different countries, as IME it varies even more widely. Some of the older profs at my faculty actively and proudly enforce grade "deflation" and actually congratulate people just for passing certain courses on the first attempt (graduating on time is the exception rather than the norm).

    Caltech specifically: I've heard their grading policies are quite harsh and that many good students graduate with a roughly 3.0 GPA have difficulty getting into even average grad programs. Eventually some get in -I'm guessing thanks to connections they can get in research experiences- and do quite well.
  17. Oct 22, 2013 #16
    In life, yes, of course.

    There will always be students of average ability or intellect who succeed in academia, as well. A *lot* of hard work and a little bit of luck will take you far.

    But a student who graduates with average grades is pretty much cut off from future academic advancement before they even start.

    So there are two possible lessons here:
    1. Don't be a student with average grades, even if you have average ability.
    2. Go succeed in something other than academia.
  18. Oct 22, 2013 #17
    Statistically, I'd say your odds are quite low. If you're an average student at the undergraduate level in an average school, then you're going to be a below-average grad student. Don't forget, you've still got a GRE exam to pass, and at least in American schools a qualifying/screening exam before you're even allowed in a PhD Program - then you've got to find a professor willing to take you, and potentially find funding since not all schools guarantee a TA.

    This may mean applying for fellowships which you will NOT get as an average student.

    If you don't make some kind of change you're starting off with a deck of cards which is stacked against your favor. Excellent GRE scores and letters of recommendation, and a change in academic performance can greatly improve your position, however.
  19. Oct 22, 2013 #18

    The first option -in practice- translates into: go to a school with massive grade inflation. Forget about "honest learning", academic integrity, etc. and concentrate on getting the best grades possible.

    The second one is very hard to swallow when one has been putting in all their eggs in the same basket and making huge sacrifices toward their goal(s). Unless you're one of those rare multi-talented polymaths, you've probably made big sacrifices to your life outside of school just to be in physics, so you pretty much anything you do will make you feel like a failure who doesn't belong anywhere.
  20. Oct 22, 2013 #19

    Vanadium 50

    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Education Advisor
    2017 Award

    Bad advice.

    The admissions committees are not as stupid as you think. They know which schools have reputations as hard graders and which ones have reputations as easy graders. That's part of the reason for the GRE. If you don't put in the "honest learning", when your qual comes along, you'll get squashed like a bug.

    Furthermore, if you are willing to compromise academic integrity in order to reach your goals, you shouldn't be a scientist.
  21. Oct 22, 2013 #20
    It wasn't entirely serious advice, in all honesty. But I have seen serial cheaters and lazy students get in to research programs and scholarships they had no business with thanks to their immaculate undergrad records. I've also heard it straight from the mouth of an academic who regularly takes summer students, frustrated with a few odd cases of getting a student (and phd students of colleagues) with poor work ethic. I don't know what happened to them after that, but they were able to advance more than most of the "smart hard workers but with average grades" who were cut off from getting even the more modest of research opportunities in order to prove themselves when time came to apply to phd's and whatnot.
    Last edited: Oct 22, 2013
Know someone interested in this topic? Share this thread via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook

Similar Discussions: Can an average student succeed in Research/Academia?
  1. Average math student (Replies: 11)