• Support PF! Buy your school textbooks, materials and every day products via PF Here!

Admissions Can an MS make up for a poor undergrad?

Hi all.

I've previously posted here about applying for grad schools with the effect of major depression severely impacting my grades. All the schools I applied for rejected me, so I'm wondering how best to go forth.

I've accepted a teaching job teaching high school mathematics. In the meantime I plan to do an online MS in mathematics through Emporia State. I intend to apply for the DoE Computational Science Graduate Fellowship afterwards, but I don't honestly expect to get it.

I've worked two years in an x-ray crystallography lab, which should produce 2-3 papers in the coming year. My GRE scores are also pretty decent (V: 170/170, Q: 170/170, W: 5.5/6.0, Physics: 830/1000 73%). My overall GPA at graduation is 3.19, but the latter two years drag down the first two years a lot to get to that point.

My question is primarily if anyone has any advice for what I should be doing in the next 3-4 to maximize my chances of acceptance into PhD programs for physics. Will doing well in the MS for mathematics overcome my poor undergraduate record? Any tips for applying for the DoE CSGF? Is there anything else I should be doing in the mean time? Should I be doing something different? All advice and help are welcome.
 
985
295
This is more out of curiosity since I'm not familiar with the process of getting an MS before applying to be a PhD candidate, but why not pursue an MS in physics if you want to ultimately get a PhD in physics? Also, what schools did you apply to (should you aim a little lower)?
 

Vanadium 50

Staff Emeritus
Science Advisor
Education Advisor
22,830
5,073
Will doing well in the MS for mathematics overcome my poor undergraduate record?
It's not a magic wand. Doing well in an MS program will look better than doing poorly, sure, but if you got a C- in undergraduate QM you'll still have a C- in undergraduate QM. Also, you might want to be a bit realistic: an online MS from a low-mid-tier university in a program intended for high school math teachers is not going to exactly make the admissions committee's socks roll up and down. In fact, there's a bit of a risk - if you don't do well, what is the committee going to think?
 
It's not a magic wand. Doing well in an MS program will look better than doing poorly, sure, but if you got a C- in undergraduate QM you'll still have a C- in undergraduate QM. Also, you might want to be a bit realistic: an online MS from a low-mid-tier university in a program intended for high school math teachers is not going to exactly make the admissions committee's socks roll up and down. In fact, there's a bit of a risk - if you don't do well, what is the committee going to think?
I can see why it wouldn't be very useful. What do you suggest I do then? I can't retake the physics courses because of university policy.
 

Vanadium 50

Staff Emeritus
Science Advisor
Education Advisor
22,830
5,073
You know, I get this a lot. Unfortunately, it's very hard to change the past. You can give it your best shot going forward, but that's about it.
 
This is more out of curiosity since I'm not familiar with the process of getting an MS before applying to be a PhD candidate, but why not pursue an MS in physics if you want to ultimately get a PhD in physics? Also, what schools did you apply to (should you aim a little lower)?
I decided to pursue an MS in mathematics because I was looking into online programs for both since I have to work through it to afford it, and mathematics was much easier to find. Johns Hopkins does have a program in applied physics which I might apply to, but cost is very high--I'd have to quit my job and find a better paying one. Although, if it's possible to get a fellowship that would help that would fix things for me, but I anticipate being rejected for fellowships because of my transcript.

To answer your question about which school I applied to, I based it primarily on research groups and so I applied to the following:

1. Arizona State University
2. Cornell
3. Berkeley
4. Princeton
5. Univ. of Michigan
6. UC San Diego

These are all admittedly pretty decent schools, but all (including my alma mater) rejected me, and one professor told me everything was great but my transcripts, which were just intolerably bad.
 

StatGuy2000

Education Advisor
1,611
689
You know, I get this a lot. Unfortunately, it's very hard to change the past. You can give it your best shot going forward, but that's about it.
@Vanadium 50 , that is a very vague statement, and not especially helpful to the OP. What does "giving your best shot going forward" even mean?

If your intention is to suggest that a graduate program in physics is impossible for the OP, I think it would be far better for you to be honest and upfront about this.
 

StatGuy2000

Education Advisor
1,611
689
I decided to pursue an MS in mathematics because I was looking into online programs for both since I have to work through it to afford it, and mathematics was much easier to find. Johns Hopkins does have a program in applied physics which I might apply to, but cost is very high--I'd have to quit my job and find a better paying one. Although, if it's possible to get a fellowship that would help that would fix things for me, but I anticipate being rejected for fellowships because of my transcript.

To answer your question about which school I applied to, I based it primarily on research groups and so I applied to the following:

1. Arizona State University
2. Cornell
3. Berkeley
4. Princeton
5. Univ. of Michigan
6. UC San Diego

These are all admittedly pretty decent schools, but all (including my alma mater) rejected me, and one professor told me everything was great but my transcripts, which were just intolerably bad.
To the OP:

I can't speak to Arizona State, but all of your other schools are among the most highly ranked and competitive graduate schools for STEM programs, so I'm not surprised that you would be rejected from all of them. Even students who have stronger GPA's have been rejected from these schools. I think @Dishsoap 's suggestions of aiming a little lower might be helpful.

I should also add that unless you intend on pursuing further graduate studies in math, I really don't see how earning a MS in mathematics can really help you, especially if the intent is to pursue a PhD in physics.

In all honesty, I think the likelihood of being admitted to any PhD program in physics is very low, so if I were in your position, I would give up on that dream as just that, a dream. I would instead focus on pursuing a path that would give you marketable skills.

A career in education is a worthwhile goal, so I would continue on the path of teaching high school and be that inspiration for future students. Other possible options to consider include the following:

(a) Boost your skills in, say, programming, as this would complement your experience in X-ray crystallography in areas like numerical analysis in industry.

(b) Consider studying statistics on your own (perhaps through Coursera, or taking or auditing classes) and moving into a career in data science.

(c) Perhaps aiming for a second undergraduate degree in an engineering field (given your background in X-ray crystallography). I can think of areas like chemical engineering or electrical engineering, among others.
 
Last edited:

Vanadium 50

Staff Emeritus
Science Advisor
Education Advisor
22,830
5,073
I think it would be far better for you to be honest and upfront about this.
But then you and people like you would be giving me crap for that.

I'm supposed to be positive and say "everybody, follow your dreams!" and "you can do anything you put your mind to!". But fact of the matter is, not everyone gets to go to grad school. The number of people who take the PGRE used to be 2x the number admitted, but it's over 3X now and continuing up.

The other fact of the matter is one's record is one's record. As I said, "if you got a C- in undergraduate QM you'll still have a C- in undergraduate QM. " I know, I'm supposed to say "oooo....but the committee will understand that your grades don't reflect what you are capable of and will recognize your passion" but fact of the matter is that no committee I've been on or heard of thinks this way. They simply reach into the basket of applications and pick out another one. And besides, "passion" (by which most people mean "desire", which is another thing entirely) isn't enough. As Lou Gossett once said "My grandmother wants to fly jets!"

Can I be sure that no program will take him? Of course not. I'm not a mind reader. No idea what a committee will think. But what I can say is someone with a low GPA, a so-so PGRE and a maybe average research history will not move the needle a huge amount by getting an online MS in another subject from a not-amazingly-stellar collage.

Which I did.
 
Last edited:
To the OP:

I can't speak to Arizona State, but all of your other schools are among the most highly ranked and competitive graduate schools for STEM programs, so I'm not surprised that you would be rejected from all of them. Even students who have stronger GPA's have been rejected from these schools. I think @Dishsoap 's suggestions of aiming a little lower might be helpful.

I should also add that unless you intend on pursuing further graduate studies in math, I really don't see how earning a MS in mathematics can really help you, especially if the intent is to pursue a PhD in physics.

In all honesty, I think the likelihood of being admitted to any PhD program in physics is very low, so if I were in your position, I would give up on that dream as just that, a dream. I would instead focus on pursuing a path that would give me marketable skills.

A career in education is a worthwhile goal, so I would continue on the path of teaching high school and be that inspiration for future students. Other possible options to consider include the following:

(a) Boost your skills in, say, programming, as this would complement your experience in X-ray crystallography in areas like numerical analysis in industry.

(b) Consider studying statistics on your own (perhaps through Coursera, or taking or auditing classes) and moving into a career in data science.

(c) Perhaps aiming for a second undergraduate degree in an engineering field (given your background in X-ray crystallography). I can think of areas like chemical engineering or electrical engineering, among others.
Your advice here is my fallback plan, but I am rather determined to make my research plan work. Do you think pursuing an in-person MS in physics somewhere would do a lot to fix my problem? I'm currently applying for the GEM Fellowship (though I don't expect to get it), but if it costs me out of pocket to do it and that will get me into a PhD program I'm happy to.

On my next round of PhD applications I will diversify reputation a lot more intentionally. I think it was a mistake to apply to so many high tier schools and not many lower ones.
 

StatGuy2000

Education Advisor
1,611
689
But then you and people like you would be giving me crap for that.
I can only speak for myself, but if you were honest and upfront about what is possible and what isn't, and given meaningful, useful and applicable advice related to this, then no, I at least would not give you crap for that.

I'm supposed to be positive and say "everybody, follow your dreams!" and "you can do anything you put your mind to!". But fact of the matter is, not everyone gets to go to grad school. The number of people who take the PGRE used to be 2x the number admitted, but it's over 3X now and continuing up.
I'm not sure if this point is directed at me specifically, but for the record, I have never said you were supposed to be positive and say "everybody, follow your dreams" or give any kind of advice in kind. If anything, my posting record should indicate my scorn for such unrealistic thinking.

The other fact of the matter is one's record is one's record. As I said, "if you got a C- in undergraduate QM you'll still have a C- in undergraduate QM. " I know, I'm supposed to say "oooo....but the committee will understand that your grades don't reflect what you are capable of and will recognize your passion" but fact of the matter is that no committee I've been on or heard of thinks this way. They simply reach into the basket of applications and pick out another one. And besides, "passion" (by which most people mean "desire", which is another thing entirely) isn't enough. As Lou Gossett once said "My grandmother wants to fly jets!"

Can I be sure that no program will take him? Of course not. I'm not a mind reader. No idea what a committee will think. But what I can say is someone with a low GPA, a so-so PGRE and a maybe average research history will move the needle a huge amount by getting an online MS in another subject from a not-amazingly-stellar collage.

Which I did.
I don't disagree with your assessment above, and my reply indicates that we have similar views. But in addition, the OP is asking for more specific advice, and so simply saying "give it your best shot" is not meaningful.
 

StatGuy2000

Education Advisor
1,611
689
Your advice here is my fallback plan, but I am rather determined to make my research plan work. Do you think pursuing an in-person MS in physics somewhere would do a lot to fix my problem? I'm currently applying for the GEM Fellowship (though I don't expect to get it), but if it costs me out of pocket to do it and that will get me into a PhD program I'm happy to.

On my next round of PhD applications I will diversify reputation a lot more intentionally. I think it was a mistake to apply to so many high tier schools and not many lower ones.
I honestly cannot say whether an in-person MS in physics would be helpful or not. Much would depend on how successful you would be in such a program.

The key thing is that your undergraduate academic record is your academic record, and even taking into account your medical problem (depression) at the time cannot erase this. For departments offering PhD programs in physics to consider you, you would need to demonstrate mastery of the material. I'm thinking you would need to have a GPA of 4.0 out of 4.0, and get strong letters of recommendation from physics faculty members.

Is this doable? It's possible, but it is a significant obstacle. I don't want to pour water on your dreams, but again, if I were you, I would focus on what can more feasibly be achieved.
 
Last edited:

Dr. Courtney

Education Advisor
Insights Author
Gold Member
2018 Award
2,886
1,789
To make up for bad undergrad Physics grades in preparation for a Physics PhD program, an MS would have to be in Physics and demonstrate mastery (better grades) in the critical core courses rather than the fluff courses offered by some MS programs. You gotta convince the admissions peeps in PhD programs you know enough QM, Stat Mech, E&M, and Classical Mechanics to succeed in their program - including passing their general exams and required coursework.

Whatever you may accomplish in Math and/or Comp Sci MS programs is of comparatively little value.

But I also tend to think you aimed way too high in your selection of grad schools. Most students in your shoes would do better to apply to 5-10 schools ranked between 75 and 100 nationally for Physics PhD programs.
 
9,101
2,022
But I also tend to think you aimed way too high in your selection of grad schools. Most students in your shoes would do better to apply to 5-10 schools ranked between 75 and 100 nationally for Physics PhD programs.
I think you should consider looking beyond the schools you mention - perhaps other countries.

I know in general in the UK you need a first class or high second class honors to do a PhD. But if you do well in a relevant masters then your undergrad results can get 'upgraded' so to speak, so if say you had second class honors and good Masters marks then you may be considered to have, for the purposes of PhD admission, a high second class honors.

In Australia you can do a Masters of Research provided you have about a credit average undergrad. Get 75% or more in the masters and you get admitted to a 3 year PhD - with a credit average you get admitted to a Master of Philosophy and then a automatic admission to a 3 year Phd.

Thanks
Bill
 
929
205
To make up for bad undergrad Physics grades in preparation for a Physics PhD program, an MS would have to be in Physics and demonstrate mastery (better grades) in the critical core courses rather than the fluff courses offered by some MS programs. You gotta convince the admissions peeps in PhD programs you know enough QM, Stat Mech, E&M, and Classical Mechanics to succeed in their program - including passing their general exams and required coursework.

Whatever you may accomplish in Math and/or Comp Sci MS programs is of comparatively little value.

But I also tend to think you aimed way too high in your selection of grad schools. Most students in your shoes would do better to apply to 5-10 schools ranked between 75 and 100 nationally for Physics PhD programs.
This is the most constructive post posted on this thread. If you want to go for PhD in Physics, then get a MS in Physics. Make sure that you take quality courses and not fillers.
 

marcusl

Science Advisor
Gold Member
2,585
240
I’m not following how the OP is going to be admitted to a physics masters program. Would it be better to retake the advanced undergrad EM, QM, etc classes at a different undergrad college? Assuming you do well there, grad physics admission would be more likely.
 
9,101
2,022
I’m not following how the OP is going to be admitted to a physics masters program.
I cant speak for the US system, I know in general how it works but exactly what grades you need for what school and the GRE thing is something foreign to me. And you are correct - in the US getting admitted to a Masters may not even be possible - but the US is not the only country with a good education system. I have a bit of an idea how it works in the UK - usually you would do a combined Honors/Masters with a significant research component - although you can get admitted without the masters but I have been told that is becoming rarer. If you do well in your masters component but not so well in your undergrad component then they will take that into account and you may get a higher honors award eg instead of second class honors you may be awarded first. Generally you need high second class or first class honors to do a PhD. You also do not need to do the combined honors masters - you can do them separately and the 'upgrading' provisions still apply. No GRE needed for the masters, but generally at least 2nd class honors. A 3.19 GPA should be OK.

The system I know best is the Australian system which is undergoing a bit of a revamp right now. Instead of an honors degree you do a Maters Of Research for two years after a 3 year ordinary degree (of course you can also do a 4 year style US degree or a UK style honors degree and may get credit). Admission is a little over a credit average during your final year of study - that's pretty much it:

After completion if you get at least 75% you go straight to a 3 year PhD. If you get at least a credit average you can be admitted to a 2 year Master of Philosophy program and then a PhD which takes a further 3 years.

The OP's 3.19 corresponds to over a credit average so he should have no problems. Like England we do not have anything like the GRE in Australia.

So there are a number of options available to the OP but he will have to research and decide on the best one for him.

Thanks
Bill
 
Last edited:
984
120
Regardless of what Vanadium says a high masters gpa will absolutely make up for lower undergrad gpa, but the degree to which that makes the difference in acceptance will vary somewhat wildly.

I had a friend who had a subpar undergrad gpa and through the APS bridge program acquired a high masters gpa but when he attempted to apply for phd programs at higher level schools than the one he got his masters in he was denied due to the fact that his undergrad gpa followed him when applying for fellowships which effectively meant he wouldn't get funding for his phd.

I work with him now and he is in a Physics PhD program where our employer will be paying for the PhD, where the disertation subject will be related to stuff we're investigating at work.

I'm in a similar situation, sub-par undergrad grads in physics , so I worked for a number of years acquiring research experience and took courses as a non-degree seeking student acquiring a high graduate level gpa and was recently accepted to do a masters in aero-space engineering (where my research will be on the more theoretical / basic physics side); and I intend to move on to do a PhD in the same discipline..

I think this is more easily done on the engineering side where work experience is given more respect vs the academic side of the physicists (there's also no physics gre on the engineering side which is a plus). You can also do plenty of physics in engineering departments so don't discount them in your search depending on what areas of physics you're interested in. Best of luck.
 
Regardless of what Vanadium says a high masters gpa will absolutely make up for lower undergrad gpa, but the degree to which that makes the difference in acceptance will vary somewhat wildly.

I had a friend who had a subpar undergrad gpa and through the APS bridge program acquired a high masters gpa but when he attempted to apply for phd programs at higher level schools than the one he got his masters in he was denied due to the fact that his undergrad gpa followed him when applying for fellowships which effectively meant he wouldn't get funding for his phd.

I work with him now and he is in a Physics PhD program where our employer will be paying for the PhD, where the disertation subject will be related to stuff we're investigating at work.

I'm in a similar situation, sub-par undergrad grads in physics , so I worked for a number of years acquiring research experience and took courses as a non-degree seeking student acquiring a high graduate level gpa and was recently accepted to do a masters in aero-space engineering (where my research will be on the more theoretical / basic physics side); and I intend to move on to do a PhD in the same discipline..

I think this is more easily done on the engineering side where work experience is given more respect vs the academic side of the physicists (there's also no physics gre on the engineering side which is a plus). You can also do plenty of physics in engineering departments so don't discount them in your search depending on what areas of physics you're interested in. Best of luck.
Thanks!

I recently got accepted into Johns Hopkins' Applied Physics M.S. program at https://ep.jhu.edu/programs-and-courses/programs/applied-physics and was wondering if this would be considered sufficient to show my ability (assuming I do well) to admissions committees for PhD work?

The price is steep but I can find a way to pay it if it will work. My only hesitation is that it's an online degree and I know sometimes people have prejudices against that -- although I am considering moving to Baltimore to study in person, at least for the final year.
 
984
120
Thanks!

I recently got accepted into Johns Hopkins' Applied Physics M.S. program at https://ep.jhu.edu/programs-and-courses/programs/applied-physics and was wondering if this would be considered sufficient to show my ability (assuming I do well) to admissions committees for PhD work?

The price is steep but I can find a way to pay it if it will work. My only hesitation is that it's an online degree and I know sometimes people have prejudices against that -- although I am considering moving to Baltimore to study in person, at least for the final year.
Congrats but be warned Johns Hopkins program is closer to a master's degree for working professionals rather than an academically oriented one,and though you can take some classes in their regular physics department youd be graduating out of the engineering school. It's also much too expensive if you're paying your own way IMO. The assumption with a program like that is that your company is paying for it, that's how Im doing my master's. If you're in the Virginia area, you might look into the Commonwealth Graduate Engineering Program, which let's you study online at several VA universities for credit which can lead to master's eventually. George Mason has an engineering physics program out of their physics department which is much cheaper than Johns Hopkins.
 

Want to reply to this thread?

"Can an MS make up for a poor undergrad?" You must log in or register to reply here.

Physics Forums Values

We Value Quality
• Topics based on mainstream science
• Proper English grammar and spelling
We Value Civility
• Positive and compassionate attitudes
• Patience while debating
We Value Productivity
• Disciplined to remain on-topic
• Recognition of own weaknesses
• Solo and co-op problem solving
Top