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Admissions Can I apply to grad school in my 2nd year of undergrad?

Hi,

I would appreciate some help in deciding how to continue from my present situation.

I just finished my first year of university in the US (my major is physics, and interest is theory, including CMP and HEP). My GPA is 4.0 and my physics GRE is 870. I also completed essentially all the physics courses that are required for the degree. I am currently scheduled to graduate in Spring 2020.* As a result, it would seem that I need to apply to graduate schools in Fall 2019 (for Fall 2020 enrollment).

I have a number of concerns about applying and my chances of being admitted to my target schools, and would appreciate any guidance on things I can do to fix/mitigate the problems:

First: I only started doing research this year, and will have roughly just one year of research by the time I start applying to graduate schools. I've heard that research is one of the most important criteria on which admission is based, and I'm worried that by graduating early I limit the amount of research I can show.

Second: Many of my target graduate program websites insist that they are looking for students with multiple semesters of topics such as classical mechanics, quantum mechanics, statistical mechanics, and electricity/magnetism. My university offers two semesters of each course in that category except for statistical mechanics (for which there is only one course). The degree requirement in my school does not include the second semester of each. I have already completed the first semester in each plus one additional semester of classical mechanics. In my graduation plan for Spring 2020, my transcript does not include the highest undergraduate level of quantum mechanics and electricity/magnetism course that my school offers, and my concern is that without such courses on the transcript, I might not be as competitive.**

Third: I know that my physics GRE score is quite lower than scores that are generally accepted by my target schools. I am planning on taking it at least once more in the Fall, but am also considering additionally taking the math GRE for which I am much better prepared. I believe I have two tries left at a subject GRE, and I am debating whether to take math and physics once each or physics twice. Physics twice would almost surely give me a score above what I would be satisfied with, but math and physics once each would likely give me satisfactory scores in each test.***

Fourth: Not sure how important this is, but many of my competitors claim to have strong recommendation letters from extremely distinguished faculty, like Nobel laureates. My recommendation letters will have good content, and will be written by tenured professors, but they certainly won't be written by people with such extremely high caliber. (I don't even think there are such well-respected members of the field at my school, and I feel like I haven't had enough time to make meaningful contact with such people outside my university yet.)

Initially, I was going to graduate in three semesters, but I decided to add a fourth one because it was affordable. After this point I'm not sure if I can afford any more semesters of college. How do I proceed? Do my chances of getting into graduate schools improve substantially by taking more years of college? Is the benefit that is brought by a couple extra years of research/internships + some courses enough to justify a lifetime of debt? My parents claim that with the low job prospects of physics, I should just graduate immediately and start looking for jobs if I don't manage to get into desirable graduate schools. Another idea is to take two more years to get some other degrees in fields where I can actually get jobs to pay off the debt. Parents also claim that the prestige level of research/internships is not as important as the amount of total work experience and that it would be better to just look for a full time job immediately after graduating and build up from there instead of getting research/internships while spending more time in school and then using those to get a full time job.

Can anyone clarify? I'm really confused about what to do. I don't want to end up as a graduate student at my current university because I don't think I'll gain much from the coursework and they don't really do the kind of research I'm ultimately interested in (fundamental physics).

THANK YOU in advance for reading this and for any guidance you may provide.

*Some background information: I was fortunate enough to be able to take enough major-specific and transferable courses during high school to finish 60% of the degree requirements.

**Addendum: I'm quite frustrated because 1) I think I already know the material in these courses to the extent my school teaches them, but there's no assessment system in place that I can use to prove myself officially; 2) I want to sign up for some graduate level math and physics courses instead, but my school is strict about that and will only possibly let me enroll once the semester starts (and the semester of relevance is the Spring semester so they won't even show up on the transcripts I send when applying to graduate school). An idea I had is to sign up for the quantum mechanics and electricity/magnetism for now so that it'll show up on the transcript, and then change to QFT or something once I officially enroll in that instead, but I'm not sure how feasible it is to do yet and how graduate schools would feel about me changing the schedule like that (I believe they may ask once more for my transcript after I graduate to confirm that I did what I planned).

***I'm not super concerned about the subject GRE because when I took it previously, I didn't realize I was registered until the day before test day. Next time I'm planning to prepare in advance.
 
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How in the hell did you manage to take all the required courses in two years? Did you also fulfill your university's general education requirements (i.e., are you actually eligible for graduation?)
 

vela

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What's the point in taking the math GRE subject test if you want to get into grad school for physics?
 
How in the hell did you manage to take all the required courses in two years? Did you also fulfill your university's general education requirements (i.e., are you actually eligible for graduation?)
I was able to take most of my classes at local colleges during high school and got many to transfer to university. I will be finishing up both my major-specific courses and general education requirements this coming year so I will be eligible to graduate.

What's the point in taking the math GRE subject test if you want to get into grad school for physics?
I thought perhaps the math GRE subject test could be useful to have on my applications to grad school in theoretical physics. Would it not be very useful? I'm not sure how important it is for me to generally show math knowledge. I have not taken a math course officially for some years now, aside from a Putnam competition training seminar, so I'm not sure exactly how to show my math knowledge. (Maybe a rec letter from the instructor of the Putnam seminars?--That is, if it is even relevant to grad schools in the first place.)

Thanks again for the help.
 

gleem

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What's the point in taking the math GRE subject test if you want to get into grad school for physics?

I did. But make sure you do well.
 

vela

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I thought perhaps the math GRE subject test could be useful to have on my applications to grad school in theoretical physics. Would it not be very useful?
I suppose it might be if the school asked for the score, but if not, I wouldn't think so. Perhaps someone who's been on an admissions committee will chime in here.

I'm not sure how important it is for me to generally show math knowledge. I have not taken a math course officially for some years now, aside from a Putnam competition training seminar, so I'm not sure exactly how to show my math knowledge.
Didn't you have to take a "math methods for physics" course? I'd think schools would assume if you did well in the various physics courses that you have a good background in the necessary math.
 

marcusl

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You placed out of 60% of the minimal college requirements for a degree and don’t plan on taking advanced classes, so your university physics career is highly abbreviated. I don’t sit on an admission committee at a top university so what do I know?, but it doesn’t sound so impressive to me.
 
You placed out of 60% of the minimal college requirements for a degree and don’t plan on taking advanced classes, so your university physics career is highly abbreviated. I don’t sit on an admission committee at a top university so what do I know?, but it doesn’t sound so impressive to me.
Well, I didn't exactly place out, I took the courses at other universities before joining my current one. And I agree--I'm saying I don't know how to prove that I know the material in those two upper level courses that I mentioned without taking the courses. Are there any examinations or something I can take to prove myself besides the GRE? Would the highest score on the GRE even suffice?

In general, I have taken several additional upper level undergraduate courses such as condensed matter physics, nuclear physics, elementary particle physics, etc. But I have not taken a second semester statistical mechanics (which is not offered here) nor a second semester quantum or second semester electricity/magnetism.

In the past year I periodically helped students understand the material of the second semester E&M and second semester quantum courses, and have gained a lot of confidence in my background in those areas, but my university won't allow me to take the final exams for those courses and also doesn't have an official system in place to assess me.

I can't be the first person to be in this type of situation, so I'm wondering what other people might have done to prove themselves when they're unable to afford additional college time. Are there generally entrance exams offered by universities that I'm unaware of?

Didn't you have to take a "math methods for physics" course? I'd think schools would assume if you did well in the various physics courses that you have a good background in the necessary math.
Yes, I have taken an analogous "methods of theoretical physics" course, but I wasn't aware that such a course could be regarded as much. The course didn't go beyond the university math courses I took years ago (e.g. differential equations, real/complex analysis, etc.) It certainly didn't include topology, differential geometry, vector bundles, etc. (With any luck, I'll be able to take the math course that does include those this year, but at this point the situation is uncertain.)
 

vela

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I have to admit I'm more confused now than before as to exactly what courses you've taken. It sounds like you've taken upper-division math courses at another school. You'll have to submit those transcripts when you apply to grad school, yet you're worried that prospective grad schools will think you don't know your math?
 
I have to admit I'm more confused now than before as to exactly what courses you've taken. It sounds like you've taken upper-division math courses at another school. You'll have to submit those transcripts when you apply to grad school, yet you're worried that prospective grad schools will think you don't know your math?
Sorry for the confusion. I have taken upper level math courses at other institutes, and I will be sending those transcripts. However, my concern lies in my grad school choices thinking lowly of the schools at which I've taken the courses at and having a "yeah these are upper level courses, but the university is not a great one, so that doesn't prove the strength of your knowledge against this other person who went to a well-renowned university; plus you took them a long time ago and probably forgot stuff by now" kind of mentality. Some ways of getting around this problem (if it is one) that I can think of are by either doing well on standardized examinations that are the same for everyone (allowing direct comparison) or by taking much higher level courses. Besides the GRE, I have no guarantees that either of these options will be fulfilled and I don't know of any other options.

In any case, this particular issue is not my greatest concern. I am most concerned about my lack of research experience when I apply. It almost seems that the only reason to continue my undergraduate career would be to build more research experience, assuming it is as important as people seem to make it out to be. (Side question: If research is so important, why don't rich people take multiple extra years to finish their undergrad so that they can show even more research on their transcripts?)
 
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When I started in grad school, the professors assumed that students had taken two semesters of E&M/quantum/classical mechanics as an undergrad. I also went to a "weak" university for my undergrad, and even though I did take two semesters of these courses, I still rode the struggle bus through the grad school courses. I can't imagine why you'd want to squeak by without taking them.

If research is so important, why don't rich people take multiple extra years to finish their undergrad so that they can show even more research on their transcripts?
I did this in a way since I had a full ride. I also took some courses at another college in high school, so as an undergrad I took the minimum number of credits each semester, 1/4 of which were just me doing research. It meant that I was still in college for four years, but I was able to have several publications and take upper-level courses in a few different departments.

I also know plenty of people who graduate, and then do research in their "gap year" before applying to graduate school - you do have to be kind of rich to do this, so you can support yourself while doing research. Perhaps this is an option for you?
 

Dr. Courtney

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I'm mentoring a number of physics and chemistry majors who enter their first (full time) year of college having accrued enough college credit to graduate in 2-3 years. I advise them not to accelerate their path and to keep a pace that allows them use the full 4 years, especially if it is likely they'll apply to grad school. Reasons:
1. Grad schools see very little that is done in the year before graduation. Taking 4 years gives students 3 full years for accomplishments that will be listed on grad applications, especially research and things important to recommendation letters.
2. Most students can maintain higher GPAs and accomplish more research if taking closer to 12 credit hours per semester than heavier course loads. There is also time for a more balanced and healthy life - sports, exercise, social lives, extracurriculars, etc.
3. More upper level coursework can be completed before the final take of the PGRE, and greater odds of being able to take it twice.
4. Real learning and retention tend to be better when taking two (at the most) physics courses at a time than when taking 3 or more to accelerate graduation.
5. Students tend to overestimate their abilities and underestimate compromises that tend to get made under greater time pressure.
6. 4 full years is 3 full summers for things like REUs and other summer research opportunities at locations different from the undergrad institution. These summers are very valuable, and opportunities in the 3rd summer tend to be better.
 
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This does not sound like a great educational plan to me. If I were still teaching (which I'm not), I'd look at it with a jaundiced eye. I would suggest take a little long as an undergraduate, explore some additional upper level courses both in and out of physics, and give yourself time to mature as a scholar.
 
When I started in grad school, the professors assumed that students had taken two semesters of E&M/quantum/classical mechanics as an undergrad. I also went to a "weak" university for my undergrad, and even though I did take two semesters of these courses, I still rode the struggle bus through the grad school courses. I can't imagine why you'd want to squeak by without taking them.
There are a couple of reasons that I'm hesitant to take the courses. For one, I tutored a number of my struggling friends in second semester E&M and quantum mechanics to help them get 4's. I would often sit down with them to help them understand concepts and with homework problems. Also, the courses did not seem to be of a particularly high level. They exclusively used Griffiths, not even Jackson/Sakurai/Shankar. Also, I took the second semester of classical mechanics, but it was merely a review of the Lagrangian and Hamiltonian formalisms that I learned several years ago. If I get the option to squeak by without taking these courses I would much prefer to do so because it feels like I'm gaining a lot more from doing textbook exercises myself and working through e.g. MIT OCW coursework.

I also know plenty of people who graduate, and then do research in their "gap year" before applying to graduate school - you do have to be kind of rich to do this, so you can support yourself while doing research. Perhaps this is an option for you?
I'm not rich at all, and I definitely would not be able to support myself like this, unfortunately.

1. Grad schools see very little that is done in the year before graduation. Taking 4 years gives students 3 full years for accomplishments that will be listed on grad applications, especially research and things important to recommendation letters.
Thanks for the reply. That reason is precisely my concern. But due to financial reasons it seems that I don't have much of an option if I want to stick with physics, so I'm trying to find alternative ways of proving my capabilities that could potentially make up for this problem.

5. Students tend to overestimate their abilities and underestimate compromises that tend to get made under greater time pressure.
I feel like I understand the compromises fully well, which is why I'm unhappy with graduating early. But my parents believe that spending extra years at university is a waste of time for theoretical physics due to low job prospects and the huge amount of debt that ensues. I am currently quite reliant on my parents to afford college, and they will not support me unless they see my decision as being financially rational. (Moreover, it is almost infeasible to afford more than two years of this tuition in the first place.)

6. 4 full years is 3 full summers for things like REUs and other summer research opportunities at locations different from the undergrad institution. These summers are very valuable, and opportunities in the 3rd summer tend to be better.
I think I understand this. But my parents have been telling me that summer research is not a huge boost to my resume for job applications and that I could get a full-time job (in a possibly unrelated field) immediately after graduation, which would help me much more in building my career, even in academia; additionally, I'm only getting back a fraction of the tuition spent during the school year from the research.

In my first year, I got three research assistant positions but they are nothing compared to an REU. After getting rejected to the REUs, I came to the conclusion that the reason was mainly because I'm only in my first year and don't have much history to show at this point. And since I might be forced to graduate early, I'm wondering if there are certified/official assessments or other validation methods in place (in addition to the GRE) that do not cost several thousands of dollars but give me a surefire way to directly compare my skills to other applicants.

In retrospect, I should have titled this thread "How to apply" instead of "Can I apply" because it doesn't seem like I have much choice. (Technically it seems that I can still complete four years if I take an additional major in a field that has great prospects for high-paying jobs so that I can get a job immediately upon graduation and manage the debt, but then I'd most likely not be able to pursue physics much more and also wouldn't have the time advantage that my parents claim is extremely valuable.)
 
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Is it possible to take a part-time job (or even full-time, if it can be mostly weekends) to support yourself during a gap year so that you can do research?
 

Dr Transport

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In retrospect, I should have titled this thread "How to apply" instead of "Can I apply" )
If your insistent on applying after 2 years of university, then apply. Chances are that the schools will look at your application, cash the check and not consider you for admission because you have not proven via transcripts that you have taken the prerequisite coursework. No one here has told you not to apply, they are kindly telling you what I am directly telling you, handwaving your qualifications by saying you tutored others without actually having the classes on your record isn't going to fly.
 

Dr. Courtney

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If your insistent on applying after 2 years of university, then apply. Chances are that the schools will look at your application, cash the check and not consider you for admission because you have not proven via transcripts that you have taken the prerequisite coursework. No one here has told you not to apply, they are kindly telling you what I am directly telling you, handwaving your qualifications by saying you tutored others without actually having the classes on your record isn't going to fly.
I wouldn't be quite that negative. With a good PGRE score, admission to a school ranked 50-75 in the US would not be out of the question if recommendation letters are good. Two semesters of QM and E&M are more important than stat mech and CM.
 

Dr Transport

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The point I was trying to make was that if their transcripts do not say to the effect, "Bachelors Degree conferred". I do not know of any school that will admit them to a graduate program without an undergraduate degree and I do not recall anywhere in the thread where the OP said that they had satisfied the requirements for a degree.

Many schools do not have two semesters of the advanced courses, I really do not see that as an issue.
 

Vanadium 50

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I think you need to do an honest self-assessment. You say that there is no need for you to take more courses, but you're not exactly acing the GRE now. Like others have been saying, that doesn't sound like a good plan to me.

For financial reasons, I graduated in 3 years and Dr. Courtney is right - it doesn't give grad schools much to go on. I waited a year to apply, so grad schools had 6 semesters to go on, rather than the 6.5-7 of 4-year applicants. But I spent my time in school and in that gap period learning what I could from whomever I could. In your shoes, I wouldn't be dissing my school and my professors (who happen to be the ones you need writing your recommendations, just sayin')
 
I do not recall anywhere in the thread where the OP said that they had satisfied the requirements for a degree.
I have satisfied the requirements for a degree, and when I graduate early, I will have the Bachelor's degree. (I didn't realize that one could graduate without having received the degree--sorry about that confusion.) However, the upper level courses I mentioned are not listed in the requirements for obtaining the degree at my university.

No one here has told you not to apply, they are kindly telling you what I am directly telling you, handwaving your qualifications by saying you tutored others without actually having the classes on your record isn't going to fly.
Right. So I'm asking: are there any other ways of proving that I have the qualifications needed by the graduate school without taking my university's courses? From other responses it seems that a perfect score on the PGRE might be necessary, but not sufficient. Is there anything else I could attempt in addition?

I think you need to do an honest self-assessment. You say that there is no need for you to take more courses, but you're not exactly acing the GRE now.
I didn't say that I don't need more courses--just that I'm not sure if the ones at the undergraduate level in my own university will be very useful. I have friends at other institutions who have to take courses with the same title, but that I would benefit greatly from. Also, I have reason to think that the two specific courses from my university that I mentioned (second semester quantum and E&M) will not have a substantial impact on my PGRE performance.

As for the honest self-assessment, leave that to me.

In your shoes, I wouldn't be dissing my school and my professors (who happen to be the ones you need writing your recommendations, just sayin')
That's why I wrote this in a thread on a forum instead of confronting people at my university with my true feelings :wink: (I'm not sure what would happen if those I know in real life found out, but hopefully I can keep enough anonymity to avoid that.)
 

Vanadium 50

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(I'm not sure what would happen if those I know in real life found out
They likely know. Us geezers are not quite as clueless as college freshmen think we are.
 
They likely know. Us geezers are not quite as clueless as college freshmen think we are.
Ok, I don't "think bad" on any professor's part. (Hence not "dissing" professors.) I'm just saying that the average level of the students (and hence the level of the classes which might need to accommodate accordingly to some extent) here seems not as much compared to what a lot of my friends have got. However, many students here seemed to not exactly be aware that the curriculum here is not the most intense in the world (and the professors tend to keep their mouths shut about that except this one awesome guy who would always make fun of the class for having ended up at this university). As a result, I refrain from complaining about it on campus.

But I doubt that not thinking super highly about my school would impair recs in the first place. The professors know that some things in this school are suboptimal.
 

jtbell

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So I'm asking: are there any other ways of proving that I have the qualifications needed by the graduate school without taking my university's courses? From other responses it seems that a perfect score on the PGRE might be necessary, but not sufficient. Is there anything else I could attempt in addition?
I know of no independent assessment instruments for this purpose besides the GRE.

ETS, which administers the GRE, also offers Major Field Tests, including one in physics, but these are intended to provide institutional assessment data for e.g. accreditation. The way these usually work is that a department requires all graduating majors to take the test. The results are reported to the students' institution, but not to the students themselves as far as I remember.
 

Dr Transport

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I have satisfied the requirements for a degree, and when I graduate early, I will have the Bachelor's degree. (I didn't realize that one could graduate without having received the degree--sorry about that confusion.) However, the upper level courses I mentioned are not listed in the requirements for obtaining the degree at my university.
If you satisfy the requirements for the degree at the university, you've got the degree. Now, the graduate school has to determine via the GRE, GRE subject test and transcripts if you have the requisit knowledge they require to be admitted. Nothing you say or do other than that will be considered, and I suspect that your statements in your essay won't hold too much sway (i.e., "I didn't take these courses because they were not offered but I know all that material anyway..."), they've heard that before and frankly, they probably won't believe it. They may admit you conditionally and make you take a bunch of upper division courses to make sure before allowing you to take a full graduate schedule, maybe they'll give you an assisstanship, maybe not, it is up to them.
 

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