Feeling down, did I mess up my future?

  • #1
PhysPaig
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Hello everyone,

I'm currently a physics undergraduate that just completed her second year of college. I love working physics problems and have always been passionate about going into physics research. My plan is to graduate and then go to a great/top grad school for my PhD that would allow me to go into research full-time. Last year I completed first trimester with all As (an intro physics class for physics majors, multivariable calc, and a random breadth), but next trimester due to personal reasons I lost a lot of motivation and totally tanked, I failed my creative writing course, got a C- in multivariable calc 2, and a B in my physics course. I started to pull things back for the final trimester and got an A- and two Bs.

I calculated things out recently and my overall gpa is not going to be in the range generally accepted by top grad schools, it'll be around a 3.6 when I'm all done and applying. (Even with straight As from here on out).

This year I'm back in the swing of things and got all As every trimester while taking two upper div physics courses each trimester. I plan on continuing this next year and have already gotten what people say is the hardest upper div for physics out of the way with an A+. I'm also starting research this summer that I got into through one of my professors that liked me in his class.

My upper div gpa will end up being high (3.85-4.0)ish, but my cumulative is only going to be 3.57-3.61ish. How badly did I mess things up? Is this going to keep me from getting into a top 10 or 20 ranked school?

I didn't really realize just how impactful a trimester would end up being on the overall gpa. I'm so sad and frustrated with myself for having an abysmal couple of quarters last year. I never thought I'd have to worry about not getting into a top grad school.
 

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  • #2
Office_Shredder
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The most important part of a phd application is your references. As long as your gpa is sufficiently high to pass the cutoff for submitting an application (which I think it is for at least most schools?) if your references are sufficiently good I doubt one bad trimester in sophomore year is a killer.

You should spend the summer making the most of your research opportunity and getting a good recommendation out of it (and note you'll need several, so start thinking about where the others will come from). If you develop a good relationship with the professor they will also be able to give you better tailored advice about the strength of your phd application.
 
  • #3
Choppy
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I wouldn't worry too much about a single bad semester (or trimester in your case), if everything else is looking good. There are a lot of schools that calculate GPA based on the most recent two years of study. This is quite common in Canada, for example.

There are two bigger concerns however. First is the impact of not having mastered material in a cumulative learning sense. Upper division physics and mathematics courses build on what you've learned in earlier courses. So if you struggled with a prerequisite, you may need some remedial efforts to put yourself in a position where you'll be able to ace the senior courses, and do well in graduate school.

The second is the issue of why you had a poor trimester in the first place. Most graduate admissions committees will recognize that with the shift to online learning during the pandemic, a lot of students struggled to adapt. If this was simply a one-off attributable to extreme circumstances that are unlikely to repeat, and you can demonstrate that with high grades from here on out, there's not much point in worrying. The greater concern is whether that trimester is suggestive of a deeper problem. Are you going to shut down when things aren't going your way? It's probably worth seriously reflecting on the root causes of why you had a poor trimester and identifying strategies to mitigate them, if you haven't already.
 
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  • #4
Dr. Courtney
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One student I mentored graduated with a 4.0 GPA in Physics from a fairly good undergraduate institution. He was first author on 5+ peer-reviewed journal articles, did a summer at BNL, and had excellent recommendation letters. He did not take the PGRE due to COVID, but the grad PhD programs he applied to waived the scores this year. He was rejected by PhD programs at MIT, Princeton, Cal Tech, and UC Berkeley. He was accepted by Stonybrook, U Penn, Ohio State, Ga Tech, and Stanford.

Most years I would have expected him to get into over half the top 10 schools he applied to, but COVID seemed to be a curve ball making admissions much harder than expected for several of the students I mentor this year. I think the landscape might be tougher for a few years due to what I'll call the "COVID backlog" of top students taking gap years, pursuing Master, working for a year or two and then re-applying to the top 10 schools rather than accepting admissions to a lower tier school.

I'm mentoring another student who will be graduating next year. Their situation is similar to yours - one bad semester Freshman year followed by some really good semesters. He's getting consistent advice from me and all his other advisers - top 10 schools are most likely off the table, but they'll likely be a strong candidate for schools in the tier of Ga Tech and Ohio State.

But in these matters, those writing the recommendation letters will almost always give the best advice, because they know what's in the recommendation letters and also know lots of details about the strength of the student's application that we do not - we don't know your school's reputation, we don't know your PGRE score, and we don't have detailed knowledge of your publication record. Your application would be much weaker from the third best Physics BS program in Louisiana than from the third best program in Texas, for example.
 

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