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Freaking out - Not sure if I have a shot at grad school

  1. Dec 2, 2014 #1
    Hello all, Sorry for the long(ish) post but please bear with me,

    I've been reading posts in this forum for a while but haven't posted myself before. I have the feeling this sort of thread crops up a lot but I really feel like I need some advice.

    So I'm applying for masters programs in Physics and Applied Physics and my GPA is garbage. Not just my cumulative, but my Major as well (Cum UG: 3.15 Phy Major: 2.95). Most of my core physics classes I got B's and C's in. It wasn't that I didn't or don't understand the information, it was more that I was too immature and lazy to do homework, etc. I realized that my track was spiraling downwards after my first semester junior year and from then onward my grades were fine, but It was too late to make a significant change (My senior gpa is 3.5 and my senior physics gpa is 3.6). I studied my ass off for the PGRE's but took the test poorly and only pulled a 620 (33%). My general scores are fine (162 verbal, 163 quantitative).

    To try and make up for the lack of grades I've been working in a condensed matter research lab for two years (one undergrad and then I've stayed for a year post graduation). From this I have my name as co-author on three papers, and I've given a talk at APS march meeting. From working in the lab, doing various presentations, and a senior independent study I know I can do graduate level work. I'm not sure if my transcript will allow me to prove that to any schools however.

    The programs I'm applying to are mostly ranked between 40th and 70th. My concern is that my B-'s and C's will hold me out of everywhere I apply. If that is the case then I would rather spend the time taking graduate level courses at my undergrad college, acing them and then applying again next year.

    Any advice, help, comments, hope, or damnation would be appreciated.

    The kindest regards,
    Thank you.
  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 2, 2014 #2

    Doug Huffman

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    It is my opinion that maturity problems are largely cured by military discipline.
  4. Dec 2, 2014 #3


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    or by growing up :-)
  5. Dec 2, 2014 #4

    Doug Huffman

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    Mooted by graduate school.?
  6. Dec 2, 2014 #5


    Staff: Mentor

    Don't freak out, there is always some school that will take you. When you apply you must get recommendations from your profs so I'd also get some from your lab and provide your paper as part of your application. You should also be honest and explain things in your personal statement but don't go overboard apologizing for it.

    Make a list of 10 schools, the three best that are stretches to get into, three that you thin you can get into, three or four backups.

    Even if you go to a lower tier university, it just means you'll have to work harder to get where you're going when you get out and look for a job. Also you might have to learn to self-study to get even more out of class work, basically study like you were going to teach it to some other grad students who are going to ask you tough questions.

    Also perhaps your lab profs know people you can be introduced to at other graduate programs so you can make yourself known and can find out what they are really looking for.
  7. Dec 2, 2014 #6
    Thank you for the advice. I've certainly grown a lot since being a college freshy/sophomore and got rid of a lot of that immaturity towards my work ethic, I'm just afraid I did it too late.

    I think I'll try and let grad school trump military training.
  8. Dec 2, 2014 #7
    I vaguely remember that some schools stipulate that your junior/senior or major GPA have to exceed a 3.0, not necessarily your cumulative GPA. So look around for those. In general it's far more helpful to make connections with people in the schools; have you attended any conferences? Does your adviser have connections?

    For instance, my adviser has a connection to Oxford. I don't know if I'll get in, but I got an interview merely through that connection. These sorts of things might give you a second chance.
  9. Dec 4, 2014 #8
    IMHO and experience, grad schools care more about how you're going to pay for school and who'll take you than your grades. The grades help because you can qualify for scholarships/research grants/fellowships that will pay your way and might attract certain professors' attention. Most often, it's about making friends with a professor you want to do research with. I made good friends with a professor at my UG university and he offered me a PhD position with a stipend and told me "all you would have to do is tell graduate admissions that I'm willing to take you on and I'll fund you. You'll get in.". I was surprised that the old adage "it's not what you know, it's who you know" is just as true today as when the phrase was coined.
  10. Dec 4, 2014 #9


    Staff: Mentor

    I'm not sure that's true for all fields, I know in some fields they only want serious students, ones who are willing to work for peanuts in exchange for enough money to survive the grad school experience (like indentured servants that are freed once they get their PhD).

    Many CompSci graduate programs make money from professional programmers who want the degree and have a corporate sponsor who will pay for courses (usually one at a time as tuition reimbursement).
  11. Dec 4, 2014 #10
    Well, making friends with a professor as a student usually means you've done well enough in classes (especially theirs) for them to take you serious. They usually have some funding for a specific area of research and funding isn't easy to get since all professors basically beg for money from people/university/NSF/companies. For those professors to spend their precious funding dollars on you means they think you'll be valuable to them and the university, which is what grad school admissions are ultimately about. Plus, the pay from their funding is usually peanuts because they know they can get away with it like you said.

    Having read articles lots of articles about GS admissions and talked to former MIT graduate admissions counselors, most of the time they choose candidates they like (or have a better affinity toward) for some inexplicable reason. Most of the people that apply there are top students anyway, so how do you choose a "good fit" for the university with everyone having 3.995-4.0 GPAs and GRE test scores in the 169-170 range? I know at MIT, for example, upwards of 70-90% of the admitted graduate engineering students have their BS from MIT. They said it was mostly because they knew and made friends with professors that have arranged a slot for them (obviously there are other reasons too). My UG university (definitely *not* an top-tier school) did similar things for students. Now if those professors at your grad school of choice didn't know you from a hole in the wall, then they have to turn to things like GPA, GRE score, etc. to tell them anything about you. That's when those numbers represent you completely.

    From everything that I've experienced and have been told, the university is a business like any other. Sometimes a good resume helps you land that job, but a lot of times it's easier if you have a buddy that works in the company.
  12. Dec 4, 2014 #11


    Staff: Mentor

    I don't disagree with what you're saying networking works .It gets you past the HR people who screen based on some set corporate criteria. Grad schools do the same so having a prof vouch for you can go a long way. The problem is that most students come from a different college or university and don't know anyone at the graduate school unless an undergrad prof has introduced them somehow.

    For those students, the graduate admissions can get very selective to the point where only the best students get forwarded and then only the ones meeting the departmental interests are taken on. Often they don't care who's paying for it because the expectation is that all grad students will work for some prof in order to get their degree. I experienced this coming from a corporate environment into grad school for Physics, They weren't happy that I didn't need to work as a TA since my company paid for the schooling and ultimately I decided it was better to go elsewhere for my degree.
  13. Dec 4, 2014 #12


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    I think this paints an unclear picture.

    There are provisos to consider. The way admissions work where I am faculty (and I suspect most schools in north america are similar) is that admissions are handled by a committee. The committee reviews all applicants that have met the thresholds set by the faculty of graduate studies (all transpcripts submitted, application complete, GPA meets minimum threshold, basic program requirements satisfied, etc.). The committee then ranks the students for the available positions. A professor who is willing and able to take you can can increase your rank. But its important to remember that that professor will also see the other applicants. A 3.5 student who has already worked for the professor and performed well might beat out a 3.6 who is unknown. (And this is why it is important to talk to potential supervisors before applying.) But most professors are not going to chose someone who is likely to struggle with a qualifying exam over someone who is likely to pass, regardless of how much they like the struggler.
  14. Dec 4, 2014 #13
    From what I have seen, you can always get into some graduate school(low tier one) if you have any competency in your field at all. It may only offer a terminal masters degree though, at which point you can apply for a PhD some place.

    Another general suggestion is, if you live close to a graduate school - taking a graduate sequence of classes. If you show competency in that sequence and develop some relationship with the professor they will likely let you in, maybe not finance you but let you in.
  15. Dec 5, 2014 #14
    Agreed. There is a lot more to consider than just being buddies with the professor. I didn't mean to paint it like that. The main point I was trying to make was that there's more to getting in to grad school than the grades. Grades may help in the ranking of students, but it's far from the only thing that helps. It's really not too different from a job interview. There are basic competencies that are required and the resume does help determine a ranking system, but it's not the only thing that you're hired on.

    Some people tend to freak out because the grades don't really reflect them or their work ethic (at the time of application anyway) and I was trying to give a personal example of how that's not all the committee takes into account.
  16. Dec 5, 2014 #15
    I see what you mean now. It's true that you're basically expected to work from a professor doing TA work or something. However, from what I understand, most universities have policies in place that don't allow you to even get paid enough from that work to put yourself through school (even with a tent + ramen noodle budget). With that, you'll need some other supplementary income, either from scholarships/grants/etc. or just from having rich relatives. I agree they don't like you working through your degree doing non-academic labor, so I was told the ranking of most desirable attributes to least desirable is somewhat like this:
    1. High grades/standardized test scores -- able to apply for grants/scholarships/fellowships as well as lending prestige to school
    2. Can afford tuition independently -- won't have to fund for tuition support
    3. Hard luck stories (graduated with BS while homeless/4.0 student from the ghetto/etc) -- helps getting financial aid for tuition as well as recognition of university
    4. Extracurriculars (clubs, society members, etc.) -- helps with getting companies to donate to/interact with university
    5. Completed impressive projects (supermileage vehicles, Mars rovers, etc.) -- helps attract attention to university for donations, prestige, etc.
    Mostly, it revolves around not spending the endowment money and gaining prestige, which can be translated into money. It's funny that you mentioned your problem with your degree because you worked while doing it. I had a part-time job in industry working my way through grad school and my committee chair hated it. I took longer than was normal to complete my degree because they didn't pay me enough. He only tolerated it because I wasn't his only grad student so he could get the other students to do his TA work.
  17. Dec 5, 2014 #16

    Vanadium 50

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    timthereaper, are you in the US? Because nothing that you write matches my experience with physics graduate admissions.
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