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Got my PGRE scores. What do I do from here?

  1. Dec 13, 2008 #1
    47%. I got over 50% on the practice exams I took which I didn't even go the full 3 hours on. I don't know what happened. I felt so confident in my answers too... like I just knew the answer (or how to get it), you know? No guessing.

    My physics GPA is also a 2.98. Is there absolutely any chance of me getting into to a decent school at this point? Top schools like Berkeley and Stanford are obviously out of the question. What about something like UC Santa Barbara or U Michigan Ann Arbor?

    My letters of recommendation might range from so-so to good and I did 2 years worth of research which I will also classify as okay to good. No publications. Never got the chance.

    And of course a personal statement can't even begin to make up for that, so that is completely irrelevant.
  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 14, 2008 #2
    So my only course of action is to just lie down and die?
  4. Dec 14, 2008 #3


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    What about staying at your current school; they know you, so they might be more inclined to let you in. Otherwise, you could try some lower-ranked Masters programs and get good grades there.

    What area are you interested in?
  5. Dec 14, 2008 #4
    Professors and the physics adviser have specifically stated that the school has a bias against students who were undergrads at the school. I suppose I could give it a shot, though. I can still make the deadline. Would I still need letters of recommendation from my professors if I am to be admitted to the physics department? If so I'd have to ask each one to write me one more... that would be kind of weird.

    I've been thinking about Master's programs, but I wouldn't have the money for them, especially since graduate credits are more expensive than undergraduate. :(

    I am interested in areas where the goal is to make or develop something, such as quantum computing and nanotech stuff, various material science projects like say carbon nanotubes or even biophysics research where they are trying to understand how various macromolecules form and work.

    I've done 2 years of research, including summer, which included coding, hands-on work, and data analysis, and this quarter have been doing some biophysics research, although in a different area.

    So I made sure to write my personal statement to specific people in each department that I would like to work with instead of a general "I like your school." letter. But I don't know if that even matters.
  6. Dec 14, 2008 #5

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    I hate to break it to you, but UCSB and Michigan are among the best schools in the country. Maybe not Top 5, but certainly Top 10 or 15. People with GPA's below 3, scoring in the bottom half of the GRE and with weak letters are not the students they are looking for.

    I don't think the question "How do I get in a Top 10 or 15 school" is the one you should be focusing on. I'm afraid that ship has sailed. You need to be asking "How do I get in anywhere at all?" Something like 1/3 of the students who take the GRE end up in grad school. You're not in the top 1/3. I don't know what the GPA average is, but where I got my PhD, two terms at a 2.98 meant you were shown the door. And grad classes are harder. Finally, so-so letters completes the picture, and I am afraid it's not a pretty one.

    In the past, you've complained that your school isn't the strongest. Low grades at a weak school coupled with a low GRE indicates that graduate work is beyond you: so-so letters confirms this and calls into question whether you'll be a good enough researcher to finish the program. Now, this might not be an accurate picture of you, but it's all the admissions committee has to go on.

    If you succeed in getting in at a school that is towards the bottom of the rankings and graduate, you'll have to find a postdoc somewhere, right? There are fewer postdoctoral positions than PhD's, so this will not be easy. People are looking for grads from Chicago or Princeton, not the University of Southern North Dakota at Hoople. Even if you are planning on going into industry this is important - the best industrial positions go to people with postdoctoral experience.

    I'm not very keen on the "get a MS first" school of thought. Many of the top schools don't offer a terminal MS. Stipends go first to PhD students. The courses taken for the MS may not even count when you start your PhD. And finally, if a MS made a big difference in admissions decisions, you'd see the most competitive schools filled with students who already had an MS, and you don't.

    I'm sorry to have to write this, but the combination of grades, test scores and letters doesn't look promising.
  7. Dec 14, 2008 #6


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    The idea behind getting a terminal MS isn't so much that the MS itself is useful (it's not, as indeed the courses wouldn't count for a PhD), but rather because (i) they're easier to get into than PhD programs (though probably without funding), so it's better to get in there than nowhere at all, and (ii) it'll give him a year or two to raise his GPA, retake the PGRE, and get research experience and thus better letters of reference. Once he's got those, he can re-apply to grad school with hopefully an application that's competitive with undergrads.

    If money is too much of an issue to continue in grad school without funding, perhaps you should consider going on the job market in something physics-related.
  8. Dec 14, 2008 #7

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    The problem with the MS is that I don't think it weighs much in admissions. Like I said, "f a MS made a big difference in admissions decisions, you'd see the most competitive schools filled with students who already had an MS, and you don't." If he's shooting for UCSB, they aren't going to be impressed by an MS from East Cole Slaw State.
  9. Dec 14, 2008 #8


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    an 4.0 MS average looks a lot better than a 3.0 BS average though. You don't see much of that in top schools, because the applicants already have the 4.0 in undergrad, so there's no advantage in getting an MS. Think of it as just taking extra courses to raise his average, as a way to prove that he can handle grad coursework.

    Course, without great grades during the MS, it would be worthless.
  10. Dec 14, 2008 #9
    My school is pretty good. I don't remember when I said it wasn't. Maybe I was saying it wasn't as good as some other school?

    My letters aren't all so-so. I'm saying one will probably be alright, one will be good (maybe even great), and the third somewhere in between. Yeah, that's still not 3 stellar letters, but I'm just trying to defend myself here because you pretty much crushed the rest of my self-esteem there. :(

    No, I plan to go into industry or perhaps a government lab, but they have post-docs, too I guess.

    So what do people who didn't become post-docs do? Do they just wither and die? I would assume there were some sort of industry jobs for them as well.

    Not really. An MS takes 2 years to get and you learn what you would have learned in the first 2 years of a Ph.D. program. So there would be no reason for people to bother with it.

    If the system was like in Europe, then you would be correct, because over there the Ph.D. program puts you straight into research.

    Yeah, I know. I'm just trying to figure out what to do next. Thanks for your help, but I can spiral down into clinical depression on my own. =S
  11. Dec 14, 2008 #10
    He's not saying it's better, he's saying it's a decent backup plan. I understand what he means.

    If I got into some Master's program I could take graduate level courses, and assuming I did well in those, I could resend my application and go "See??? See??? I can handle it!!"

    Money is an issue, though. I don't know if my school would let me stay an undergrad for an extra year (while taking grad courses) either. Nor would I want to. Part of the problem right now is that I live an hour away from campus, and as such any sort of tutoring, office hours, or studying with friends that is later in the day is pretty much out of the question. Whereas I know that part of graduate level physics courses is to have everybody study in a group and bond to make grad school more bearable.
  12. Dec 14, 2008 #11


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    Why wouldn't your school let you stay an extra year in undergrad? Can't you simply forget to apply for graduation? Wouldn't fix the issues of not wanting or being able to economically though. The only choice, besides crossing your fingers, would be to look at industry right away (they do hire physics BS, though you would probably be called an engineer)
  13. Dec 14, 2008 #12
    I already applied for graduation for one. :P

    And secondly I'm already a 5th year senior because my community college didn't offer 2nd year physics. I think I'd have too many credits for their liking.

    Would it be a **** move to declare a 2nd major (say math), and then take some more physics classes next year and then drop that major and say I'm graduating with a physics degree? That would be a waste of a year, I suppose...

    I wouldn't mind being an engineer. I like engineering. I just don't know where I'd find work with only a bachelor's and with the current economy.
  14. Dec 14, 2008 #13


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    I don't think they can (or would even desire to) force you to graduate if you want to stay. For example, I could picture someone having completed all requirements for the degree, but wanting to take some advanced classes for a semester or something. You'd have to check with your university, but I know it would be possible at mine.

    But yeah, however you do it, if you take a year to improve your grades, then that year will be wasted (except for all that physics you'll be learning)
  15. Dec 14, 2008 #14


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    Have you tried speaking to an advisor in your department and asking them for advice? Ask someone who'll be honest with you whether they think you're suitable for grad school, or whether they think you've got a chance. I can't see that it's promising, though, and from what I've heard, and the way you describe your own work, I don't see how you will be accepted.

    But will an admissions board really not see through this? If it takes someone 6 years to complete a Bachelors degree then surely they'll be doutbs as to whether he'll ever complete a PhD?
  16. Dec 14, 2008 #15
    That's the reason I opted not to take graduate level QM this quarter. I figured I'd have to take it in grad school anyway, and solid state is pretty important for a would-be experimentalist/hobo with a physics degree.

    I suppose if I have to, I could force my way into staying an extra year. Or you know, I just remembered a friend of mine saying he took a year off to do some sort of research type thing. I think he got it through the professor he was currently doing research for. I'd better start looking around for something like that that I could latch on to...
  17. Dec 14, 2008 #16
    Not yet. I'm too embarrassed. I just got my scores yesterday anyway. I emailed a post-doc I worked with for some advice.

    I don't know how to describe my own work is what it boils down to. I enjoyed it and I thought I made a pretty good contribution for an undergrad, but how do I know whether or not my professors think the same way and write me a good letter? Or whether the person reading my personal statement will think my research is good or not?

    So I don't like to say what I did was stellar even if I thought it was great and I don't want to say it was garbage because it definitely was not.
  18. Dec 14, 2008 #17


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    Of course they'd see through it, but it doesn't matter. The admission committee will take everything into account, both undergrad and grad. Just because someone had a bad undergrad doesn't mean noone will ever hire them ever again. Getting good MS grades shows that he wants to learn and that he has the ability to learn. It won't transform him into a top applicant, but he should at least be able to get in somewhere...
  19. Dec 14, 2008 #18
    That's a good point... didn't mathwonk go back to school later in his life after leaving due to poor grades and is now a professor in a great school?
  20. Dec 14, 2008 #19


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    Yes, he's the token example of someone doing that.
  21. Dec 14, 2008 #20

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    Would you rather I told you "Gee, you sound like exactly the kind of guy Harvard is looking for?"

    I think your expectations have been unrealistic. It was unrealistic to assume that with a 2.98 GPA you'd ace the GRE, and it's unrealistic to think that you'll get into a Top 10 or Top 15 school like Michigan or UCSB now. You can continue with these expectations if you wish, but don't blame us if you are disappointed.

    Based on this, I think you also need to ask yourself what is realistic for your letters. You originally said "so-so to good", but later said "great". I think you need to understand two things: one is that students getting into grad school pretty much all have good letters. The other is that great letters are rare. One in a pile of applications, and in a good year, perhaps two. A good letter says "one of the best in his class". A great letter says "one of the best - ever".

    Looking at some past posts, one concerns me a lot:

    If the fact that you habitually skip class ends up in a letter, this will be very hard to recover from. Probably impossible. Remember, universities can only admit a fixed number of students: to admit you, they have to say no to someone else. Why waste a slot on someone who in the past didn't even bother to show up.

    I'm also unconvinced that a MS improves ones chances. You aren't the first to want to go to grad school with less than stellar credentials, and you aren't the first person to think of getting an MS. If having an MS really helped, you'd see a lot of students with MS's already - and you don't.

    Finally, you seem to think that a career at a government lab is relatively easy to get. That's not the case - it's at least as competitive as a faculty position. With budget cuts, labs are getting very, very careful with hiring. You will need a postdoc, and you will need to have done quite well with it. Post-Sputnik, pretty much any PhD with a pulse could land a lab job somewhere. Those days are long gone.
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