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Admissions Grad admissions - GPA vs published research?

  1. Jun 28, 2012 #1
    I recently read a very interesting article about graduate admissions written by an adcom. He says a few things that are the exact OPPOSITE of what I've heard.

    I've always heard that a good GPA and GRE scores are probably the most important part of a good application besides recs and personal statement. Having thought this, the article definitely caught me off guard. As far as GPA, he says that it doesn't matter at all. Not only that, but he says that even GRE scores don't matter... WHAT???

    "GPA? I don't care if it's 2.0 or 4.0. I won't even look at it. The school you went to? I'll judge you the same whether you went to Nowhere State U or a top-ten school. Transcripts? Never seen one. GREs? Irrelevant. Where you work/worked? Unless it's a research lab, it's not important. I don't think these items have much predictive capacity as to whether or not someone can complete a Ph.D."

    While he doesn't seem to care about GPA or GRE scores, he definitely stresses the importance of undergraduate research which makes sense. I've often heard that it is good to get involved in undergraduate research. If nothing else, this will usually ensure at least a strong recommendation letter. The thing is, I've always heard that admissions committees could care less whether your research has been published or not, but he stresses that published work will give you a leg up. Is this really true?

    Can someone help clarify this before I blow off all of my classes in order to publish 10 articles before I graduate :tongue:
  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 28, 2012 #2
    That's contrary to what I heard. I heard that you need at least a 3.0 GPA in order to even be considered. Only if you make it past this initial screening will having published research be helpful to your application.

    Besides, how do you plan on publishing research in such a short time frame?
  4. Jun 28, 2012 #3
    Don't you need a decent GPA to even get into research in the first place?
  5. Jun 28, 2012 #4
    How on earth would an undergraduate get published?

    Most scientific papers I've read are huge collaborative efforts between multiple professors and schools (Experiment designed in one place, materials donated from another place, staff from another, experiment performed at another school, data analyzed at yet another school, etc etc) and usually cost, I would estimate, thousands of dollars if not tens of thousands in grant money.

    How on earth is an undergrad supposed to compete?
  6. Jun 28, 2012 #5
    By getting your name on your professor's research paper as a coauthor, obviously.
  7. Jun 28, 2012 #6
    I've heard GPA and GRE keep you out of schools, Letters, personal statement and research get you in.

    I've never heard someone say they wouldn't care about a 2.0 GPA but I've heard most say GPA is not that big of a factor if it doesn't raise flags.
  8. Jun 28, 2012 #7
    Maybe; it's just that I'VE never heard of undergraduates getting published. Just as a matter of habit, I always look up the authors of every published research paper I read and it's always PhD's who've been teaching at that institution for a while. At my school, all the research being done by the professors was being supported by grad students or even paid staff hired by the school; not undergrads.

    What undergrads have been published and in what publications?
  9. Jun 28, 2012 #8
  10. Jun 28, 2012 #9
    As of a few days ago, I'm a published undergrad! Believe it or not, there are two more research papers that will have my name on them as a co-author. And I still have two years left!

    This is one benefit of going to a university without a graduate program in physics (no grad students to compete with yay!!!) and being proactive. As an EE I wasn't happy with the lack of research being done by the professors at my school and the lack of attention in engineering classes to what was really going on.

    I emailed the chair of the physics department and within a week I was helping two professors with their research. A semester later I was working with three professors on as many projects, plus a postdoc (yes we had one postdoc but no grad students! lol).

    By the end of that semester I was a declared physics major. :)

    Once you're doing research, my best advice (other than work hard, obviously) is do not be afraid to offer up ideas. Often times the best solution is so simple that the professors may not even think of it. Undergrads can be very helpful to experimentalists, because while the actual physics (usually the math, oh my!) of a project may be above our heads, the engineering problems encountered in an experiment are usually not.

    I write all this to encourage undergrads and future undergrads to be proactive. Ask if you can help with research. The chair told me to ask the other professors. The first one I asked was a no-go. So I had to ask three professors about research before I got a bite. And if you really want to do research, a school that doesn't have a graduate program in your degree may be the place for you. Just make sure the professors in that department are actively doing research - and excited about it!

    As for whether or not research helps with grad school, I think it can't hurt. Most places will use GPA/GRE scores to narrow down the applications. After that, though, I can't think of what would stand out more than undergraduate research. After all, that is what you are applying to graduate school to do. If you've already done it for a while, they know that you enjoy it and are serious about it. Both are required to get through graduate school. I'd say that they are not looking for the smartest people, but rather the people most likely to succeed in graduate school. Having done research already shows that you have the determination and mindset required for graduate school.
  11. Jun 28, 2012 #10


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    That's a very decent article. I think the only point I disagree with is the one you're asking about.

    When I review gradute applications (I've only done it a couple of times now), I definately look at GPAs. Obviously it can carry different weights for different faculty members, and I try as much as I can to consider the entire application package as a whole, but GPA still carries a lot of weight for me.

    For one, if students are struggling for grades in undergrad it brings into question whether or not they will pass the qualifying exam.

    Second, GPA gives a quantitative means of ranking students. Reference letters tend to vary in terms of adjectives and phrasing, but I find it difficult to quantitatively use them to rank one student against another. And undergraduate publications, from what I've anecdotally observed, seem to be more the result of random chance than a student's ability to do research. I realize that GPA is not by any means a gold standard, but it gives a reasonably clear means of ranking students against their peers.

    Third, GPA tends to correlate well with other academic success. It's not a perfect correlation. I've seen some 3.5ish students turn out to be better researchers than 3.9ish ones. But I've rarely seen someone who struggled to cross that 3.0 line turn out to be prolific researcher. I'm sure there are cases where it has happened - or cases where 2.3ish students go on to form billion dollar companies.

    Something else to consider is that as a student, your GPA can affect a lot of other things that create a kind of a snowball effect. Consider scholarships. A high GPA can lead you to an academic scholarship. This frees you from needing a part-time job to support yourself. You have more time to study and thus keep your GPA high and you can spend your summer working in a lab for minimum wage rather than in a factory for slightly more than minimum wage. That summer in the labs leads to... your name on a paper.

    A lot of what that article says is pure gold though. Clean up your social media outlets. Create a web-page of research interests and projects you've worked on. Talk to specific professors prior to applying to a program. And write your personal statement to explain what your interested in researching and what makes you a good researcher, while avoiding paragraphs about how you have always wanted to be a scientist.

    Just don't ignore that GPA.
  12. Jun 28, 2012 #11
    That's weird. Many undergraduates I know have published (mostly for their 3rd year project, I've even seen people publish in Science), some lucky ones that worked with some Astro/Productive groups published after their first year summer.

    One professor listed his past summer students and almost all of them published (second or third author) in journals like PRB, PRL, other respected journals.
    I've also heard that there was a strong second year student that published a theory paper as first author in a journal with a similar impact factor as PRB.

    I actually think it helps to have graduate students around.
    It's very unlikely you'll come up with an idea worthy of publishing in Science, Nature or PRL.
    If you work for a graduate student, especially a competitive one, then you have a much greater chance of ending up as an co-author in a decent paper.
  13. Jun 29, 2012 #12
    I think this is more CS related than physics. Physics undergraduates have a lot of research opportunities via REU, so to be published in a journal isn't a big thing. CS REU's aren't nearly as widespread so having a CS publication is more of an eye opener than a physics publication.

    One thing about physics publications is that my sense is that they need to be seen in the context of recommendations. Something about undergraduate publications is that it's never clear from the publication itself what the student actually did, so recommendation letters fill in that gap.
  14. Jun 29, 2012 #13
    One other thing that you have to keep in mind is that different schools and even different professors care about different things. If you are applying to CS graduate school at Utah, then what a professor on that particular admissions committee cares about is important. If you are applying to a different university, then the committee will care about something different.

    It's true for him. Based on what I know about CS, I think there is a culture difference between CS and physics. The odds of having a undergraduate physics student with a published paper is quite higher than the odds of a CS student having a published paper. Also, CS publication is quite a bit different from physics publication.
  15. Jun 29, 2012 #14

    That's a very interesting point you bring up about different cultures between disciplines. Ive never really even considered that as far as undergraduates publishing research. Where would you expect engineers to fall on this spectrum? More towards the CS side or physics as far as the frequency of undergrads getting published?
  16. Jun 29, 2012 #15


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    I don't see why this is so foreign to you. Sure, not that many do it but it's certainly possible. I just published (well, it's submitted) a paper in which I'm first author to phys rev D. It depends a lot on the specific topic of research though, because I imagine if you're just helping in a lab it's almost impossible to get first author on a paper, whereas my computational work was almost entirely my own doing.
  17. Jun 29, 2012 #16


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    I'll give the same advice I always give regarding the importance of undergraduate research. If you don't do it, how do you have any idea that you'll like doing research at all? How can a graduate committee know if you will do well in such an environment? All of the other admissions criterion are really only a proxy for this, since your graduate work is ultimately about research. So it's less important WHAT you do for research (and consequently, whether or not you publish), and more important that you simply get the experience with the process of research in the first place. That said, being first author on an article has taught me a whole lot about the 'bureaucratic' side of science (responding to referee/coauthor comments on papers, etc.), but this isn't really too important.
  18. Jun 29, 2012 #17
    It's even moving further down the food chain... my son was published in high school! (Admittedly, he was like seventh author on a paper in a conference proceedings, but...)

    What did he do? Ran some data through an analysis program and helped straighten out the bibliography. But he worked hard and conscientiously for the group for several months, so the PI decided to include him on the publication.

    Not terribly different than a lot of undergraduate publications, I imagine.
  19. Jun 29, 2012 #18
    Soon, you will need to be published in elementary school to get into middle school. :rolleyes:
  20. Jun 29, 2012 #19


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    Staff: Mentor

    Here's the place to do it:

    A. J. Whittenberg Elementary School of Engineering

    Before it opened last year, parents camped out in line for a shot at getting their kids into it.
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