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Grad School for the less fortunate?

  1. Apr 3, 2012 #1
    Hi. I've been lurking the forums for quite some time now, but I haven't found an answer to what I wanted to know.

    I'm currently an undergrad double majoring in Applied Physics and "Computer Systems" (a.k.a., Computer Engineering, they just changed the name) from a "not-that-bad" (Physics-wise, according to a prof) University at the Philippines. My grades are not that stellar, due to the fact that this uni likes to shove useless subjects (at least, in my opinion) down the throat of all students (...and charges astronomical fees for all of it). When converted to an American GPA, my grades are very slightly below 3.00 (And my majors-only GPA is ~3.12).

    I want to go to grad school after, preferably to an English-speaking country, like US. But then I saw at some websites just how much tuition and living costs (about 10 times than what I have now). And then there's the minimum grades, too. I kinda lost hope.

    I also saw that some schools provide financial assistance. But I don't know if I'm qualified for those. Judging by my grades alone, I'm guessing I won't be.

    Is there anything I can do as an undergrad (e.g., get experienced in something, make connections, etc?) that can offset my lack of good grades and lack of money?

    PS: I also want to go to Japan, but I can't get much information about grad school there. :|
  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 3, 2012 #2


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    What do you want to go to grad school for? A PhD in physics? A masters degree in engineering? There are important differences
  4. Apr 3, 2012 #3
    As mentioned in the first reply, 'grad school' can mean different things. For example, if you do a PhD in Applied Physics your tuition will be waived and you will receive a stipend (salary) that will more than cover all your cost of living. PhD programs in similar fields will likely have the same set-up. Masters programs, however, are very rarely funded (i.e. you will have to pay tuition and will not receive a salary) although in some cases you might be able to work as a TA and receive some tuition reduction in addition to pay. You need to narrow down your field of interest, figure out what jobs are available, then determine what graduate degree is needed (many engineering fields prefer a Masters).

    Grades are very important for grad school admission, but a strong upward trend will be viewed favorably and there are other elements of your application that will be just as important. In physics, for example, the Physics GRE and research experience (as supported by letters of recommendation from research advisers) are equally if not more important.
  5. Apr 3, 2012 #4
    Oops. Forgot to mention that.
    My goal right now is to get a Ph. D. in Physics. But not in Applied, tho (my major says "applied," but it's almost identical to the pure Physics they offer here). Maybe theoretical or computational. I'm not sure on this one yet. After that... I want to do more research and studies.

    Btw, FactorsOf2: Does it have to be a letter of recommendation from a research adviser? Judging by the state of things around my uni, it looks like I'll have one or two of them. And most schools need three. :|
  6. Apr 4, 2012 #5
    I'm also concerned about the stipend thing. Not that I intend to send money back home; I know it's not exactly the same as a salary.

    But then I also heard from relatives and from other stuff I've read that the cost of living at U.S. or Japan or Europe or practically every country I've looked at so far is pretty high.

    To put in another way, do Ph.D. students survive on their stipend alone? Or do they need to get another job (besides TA-ing)?
  7. Apr 4, 2012 #6

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    To answer your question, most students can live on their stipends. It's not luxury - you probably need a roommate, and won't be living the party life.

    However, I think you need to face some facts. One is that the best university in the Philippines is ranked about the same the worst university in the US that offers a PhD in physics. The second is that the minimum GPA in graduate school is 3.0. So your application will need something very strong to counter this.
  8. Apr 4, 2012 #7
    But I heard some look at only the Math/Physics grades or maybe the grades in the last two years at school. Or is it something that depends on the school?

    I mean, will they even care that I almost flunked Theology and Filipino? :|

    BTW: I'm curious, tho. What university is this?

    What do you mean by "something very strong"?

    Right now I'm an intern at the school's, erm, Innovation Center, and I expect to do programming work there. I've also volunteered to teach Physics. And the occasional homework research problem (simple stuff; nothing big yet). Will that help? Or do I need to look for more?
    Last edited: Apr 4, 2012
  9. Apr 4, 2012 #8

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    3.1 is not good for in-major courses. That's barely passing - in a grad school, the bare minimum is a 3.0.

    Most students in the US know how to program, so that isn't particularly helpful. You need to get a very, very high score on your GRE. You need stellar letters of recommendation.

    You have to understand that US grad schools have their choices of hundreds of applicants with better grades from better schools. That's who you are competing against.
  10. Apr 4, 2012 #9
    As many of your 3 letters of rec. as possible should be from people attesting to your research ability. I had two of these kinds of letters and the third from just a professor who taught 2 of my classes. Try to make sure even non-research recommenders know what kind of research you have done, what you accomplished, what you enjoyed about it etc. so they can mention it.

    You should consider the stipend to be equivalent to a salary - there are no string attached to it (aside from doing your 'job' satisfactorily) and it will more than cover your living expenses. My husband's stipend alone covers ALL of our essential living expenses (two adults + dog) with about $800 left over every month - and we live in a high-rent very nice neighborhood.

    You need to absolutely dominate the remainder of your math and physics classes, possibly take 1 or 2 at the grad level (time permitting). You need to dominate the physics GRE. These two things will demonstrate your intellectual ability. Finally, you need some solid research experience with accompanying recommendations to demonstrate your research ability.
  11. Apr 4, 2012 #10
    Most, but by no means all, Ph.D. programs provide a stipend that is more than sufficient to live on. As another poster said, don't expect to party much, but you won't starve and you will have a roof over your head.

    That, however, is the least of your problems.

    There are two things going on with grad school admissions: the particular department has to decide they want to admit you, and you have to satisfy the university requirements for admission. The first you can definitely affect with stellar recommendations, and high GRE scores, although a 3.1 in major GPA will not impress at all. Very, very difficult, but not impossible. The second group, however, is more bureaucratic in nature... and the majority of US universities seem to want a minimum 3.0 GPA overall. There is not much flexibility here at all.

    Get your grades up, and quickly.
    Last edited: Apr 4, 2012
  12. Apr 5, 2012 #11
    One problem though is that grades mean different things in different countries. When you say you have a 3.1 American GPA, did you calculate this yourself, or is this some official statement from the school stating that your grades are equivalent to a US GPA of 3.1.

    There is some for foreign students. Chinese undergraduate schools grade much more harshly than US universities, so the registrar will often issue an official letter saying that a grade of such and such is equivalent to a US grade of something else. If you can get an official letter saying that your grades are in fact outstanding, this will be considered by the university committees.

    Also, it will help a lot if you get in touch with someone from your country that has gone to graduate school in the United States (contacting the Filipino students association for the schools that you are interested in). One reason that there are so many Chinese students in the US is that there are strong informal networks of students that will help people navigate both the administrative and educational bureaucracy. The other thing that helps a lot in the Chinese situation is that there are a lot of Chinese physics professors are intermediary between the Chinese and US academic systems.
  13. Apr 5, 2012 #12
    One other group of people that you really need to get in touch with are alumni from your university that have gone to US graduate school. If no one from your school has ever made it into US graduate school, then realistically, you are not likely to be the first.

    There are some tricky cross cultural issues. For example, Chinese people tend to be extremely modest when talking about themselves, so when someone says that their school isn't that good and their grades aren't that great, it could be that they are just being modest and humble, so I can't tell directly from that statement what their chances really are.

    There are also curious cross-cultural practices. It's common for Chinese recommendation letters to be written by the student with the professor signing it. Since there are strong cultural norms against self-promotion, people end up with rather modest letters. One other aspect about this is that having a trusted mentor write a letter listing your faults to a nameless committee is something of a flavor of "secret police informant" to it, so people feel more comfortable having the student write the letter and the professor signing it.

    I'm sure that there are similar cultural issues in the Philiphines, but since I'm not Filipino, I don't know what they are, and you need to find someone that does.
    Last edited: Apr 5, 2012
  14. Apr 5, 2012 #13
    Something to remember here is that much of the rest of the world considers American grades to be absurdly inflated, so much of the reason that schools impose a 3.0 GPA limit is that if you get less than a 3.0 in a US university, then you likely did really mess up in a big way.
  15. Apr 7, 2012 #14
    (First of all, thanks for all the replies so far. Thanks for helping out this random newb. :D)

    Well... You know those "this is the percentage range for a certain grade, enter it and get your GPA" websites? I used that as a basis, compared my grades with their grade ranges (the percentages) and saw that it was kind of similar to our grading system. I'm not quite sure of the accuracy of the given grade ranges, tho. Does it depend from school to school? (Because for us, it is. :I)

    Yea, I know. But they're the latin honors people (latest one I heard was a magna cum laude). They probably got A's in virtually everything since freshman year.

    On the other hand, the only way I'd end up as a cum laude is if I got A's in everything from this summer until fifth year. Which includes the "subjects I despise" category. [=.=;]

    ...I probably shouldn't see this as a beacon of hope, huh?

    Just wondering, tho: What is the usual minimum GPA for undergrads at US? Just to put it in perspective.


    So, the point is: Dominate, or I'm screwed. Yes? :D
  16. Apr 7, 2012 #15
    Well if you keep this in the back of your mind then at least you'll be pushed to try your hardest :) Talk to to those Latin Scholars people who have gotten into grad school and ask them how else they polished their applications aside from grades. I'd like to emphasize one more time the undergrad research (w/ accompanying recs) aspect - it is really quite crucial.
  17. Apr 9, 2012 #16
    That's a very bad idea. As I mentioned before, the US grading system is rather inflated so if you just put a raw grade for a non-US school into those ranges, you'll end up with meaningless numbers. Because US schools know that a 3.0 is a firm limit, they set up their grading systems to hit that limit.

    What you will need is a letter from someone official which translates your grades into the US system. If all else fails, submit the raw scores with a note that your school doesn't use GPA's.

    Wildly. For example, MIT grades extremely tests extremely harshly, but they don't use the raw test score, but rather curves the grades so that X% of students get A's, Y% get B's. Typically in US schools, you don't get a C unless you really messed up the course, which is different from other countries which a C is "average." US schools typically have policies that allow you to drop bad grades from your record.

    The test score -> grades vary wildly from school to school. GPA much less so. A 3.4 in one school might be a 3.7 in another, but it wouldn't be a 2.1.

    Network. If they are smarter than you, then learn from them.

    What you need to figure out is how your grades translate into US graduate school acceptance. If the only people who have been admitted to graduate school from your school are people with straight A's, and you don't have straight A's, then you have a big problem. If people with similar scores are getting in, then you can do it too.

    A lot of it depends on how much you really want to get into US graduate school.

    3.0 is a pretty hard limit for people that want to get into graduate school. Lots of people don't care about getting into graduate school, and just scrape by.
  18. Apr 10, 2012 #17
    One thing, tho: Does it have to be related to the field I want to go to? I'm still undecided on a certain field that I want to do for the rest of my life. I mean: I might be doing Aerodynamics with one group, but then I'd be doing Astronomy with another this Summer. And then I'm interested in doing Optics with another group next year.

    Hm. This is great advice. I'll keep it in mind. Thanks! :)

    [...Now I need to figure out how I am going to contact the President of the University. :I]
  19. Apr 10, 2012 #18


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    Do you mean the minimum GPA required to earn a bachelor's degree? At the college where I work, it's 2.0 on a 4-point scale, i.e. a C average. I suspect this is a general rule, or at least a very common one.
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