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Grad school with little/no research experience in between.

  1. Jun 10, 2013 #1
    Here goes another wild stab in the dark:

    As a quick refresher, I will be graduating with a bachelors in physics in a month. I was not successful in getting into grad school this year (I got waitlisted at UMN but was ultimately turned down, I also should have applied to more schools/bigger departments, but personal reasons prevented me from doing this at the time (a 2-body problem where the self-interacting potential between the two masses was turned off along the way)). I have clear motivations behind wanting to get a PhD and they are not exclusively professional, before that question comes up. I am 4 years older than a typical fresh American graduate.

    For reasons unrelated to academics, my senior year grades took a turn for the worse, but most of my previous core courses have decent grades, by my country's standards. I have a single experience doing research: senior thesis project in a field that I'm no longer seriously considering for grad school (high energy astrophysics), given that most of the active departments in it are pretty much top universities that are well out of my league. I come from a foreign grading system, so quoting an exact GPA would be a fairly gross representation of my preparation. I do not have straight-A's, but I can do problems from books of the likes of Goldstein, Landau and Cohen-Tannoudji, if that means anything. I have some ideas of departments that I think may be realistic for me (or not). I have very strong rec writers from relevant/cognate fields, but clearly that has not been enough.

    I have also applied to and have been waitlisted and turned down for nearly every summer research program I've applied for, all over the world (7 out of 8, should hear back on the last one next week) since they were all fiercely competitive. I've also applied to over half a dozen temp science jobs advertised for fresh grads in physics, but no reply after a few months, and I've bugged my profs about getting some sort of funded position anywhere but they don't really know of any opportunities. I also applied for about a dozen entry level engineering positions, hoping any STEM-experience would prove valuable in the grad school application process, but you can all guess how that went down.

    I now have little/no chance of doing any additional research now that I have no contact with academics. I may try pestering more of my profs for some work or projects to do even if it involves no funding, provided I can manage to get a job to pay for rent at my university (on another island), or I may try living off my savings if it comes to that(living in the region of the EU with the highest unemployment doesn't help). I know I will no doubt need to retake the GRE's, in fact I am thinking of taking the PGRE twice this year and sending the best of the two (I'm aware this will be much more costly, but if it will increase my chances I am willing to pay for each individual forwarding of my best results).

    With my inability to procure research experience, is there any reason I should even bother spending more time and money on this endeavor? I cannot afford a masters and don't live close to a university where this would even be feasible without getting into huge debt (I graduated debt-less, scholarships and awards all the way through, and in fact was able to save a little bit). Is it now time to start the painful process of forgetting my physics training and sticking with any job outside of academics?
    Last edited: Jun 10, 2013
  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 13, 2013 #2
    Anyone, please?
  4. Jun 13, 2013 #3
    Didn't you have your profile posted over at PhysicsGRE forums? I couldn't seem to find it now, but if I remember correctly, you only applied to a small number of schools and they were mostly pretty competitive places. I thought your profile was decent (again, if I remember correctly), and I think you could get in somewhere respectable if you applied to a wider range of schools. If I were you I would continue trying to get a job, even if it isn't in science, and apply again next year. Take the time to improve your test scores. But this also begs the question, what would you do instead?

    Also, if you are still interested in astro, you could consider applying to a funded masters program in the US like at Wesleyan University. It's probably less competitive than PhD programs, will give you a chance to do more research, and then you can apply to PhD programs again when you are done. This path would take longer than a direct entry to a PhD program, but it's a lot better than nothing.
  5. Jun 14, 2013 #4
    I think the real question is how long can you live off savings. Given that it sounds like you live in an area with very high unemployment it could be a while before you get a job and limiting yourself to STEM jobs could prolong this. Just because you take a job outside of STEM doesn't mean you are closing the door on it forever. You could always try and switch to a STEM job later. Also, it sounds like you are thinking of reapplying to graduate school next year and you may have more success then. Therefore, I would say that if you fear running out of savings it may be worth temporarily closing the door on STEM for now.

    On another note, sorry to hear you are going through such a rough patch. I hope you have someone to vent your frustrations to. If not, I am always willing to lend an ear.
  6. Jun 14, 2013 #5
    Yes I did remove my profile from PGRE forums. As I said I applied to few departments for concrete reasons which are irrelevant now, otherwise I would have considered a much wider range of schools. I had about 10 departments on my list, but I ceased applying per recommendation of an adviser along the lines of: I should not waste my money on apps and try again when I obtained more respectable GRE scores and research experience, keep your grad school standards high. But he also warned against staying too much out of the game because I am not a spring chicken. I think I should not have heeded his first advice because I may have been considered at one of the lower ranked schools I had in mind, given that Minnesota gave me at least some credit by waitlisting me.

    My intention was to apply again this year, but my main concern is not getting any kind STEM experience between now and application season (it's really in only 3-4 months). I've held several unskilled jobs before and I'll do it again if necessary, I just want to at least prove I've been doing something instructive other than working retail or brute force labor again and improve my future chances. I could put it off for an additional year, but I have no guarantee I'll be able to procure research experience in that time frame either (I would be applying to the same research programs and any others I come across again), and I really don't want to postpone it any longer than absolutely necessary.

    Someone1987: Thanks, I have turned to professional help for my personal issues. My overall situation is very taxing on me, I've lost a lot of the pleasures in life and I thought I had found some escape in academics. Perhaps in the long run this pause will help me fix some of my other problems that have injected venom into my everyday experience before putting myself in a high-stress situation again.
    Last edited: Jun 14, 2013
  7. Jun 15, 2013 #6
    Tough situation. Does anyone at your home institution do research? Can you work/volunteer there?

    10 schools should have been enough - it does sound like you targeted the wrong 10. If you plan on taking the GREs over, I would try to match your experience/scores/grades to the schools you are applying to a little better. Unfortunately, I've been told that GRE scores figure in quite prominently to admittance into many US programs.

    When I was applying in 2001, there was a big book from AIP or APS (I think) that listed all of the graduate programs in the country and information about them. It gave things like average GRE scores to admitted students, faculty and research interests, etc. It really helped me narrow down which schools I should apply to due to their research programs AND the strength of my application. I can tell you that I was right in the range of listed GRE scores for the programs I did get into, and the programs I didn't get into, I was clearly below their range. While you should keep your standards high, you should also probably be realistic. You want to go to a program where you can thrive and be productive, not get murdered.

    I know geographic constraints can be tough. Good luck.
  8. Jun 15, 2013 #7
    Research at my home institution is busy, but limited to the working academics and phd students. There are 8 funded summer research positions for 3rd or 4th year undergrads which I applied for, but they get over a hundred applications from all over Europe, so I didn't get in (there's also a lot of back-stabbing among my classmates unfortunately). I'm waiting for a decision on another similar position at another university.

    I want to volunteer, as I said before I am thinking of contacting the single prof that I know might be a little more friendly to the idea of volunteer research, as he knows me well and knows I like his research field. Culturally this it not the norm in my country (extra-official, unfunded research). I know American profs are more friendly towards this idea(incidentally, this prof spent a sabbatical in the US).

    This would imply living off my savings in order to be within reasonable distance to my university. I am seriously considering doing this if I get his approval to carry out some research for him. I would be studying for the GRE's and take any employment I could find in the meantime (I think I could work something out as a tutor, but it certainly won't be enough for living costs at first).

  9. Jun 15, 2013 #8
    I don't know what to tell you. If you intend to reapply this fall/winter, then the only research experience that is going to be relevant will be what you can acquire this summer. Which has basically started. Of course, you could also try to get something in the fall at your home institution.

    Other than that, you can also look into some of the non-top tier universities in the US, as they sometimes have rolling admissions. Or look into a program in engineering. They won't require the physics GRE and might have relaxed standards for previous research experience. If you decide to get a masters in engineering, you'll likely have better job prospects than you would with a Ph.D. in physics, and if you decide to get a Ph.D. in engineering, you'll likely be doing very similar research to many experimental physics dissertations.
  10. Jun 15, 2013 #9
    I did ask a few lower ranked schools if they had rolling admissions, but none offered funding under these circumstances. Not really interested in engineering departments despite the fact that my interests is in a field that most ME departments are active in, but with a different approach, and I cannot afford a masters tuition by a long shot.

    Of course if I do manage to get something going with a prof, I'd move and get started asap, as in tomorrow. I'm just waiting on the last funded research program before asking him for politeness' sake, don't want to leave him hanging if I do get it, though I'm sure he'd understand since it's funded.

    Stengah mentions Wesleyan, can anyone point me to more masters programs with funding for next year, unless there are still some that would consider admission with funding? The only ones I know are PI (Canada), RIT(apps closed), SUNY SB(apps closed, competitive), or Renssaler Polytechnic (pretty sure apps are closed, but I should ask)?
  11. Jun 15, 2013 #10
    Maybe I'm biased, but I don't think just a Masters in physics is really worth pursuing, at least in the US. Most people in academia/research will view it as you couldn't get in/complete a Ph.D. and most people outside of those areas already look down enough on physics.
  12. Jun 15, 2013 #11
    I know where you're coming from. The point was not to conclude my studies with just a masters, rather use it as a gateway to grad school, to get more research experience and coursework under my belt to apply for a phd. AFAIK this deemed acceptable in the US, as it is different than failing qualifying exams and getting kicked out of grad school, as the few departments with funded MS programs I've seen don't award phd's.

    This is the whole premise of the APS Bridge program (which I did apply for), and I've heard of many cases of people getting a masters at a lower ranked program, quitting that grad school and later applying to a higher ranked one for a phd (often still having to take some coursework).
  13. Jun 15, 2013 #12
    Absolutely. You will probably have to redo the masters portion of the subsequent program, as you indicated. I had a lot of European friends in grad school (no physics though) who already had masters and essentially started over from scratch the second time around.
  14. Jun 15, 2013 #13


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    I don't know anyone in industry who looks down on physics.
  15. Jun 16, 2013 #14
    That has not been my experience.
  16. Jun 16, 2013 #15


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    In industry it is common to have a BS, often an MS, rarely a PhD.
  17. Jun 16, 2013 #16
    If that were the case, don't you think most physics BS grads wouldn't have so much trouble getting a job in industry? The curious layman or the fresh acquaintance you meet might sound very impressed about having studied physics, but I don't think the same applies to a hiring manager who's looking for specific skills.

    Back on topic: redoing some courses is fine by me if it doesn't set me back more than a year, what I want is research experience, but I would definitely aim for schools that would allow taking a qual upon arrival and/or allow for some course requirement waivers if you come from another grad program (I've read several grad handbooks that say they do), as I'm not getting any younger.

    If anyone could point me to more TA-funded MS programs (anywhere in the world really), preferably that could be completed in a year, I would be most grateful.
  18. Jun 16, 2013 #17


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    We are going through a very bad economic downturn and hiring is down for every field. It is far worse for recent grads in law. This will eventually end (it seems that employment rates have been picking up over the last couple of quarters) and physicists (and lawyers and finance analysts and ....) will be hired again. Physicists are hired at an entry level in many industries, especially aerospace and instrumentation, and often in startups where being able to wear many hats is an advantage. It always helps to also have useful skills (electronics, DSP, coding, etc.) as you say, and yes, engineers are (as a broad generality) in higher demand because of it.
  19. Jun 16, 2013 #18


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    Not getting an employment does not logically equate to "industry looks down on physics". I can admire someone with wonderful set of skills, but if there's no open position to hire him/her, there's nothing I can do about it! Not only that, one also has to compete with others for that same position.

  20. Jun 16, 2013 #19
    The lines of bull**** that I have heard from many a prospective employer implies that many in industry look down upon physics degrees. Heck, you don't even have to leave this forum to hear the whole bit about people who have no 'real world' skills.

    Besides, if you are competing with others for the same position, and consistently losing out because your physics degree compares unfavorably with their _____ degree, I would say that qualifies 'being looked down upon' because of your physics degree. But maybe I shouldn't have said 'looks down on' and should have instead stated "doesn't value".
  21. Jun 16, 2013 #20
    I don't know if you are going to find an MS program that can be completed in a year in the US. Maybe you will. You might have better luck in Europe for that, then come back to the US.

    Here is the book I mentioned before. Look for maybe an older copy or ask to see if your department will buy it:

    http://www.aip.org/pubs/books/graduate.html [Broken]

    Also, I found this website. You might be able to find something useful on it:

    Last edited by a moderator: May 6, 2017
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