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Graduate Physics? Plenty of research experience, low GPA

  1. Jun 30, 2015 #1
    I've been reading many of these forums regarding students with low GPAs, or low GRE scores, etc., but I am in a slightly different situation.

    I am about to head into my senior year of undergrad and will receive a physics BS and an applied math BS.
    My GPA isn't much better than a 3.0, which it seems is the cutoff for hope..
    Much of this is due to a rocky start in college where I changed my major twice, so, in the end, it will have taken me three years to get both BS degrees but will look much worse on paper.

    However, I have 6 years of involved research experience at a national laboratory and will be published 3 or 4 times by the end of my undergrad career. My research has involved plenty of mechanical engineering and computer science in addition to the physics work. My mentor earned his PhD from Oxford, is still actively involved with faculty and research there, and will be more than willing to write a solid recommendation letter for whichever universities I apply to.

    So let me get more to the point..

    Is there any hope of getting into a graduate physics program with a very unimpressive GPA, but plenty of research experience? (Assuming my GRE scores are competitive)
    And if so, does anyone have any recommendations on how I could distinguish myself to increase my chances for admission? Or any steps I should take while i'm still in undergrad to better position myself for the next steps?

    Thank you!
     
  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 30, 2015 #2
    Absolutely. Graduate admission faqs discuss this all the time. Your application as a whole is taken into consideration. If you have stellar letters of recommendation, good research experience, authorships, good GRE, etc. they may overlook your GPA. It'll still probably be an uphill battle, but it's not hopeless. What's also important is if you performed well in your upper-division courses. If you have, say, a low grade in freshman EM but an A in senior-level EM, they'll obviously see that you've made improvements, and the lower grades probably won't count as much against you.
     
  4. Jun 30, 2015 #3
    Thank you for the response. This is exactly the case, I received poor grades in the beginning general physics courses and am now pretty much maintaining a B average with scattered A's, which haven't been improving my GPA very much. Since I changed my major to physics after my sophomore year, I have been taking stacked semesters with 2/3 physics courses and 2/3 math courses at a time, which is significantly heavier than my fellow classmates (at least those i've asked); I believe this is primarily the reason for the B average as I simply do not have enough time to devote to each class to maintain an A average.

    I guess i'm really just curious about ways I can prove my work ethic and devotion to the field without sitting at the top of my class.
    The work i've done through research is far more advanced than the material learned in my courses thus far and it seems difficult to show a university the work i've done if I cannot get through the first stages of admission due to a poor GPA..
     
  5. Jun 30, 2015 #4
    Thank you for the response. This is exactly the case, I received poor grades in the beginning general physics courses and am now pretty much maintaining a B average with scattered A's, which haven't been improving my GPA very much. Since I changed my major to physics after my sophomore year, I have been taking stacked semesters with 2/3 physics courses and 2/3 math courses at a time, which is significantly heavier than my fellow classmates (at least those i've asked); I believe this is primarily the reason for the B average as I simply do not have enough time to devote to each class to maintain an A average.

    I guess i'm really just curious about ways I can prove my work ethic and devotion to the field without sitting at the top of my class.
    The work i've done through research is far more advanced than the material learned in my courses thus far and it seems difficult to show a university the work i've done if I cannot get through the first stages of admission due to a poor GPA..
     
  6. Jul 1, 2015 #5

    radium

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    What is your physics major GPA? That's all they really care about.
     
  7. Jul 3, 2015 #6
    You won't jump from a top 100 school to the top 10, but odds are good that you'll get accepted to a grad school with a comparable ranking as your undergrad school if you apply to 3-4. A lot of grad admissions will look at the GRE scores to help interpret the GPA issues.

    Also, if you (or your advisor) can make contact with a couple of faculty at the schools you are applying to and get them to put in a good word for your application ...
     
  8. Jul 3, 2015 #7

    Vanadium 50

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    I disagree. It's important, but non-major classes indicate how well the candidate does with work he is not particularly interested in, so they look at that. Trends, both upwards and downwards, are important too. Mathematical preparation is important, so they look at that.

    A 3.0 is a problem, and a 3.0+epsilon is a smaller problem, but still a problem. At most graduate schools, a C is considered failing, and if your average dips below 3.0, bad things start happening. Admissions committees know this, and know that accepting a student near that line and then assigning them the hard work of graduate-level classes often does not end well. It doesn't matter how good a researcher you are if you fail your qualifying exam and never get to the research part of your degree.

    Defending the low GPA on grounds that the workload was too high will spook any committee. Grad school is hard. Time management is critical. If the cracks are starting to show at the undergraduate level, the idea of selecting someone less risky from the pile of applications becomes more appealing.

    I would definitely say 3-4 schools is too few.
     
  9. Jul 3, 2015 #8

    IGU

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    Go ask this question at the proper forum on The Student Room. At Oxford, I suspect the physics Ph.D. program is significantly different than it is in the US. And their admission process and criteria are different as well. My suspicion is that there are no classes or exams, only research, and that a Ph.D. takes only a few years. It sounds like this would suit you. On the other hand, they likely expect that you already have learned book material to the level of a masters degree. I am generalizing from what I know about a maths Ph.D. at Cambridge so it might be all wrong. Go look for yourself.

    Also, in general, all you need anywhere is for one influential person to support you and be willing to say "I want that guy". If your mentor has good contacts who will believe him when he says you'll be a star, then you're fine wherever he has those contacts. Just apply and count on him to get you accepted. It's all personal. But, of course, he has to be convinced you'll deliver, as he's putting his reputation on the line. So be sure that you're applying to programs you will like, will work hard at, and where you'll be successful. Make sure that your mentor believes in you and knows you are reliable.
     
  10. Jul 3, 2015 #9

    radium

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    To correct what I said earlier, I'm sure the overall GPA does matter a bit. However I say the physics GPA matters much more based on my friend's experience (which I know is completely anecdotal). He got good grades in physics and in core requirements but had another major (science but definitely different from physics) which he was not suited for but completed anyway. This major absolutely affected his GPA in a negative way as this department graded the most harshly of all departments and he had received several very questionable grades. However, he is now at a top ten school for physics and doing great (again his physics GPA was very strong). So they are much more likely to overlook grades under B if they are not in physics. Maybe he was okay since his only weak grades were in the other major; which was kind of odd the really bad grads were in a semester in orgo and one or two bichem classes.

    Your research experience will definitely help a lot, especially if you have very strong letters. If you have publications that will definitely make a difference if you are first or second author.

    You should definitely not apply to only four schools. In your situation I would say you need at least 12. I would ask your recommenders for advice on where to apply.
     
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