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Graduate School Admissions for Astronomy Program

  1. Oct 18, 2016 #1
    Hi Everyone!

    I am a senior student going at a liberal arts college currently majoring in Physics. I am applying to graduate schools in Astronomy this fall semester. I would like to ask what are the odds of getting into the best astronomy programs with the following background:

    Major GPA: 4.00
    Research: I have been doing research NANOGrav (2 years), LIGO at Caltech 1 summer, astronomy research at Caltech 1 summer. Doing a thesis now with NANOGrav.
    Papers published: 2 papers and in the process of writing 1 other ones
    Physics GRE: 30 percentile
    General GRE: 68% CR, 87% Math, still don't know writing
    Reference Letters: 2 of them are from my faculty mentors in Caltech, and 1 is from my mentor in my institution who works with NANOGrav.

    Based on your experience, can I get into top astronomy programs, i.e Caltech, Harvard etc?
  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 18, 2016 #2
    Your physics GRE is a little bit worrying, and the largest factor will be how good your letters of recommendation are.
  4. Oct 18, 2016 #3
    Hi Dishsoap! Thanks for your reply!

    I am also planning to apply in other programs from not so good schools like Ohio State, Washington, Arizona etc. Do you think the Physics GRE is going to affect my acceptance everywhere or only in the top ranked schools?

  5. Oct 18, 2016 #4
    I'm not in astronomy and I'm also only a first-year grad student, so take my opinion with a grain of salt. I think that a lot of schools are starting not to care about the physics GRE too much, so as long as you have great letters you will be fine. Also, the fact that you spent two summers at Caltech will help immensely to get in there!
  6. Oct 18, 2016 #5


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    The physics GRE kept me out of top schools with similar stats (Harvard, not CalTech in my case). And you did a lot better on it than I did. Many schools now understand that the PGRE isn't any good at predicting how well you'll do in a grad program, and liberal arts school graduates tend to do much worse on it, but not for good reasons (usually a lack of requirements to memorize things, which I've never needed to do since the PGRE/qualifying exams). So apply to a wide range of schools, just in case it holds you back - and also consider applying to the schools that don't require the PGRE anymore.
  7. Oct 18, 2016 #6
    Thank you for your reply Eri! If I may ask, when did you apply for grad school?
  8. Oct 18, 2016 #7

    Vanadium 50

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    You do realize that Arizona is the best (pure) Astronomy school in the country, right? If that's "not so good", I am not sure what is. It is regularly ranked in the very top tier, as is Ohio State. I think you need to start discussing program quality with your advisor.

    Next, your pGRE is very important (and not competitive). Unless your LAC sends an army of people to grad school (a la Reed or Harvey Mudd) the committee will have no idea how to normalize a 4.0. A 4.0 with a 30% percentile on the GRE will be interpreted as a case of grade inflation. Letters only go so far - if the committee doesn't think you will pass your qualifying exam, it knows it doesn't matter how good a researcher you will be, because you won't get that far. And remember, you don't know what's in those letters.

    I would advise you to apply to a wide range of schools, particularly smaller schools that are strong in areas of interest.
    Last edited: Oct 19, 2016
  9. Oct 19, 2016 #8


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    While I do think one can compensate for a low PGRE score, there is most likely a lower limit around 700.
  10. Oct 20, 2016 #9
    This is the exact sentiment that I heard from an advisor for an REU I did as an undergrad. The mindset I was encouraged to have is that if one does well on the pGRE they are likely well-equipped to handle graduate coursework (assuming their performance on pGRE-type problems was indicative of having learned the material at a deeper level), but if they don't perform well on it, it doesn't really reflect poorly on the student. However, this is only true for pGRE scores that are not in what he referred to as the "abysmal" range, which was <650. And in my experience, this was true. I busted my rump studying for the pGRE (having to teach myself entire courses of material in some cases) to pass and ended up with a 750. In my case, I did not learn the material at a deep level, so my pGRE performance was completely misaligned with my preparation for graduate school (as i'm now learning, sigh). However, my research experience was able to compensate for a pGRE score on the "lower end" - I was admitted to all 12 schools that I applied to.

    Many of my peers also took the physics GRE and scored in the 400s - this led to them applying for 20+ schools and being admitted to exactly zero (although they also had very little research experience).
  11. Oct 20, 2016 #10
    You listed some pretty good schools in the "not so good" category, so I would not be optimistic.

    Unless you get that PGRE score up, a lot will depend on the reputation of your undergrad school, whether your degree is a BS or BA in physics, and what undergrad math and physics courses are on your transcript.

    Someone probably should slap your profs for giving you straight As if the best you can manage on the PGRE is a 30th percentile. You were cheated.
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