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Horrendous grades, any hope for phys grad school?

  1. Jul 25, 2011 #1
    I'd like some advice. I go to university of illinois. My phys/math gpa is ~2.6. An in-depth explanation for my poor grades is out of place here, and they are reasons that I certainly cannot put in an application (various personal issues, mostly confidence problems and test anxiety, etc). I've been doing undergrad research for about a year, in the field of physics to which I wish to apply for grad school.. I haven't taken the GRE yet, but I'm confident I can do well...

    My grades have been bad, but I have steadily improved, and the previous problems are less and less of an issue. I am staying an extra semester to try to keep going in this positive direction. (This is irrelevant, but in case someone suggests I stay a whole year: I am forced to graduate after 4.5 years. I'm planning to get a job in the interim, or apply to international schools that admit during "spring" terms. but that is not what Im asking about.)

    So honestly, is there any hope? Are there *any* schools that will consider me? And if they do, are they just a waste of my time? Is there any strategy I should aim for? I was thinking to apply to a bottom-tier school and just do well and transfer, but some of the things I am reading seem not so optimistic.

    Any advice is much appreciated. Thank you in advance.
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  3. Jul 25, 2011 #2


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    GRE scores really don't matter as long as you don't bomb it. The physics GRE matters a lot more, as do GPA and research experience. Physics schools don't really have tiers - smaller schools end up lower on the rankings, but that's a direct function of how many students they graduate per year, not a reflection on the quality of the program. I attended two physics grad schools ranked over 100, and all the students they admitted had GPAs over 3.5 and many had publications as undergrads.

    Your best bet might be to take a few graduate courses at your own school, possibly as a non-degree students, before or after you graduate. If you can get A's in these classes, you can use that as leverage to apply to programs. But keep in mind some schools aren't even allowed to consider you with your GPA.
  4. Jul 25, 2011 #3


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    From what I've hard, transferring between grad schools is a big NO NO. A bad GPA isn't awful, the real thing is that you need to do pretty well on everything else (letters of recommendation, both GREs, research, etc). Doing bad on, say for example, the physics GRE (maybe below 30%) is pretty much the nail in the coffin for you.
  5. Jul 25, 2011 #4


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    I transferred from one grad school to another, and I've got friends who did as well. You'd have to retake some classes, and it will usually cost you at least a year, but it's done.
  6. Jul 25, 2011 #5


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    Well a lot of the answer depends on information that you haven't given us. Just to get into a graduate school you more-or-less need at least a 3.0 average to make the minimum cut-off.

    If "steadily improved" means in your first year you almost flunked out, but had a life-altering experience, turned it around and have had a 3.5 or greater average ever since - particularly in your major subjects, then you probably still have a good shot. If on the other hand it means you're climing from 2.4 to 2.6 to 2.8... you likely already know the answer.
  7. Jul 26, 2011 #6

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    The number of people here who have lousy grades and are sure they will do well on the physics GRE is large. The number who have lousy grades and have reported that they have done well on the physics GRE is much smaller.

    With a 2.6, you have demonstrably established that you couldn't handle undergrad. Sorry, but that's what the application will look like. The natural reaction will be "he can't habdle graduate school either". You need to counter this somewhere, and that means you need to absolutely smoke the GRE. Think high 90's. Otherwise, it will be trivial for the admissions committee to reach into the pile of apps and find someone more qualified.
  8. Jul 26, 2011 #7
    The problem with questions like these is that they ask "what is going to happen if everything goes well" and in fact if things have gone badly in the past, the odds are that they are going to keep doing badly.

    As of now. Not a chance. In a year, it's possible that you can get your application in the range where you can get admitted somewhere, but it's going to take a lot of work and some luck. So you really have to ask yourself whether or not it's worth doing.

    This is unlikely to work.

    The first question that you have to ask yourself is why do you want to go to physics graduate school. The second question you have to ask yourself is what are your viable options.
  9. Jul 26, 2011 #8
    I don't want to say your situation is hopeless, as I managed to recover from an even deeper hole than the one you are in now; however, as it stands, your chances are poor. So, let me give you my story as a bench mark.

    I completed my B.S. in Physics after nine and a half years, transferring between three different undergrad schools, with a cumulative GPA just over 3.0. This was up from a cumulative low of 1.7 at the five year mark - at which point, after three consecutive semesters of 0.0, I officially flunked out of that particular institution.

    I managed to recover by taking a couple of years off in order to get my head screwed on straight and then finishing up with two years during which I compiled a 3.97. During those final two years, I took essentially every upper level math and physics class available, including two graduate level math courses. I also aced both the GRE and PGRE.

    So recovery is doable. It's not easy, but it's doable. However, as I can attest, grad. school is harder yet, so if you can't recover from this, then it's unlikely you'd survive grad. school at any rate.

    One last thing: even if you think that you can't put the reasons for you initial poor performance into your application, put them in anyway. I did (and trust me, my reasons weren't pretty, and did not reflect well upon me). An explanation of what caused your initial poor performance and how you overcame it will look better than no explanation at all.
    Last edited: Jul 26, 2011
  10. Jul 26, 2011 #9
    A strong rally at the end always looks good.

    Just apply and let them decide. You're in the hands of the gods now.
  11. Jul 26, 2011 #10


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    I have a gpa similar to yours and i also feel hopeless. I am also a math/phy major. I have 1 year to go but i still think my gpa cannot be raised higher than 2.9. I sell life insurance this summer as i think i will never go to science research.
    Actually i am going to work after i graduate in 2012. Yes, life is hard but with a low gpa i just want to survive and be able to eat and sleep. I think i will at least work for a year.
    Though i will try applying master(msc) in low-ranked or new university where i think they will be more likely to accept low gpa guy. Will they actually accept me? i know the school expenses are expensive but i can afford it with my salary.
  12. Jul 26, 2011 #11
    I had a very similar situation. I transferred and didn't lose any classes or the qualifier pass. It probably helped that my advisor (whom I followed to the new school) was the new chairperson. It is done, it just isn't the typical way. Just like transferring in undergrad is done, but isn't the typical route.
  13. Jul 26, 2011 #12
    I should point out that this is going to hurt you a lot. The best way of proving that you have overcome problems in the past is to show a period in which you are in good shape, and if you have to graduate soon, that makes it more difficult to do so.

    Another quote:

    Physics and math doesn't work with a tiered system. This is usually a good thing, but in this situation it will hurt you since even no-name universities have admissions standards, and they aren't that much more likely to admit you than a big-name school.

    Something to remember is that in physics and math graduate schools, they are looking for academic serfs, so they want people to do basic teaching and research, and there are enough smart people from China and India that are willing to come over so that they don't have to relax standards too much.
  14. Jul 26, 2011 #13
    I got in to a masters program at a smaller school with a similar GPA (+- 0.1), mediocre general GRE scores (for a physics applicant) and no research experience. It can be done, but your options are severely limited. As others have mentioned, you need to do things that will show the admissions committee you are capable of doing graduate work.
  15. Jul 26, 2011 #14
    You're in the same situation I was in two years ago. I signed up to give you some advice.

    After my sophomore year as a math undergraduate, I had a 2.68 GPA. Retaking a few essential courses such as Algebra and Calculus II (and making sure I received an "A"), while simultaneously pushing forward with as many math courses I could fit in my schedule, I was able to boost my GPA above a 3.3 by graduation two years later.

    Additionally, during this time, I did research with one of my professors who was kind enough to advise me, ultimately being rewarded with a publication. This occurred (I believe) just in the nick of time as decisions were being made at the graduate schools I had applied to. I'm beginning a Master's program in math next month with assistance.

    So if you REALLY want to go to graduate school, you still can. While I assume physics programs are a bit different than math programs, my advice is this: bust your butt, work non-stop and continue with research. Try your best to involve yourself with the faculty too. This will provide a great opportunity to build up a solid reference or two. Best of luck.
  16. Jul 27, 2011 #15


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    Thanks twofish-quant. How about other msc programs such as statistics or finance?
  17. Jul 27, 2011 #16
    Finance masters degree does work on a tiered system. I'll have someone else talk about statistics.

    However, the problem with Masters degrees in finance is that if the school is low ranked then all you are doing is giving the school money for a piece of paper that isn't worth that much. Part of the purpose of a finance degree is to be a filter to preselect people that employers would be interested in, and if you have a very low GPA, and they let you in, then the school isn't going to be that interesting to employers.

    One other thing is that by not admitting you, sometimes a school is doing you a favor. It doesn't do you any good to try and take a degree for a few years and then drop out, and if the school won't admit you because they think you will drop out, then you have to consider the possibility that maybe they are right.

    There are for-profit schools that have very open ended admission policies for masters programs, but the trouble is that they often have horrendous drop out rates, and leave students with vast and un-payable debt.

    Also, you need to step back and ask yourself why you want to go to graduate school at all.
  18. Jul 27, 2011 #17
    My biggest concern for you is that most universities have a cut-off GPA..meaning they will not even look or consider your application unless you are at that GPA. The lowest I have seen is 2.75 minimum.

    There is no such thing as "low-tier" physics graduate programs. A PhD is a PhD no matter where you go. Some schools are more prestigious and popular than others, but even the unpopular schools have standards. If you really want to do Physics and get into somewhere, stay an extra year or two and raise the GPA. (I know you said you can't do that but thats what it would take.)

    Master's programs also have standards; Again, cut-off GPA's are your biggest problem.

    Don't set your heart on the GRE for it is not a sure thing. Taking a test and doing well is never assured because you can only be so prepared. Aim high of course, but don't let it be the ultimate hope.
  19. Mar 29, 2012 #18
    Thank you all for your advice. A special thanks to each of you that encouraged me to apply to grad school anyway.

    I wanted to update on this... Apparently all hope was not lost. In the fall I will be attending a very good graduate school for the PhD program. I was and remain... completely stunned. I got accepted to multiple schools.

    To those of you who find yourselves in a situation similar to my own, my advice would be to:
    -Continuously go the extra mile in your research group. Ask your research professor for more work, and kick it's butt. (If you are not doing this already, I would even ask why you are applying to graduate school?) I sort of pretended that I was a graduate student, and as it happened I was more reliable than some of the actual grad students. As a result, I had really solid research experience and stellar letters of rec.
    -Increase your GPA by taking courses in areas in which you are strong. In my case, this was lab courses and courses relating to my research. My cumulative GPA was above the 3.0 cutoff, but there are schools with lower cutoff, and if you are just barely under 3.0, I would inquire to the school explaining your situation.
    -Do well on the PGRE. Give it all you got.
    -Be straightforward and honest about your situation in your personal statement and to the professors writing your letters of rec. Also, try to facilitate dialogue between the professors that know you and the professors at the school you want. Ask your professors to call the school (and if possible, peers in their field at that school) on your behalf. I thought this was crazy when I was suggested this, but I think it helped.
    -VISIT the schools you are interested in before applying. This shows you are really motivated, and gives the professors a chance to gauge your personality. I cannot stress the importance of this enough.
    -What I told myself along the whole process was that if you truly want to get into graduate school, you will make it. Apply to a few schools even if you lack confidence.The path might be longer or more difficult than most people (and some of the folks in the thread experienced this), but I knew I would make it. I just got lucky that I am only a year behind.

    Anyway, thanks again to those of you who encouraged me to apply. I'm really glad I did. I am going to make it! Good luck to those of you who happened upon this thread because you are as scared as I was.
  20. Mar 29, 2012 #19
    I am in a similar predicament...I'm in my senior year as a Physics major and my overall cumulative GPA is 2.53 but my math/science GPA is 3.8.

    Do graduate schools look at the overall cumulative GPA, or just the GPA for the subjects related to your field of study? If I miss the GPA cutoff point for a majority of schools, should I speak to my school advisor, my Physics professors, or the graduate school? Should I contact Admissions for the graduate school? Who should I talk to about this?
  21. Mar 29, 2012 #20
    Usually, if you're "accepted" to a physics program, this means that the physics department at that school is passing a "recommendation for admission" to their College of Physical Sciences (or whatever contains the phys dept). Ultimately, the college/dean has the final say as to whether or not you get in. From what I can tell, the phys dept only cares about your math/science grades, but the college level is where the cumulative GPA cutoff becomes important. And it is rare but possible to be accepted by a department but rejected by the college.

    Some schools have clauses like "if you do not meet the minimum requirements, you must be deficient by no less than the equivalent of one year's worth of coursework." Or something like that... which can be fairly subjective and possibly to your advantage...

    I would suggest you talk to everybody you listed. Get the opinion of an adviser, or a couple advisers. Email the admissions folks at the universities you care about and what their policy actually is. Explain your situation to your professors so they know what you're up against and that you could really use a good letter of rec.

    Also, since you are a senior, are you waiting until next year to apply to grad school? If there are a few months or more between your graduation from your undergrad program and when you apply for a graduate program, I would suggest that in your personal statement you talk about what you've been doing in the interim.

    Good luck to you!
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