How to make the most of a gap year during the Covid-19 era?

In summary: It's difficult to say without knowing more about your specific situation and research interests, but I think it's safe to say that areas like theoretical physics or mathematics may be less impacted than fields like earth and environmental sciences.
  • #1
TriLore56
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How to make the most of a gap year during the Covid-19 era?
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Hello Everyone,

Thanks for reviewing my thread.

I am opening this thread to get insights into my future prospects for a career in Physics in the era of Covid-19.

I graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Physics in May of 2020 with a 3.6 GPA from a low-ranked undergraduate institution in the United States (GRE Quant: 156, Verbal: 156, Writing: 5, Physics: 800). I had applied to ten graduate programs for Fall 2020 admission, but I was rejected from all of the schools I had chosen. I also have three years of undergraduate research experience, where the focus of my work was in high-energy astrophysics. Based on my findings, I was able to present at multiple conferences and publish one paper. I had mainly applied to astronomy programs and Physics programs with an astronomy focus. But I feel as though this was a mistake due to small cohort sizes and available funds in this field. Due to the circumstances, I had chosen to take a gap year and instead apply for full-time opportunities related to my degree to gain additional experience in the field (mainly in Data Science). I have applied for close to 50 positions and have received a few interviews, but I have not heard back on further updates at this time.

My issue is that I am struggling to gain confidence with my degree and with understanding what my options are after graduating. Besides gaining additional experience and strengthening my test scores, I am not sure what significant gaps I need to address to succeed in the workforce and academia.

I am willing to widen my research interests to other areas of Physics which are compatible with my undergraduate degree (such as Condensed Matter Physics and Computational Physics).

I did review positions available for Physics BS recipients in Government Funded Laboratories (https://www.aps.org/careers/physicists/bsphysgov.cfm). But the listed site did not point to any active current research positions.

I am looking for an avenue to improve my profile with additional research experience or full-time jobs with a research focus.

How do I find such research positions?Would I need to change the focus of my chosen programs to something other than Astronomy, or could I stick with this field?

If I do not stick with Astronomy, which areas are the most optimally funded at this time, due to the pandemic?

What is the best way to narrow down graduate programs which have the most optimal funds available?

Thank you for your guidance.
 
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  • #2
If the publication was in a reputable journal and the conferences were serious then you should have a pretty good chance to get into graduate programs. Maybe there is a problem with the application or reference letters.
 
  • #3
TriLore56 said:
How do I find such research positions?

Have you tried speaking with your professors? This is of course, a time of tremendous uncertainty. At times through 2020, many universities have closed down their labs to one degree or another. The typical hiring of research assistants has in many cases been placed on hold while people have been trying to figure out how to move their projects forward, if at all, under the circumstances. Still there may be less formal opportunities, so if you can, try speaking with your former professors, those who wrote reference letters for you, etc. They should have a reasonable idea of what the lay of the local landscape is like.

Would I need to change the focus of my chosen programs to something other than Astronomy, or could I stick with this field?

If I do not stick with Astronomy, which areas are the most optimally funded at this time, due to the pandemic?

What is the best way to narrow down graduate programs which have the most optimal funds available?
This is a tough call, but I think you already recognize that being flexible is better than not.

One piece of advice is to make sure your really put the time into investigating each of the programs you apply to. I think sometimes, undergraduates get caught up in playing a statistics game and apply to a large number of programs at the expense of not looking to deeply into any of them. Ideally you should contact schools that you are interested in, speak with professors, graduate students, academic advisors, etc. Learn how many student they're likely to accept that year and which professors have good projects. Even the best students get rejected if they apply to a school seeking to work in a particular field that doesn't have any positions open that year. You can still play the numbers game of course, but make sure that at least a few of those numbers are cases where you feel you have a strong chance of admission.

It's also hard to say in general which areas are optimally funded. Again, this is going to vary from school to school. An field that generally has a lot of funding may not have much at a particular school - so the key again is to do as much scouting, gather as much intelligence as you can. (I realize this is not easy.)
 
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  • #4
Choppy gives some good advice.

In 2105, the average GPA for admitted physics students was 3.74, and 3.87 for the top ten schools. The average GRE was 845, and 902 for the top ten schools. While 3.6/800 is well within the range of accepted students, it's not on the top end of that range. You suggest your BS institution is not strong. That will not help.

Last year was not a good year - schools admitted fewer students. Next year will not be either. If it's a "normal year", there will still be this rounds applicants plus everyone in your situation. The bar is higher than average, and will be for a while.

But I don't understand the timeline. You graduated 7 months ago. Your gap year is more than half over, and most graduate applications deadlines expired - the last batch expired yesterday. So the die is cast for this year. Or are you talking about two gap years?
 
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  • #5
Vanadium 50 said:
Choppy gives some good advice.

In 2105, the average GPA for admitted physics students was 3.74, and 3.87 for the top ten schools.

@Vanadium 50 , I believe you meant to type 2015! :wink:o0)
 
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  • #7
@Vanadium 50 can you advise where that information was posted? Do they update the stats annually?
 
  • #9
Thanks for your suggestions. I reached out to some of my professors to update them on my situation, and they emphasized that I remain persistent with applying for positions.

With the current economic climate and research activity at universities around the US, would it be more feasible for me to focus on obtaining a Ph.D. in Physics, or a full-time position in the field as my career goal at this time?

Thanks for your guidance.
 
  • #10
That's a pretty broad question with no clear answer.

A lot depends on you personally. Some people, for example, just won't be happy unless they're directly pursuing a PhD. In which case that would be the path to follow. Others apply to PhD programs because school is the only thing they know and they're afraid of or don't understand much about the world outside of academia. Sometimes such candidates can end up as train wrecks if admitted to graduate programs.

As a physics grad you may have a leg up in the COVID-affected economy, at least in a relative sense. As a general rule the economy is down right now and it will likely continue to be so until we have massive immunizations. But a typical physics grad will have a highly mathematical background, some programming experience, the ability to work with and analyze large amounts of data, etc... skills that can be employed in a work-from-home setting. So it would make sense that you should have an easier go of finding a "career" type position than, say, someone with an education in hospitality services, or a skill set that requires direct interaction. Of course a lot of this depends on your specific details, where you're willing to accept a position and your own ability to market yourself.

The good news is that this is a situation in which you can hedge your bets somewhat. Apply to the PhD programs AND apply around to job opportunities. Then make whatever decision presents itself. The caveat of course is that you will have to be honest with people in that case and figure out a way to politely tell employers that your long term plans include graduate school. One way to do this effectively is, when you're sitting down with an employer, ask about the long term commitment they expect.
 
  • #11
I'm still puzzled as to the number of gap years we are talking about.
 
  • #12
TriLore56 said:
With the current economic climate and research activity at universities around the US, would it be more feasible for me to focus on obtaining a Ph.D. in Physics, or a full-time position in the field as my career goal at this time?

When the students I mentor email their CV and short statement of interest to professors at a school, the interest they show the student is a fairly good predictor of whether the student will be admitted to that school.

If you can establish correspondence and get encouraging responses from 3+ professors in a given PhD program, it's probably worth submitting an application. If you can't get any profs interested through informal contacts, it's a bad bet.
 
  • #13
Dr. Courtney said:
When the students I mentor email their CV and short statement of interest to professors at a school, the interest they show the student is a fairly good predictor of whether the student will be admitted to that school.

If you can establish correspondence and get encouraging responses from 3+ professors in a given PhD program, it's probably worth submitting an application. If you can't get any profs interested through informal contacts, it's a bad bet.

@Dr. Courtney , I find it interesting the advice you give on this regard, as I've seen a number of posts on PF that advise students considering applying for PhD programs to not e-mail professors directly.

(If I recall correctly, @Vanadium 50 was among those people -- feel free to correctly me if I'm mistaken on this).
 
  • #14
StatGuy2000 said:
@Dr. Courtney , I find it interesting the advice you give on this regard, as I've seen a number of posts on PF that advise students considering applying for PhD programs to not e-mail professors directly.

(If I recall correctly, @Vanadium 50 was among those people -- feel free to correctly me if I'm mistaken on this).

It is hard to comment on the advice from others, especially without knowing what their reasoning was. The students I have mentored recently have applied/are applying to a number of schools, including Vanderbilt, MIT, U Penn, Ga Tech, Cal Tech, Stanford, Berkeley, Harvard, Ohio State, Stonybrook, and Princeton. They have successfully elicited favorable correspondence from potential research advisers at most of these schools. Many of the above schools actually encourage students to contact potential research advisers _before_ completing the application for graduate admissions. At worst, attempts to contact faculty before/during the application process might amount to a waste of time if the faculty do not reply. At best, it creates a favorable impression and puts you on their radar. Many faculty respond with comments like, "I'll be looking forward to your application."

Keep in mind, the students I mentor tend to be fairly strong applicants for the schools they are applying to. Not that admission is guaranteed in every case, but they get careful advice on where and how to apply, so they are always admitted to over 50% of the schools they applied to. If I'm mentoring a student and give them the green light to contact top 10 physics programs, they're likely to get into at least half of the ones they apply to. Most professors are happy to hear from them.

From the OP, it seems like the big problem here was aiming too high. They need to get better advice from someone closer to the situation to choose their range of grad schools more reasonably. Failing that, the email approach should help them figure out some schools and fields where the professors will be glad to see their application. It's pretty hard to go 0 for 10 when applying to PhD programs where professors are glad to see their application.
 
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  • #15
FWIW, the vast majority of emails I have received from prospective students has pretty clearly been blasted to everyone with a pulse. Nobody seems to know exactly what I do and some can't even spell my name right.

But more to the point, is a professor not on the grad admit committee has very little pull with it, at least in the positive direction. A professor can say "if you admit this student, I will support her for her entire time here" and that will usually do it. But a professor being in a position to say that is rare, and being willing to actually do it for an unknown is even rarer. Of course, a professor can always say "look at the email this idiot sent me..." to a colleague over lunch.

"Get admitted, and we can talk about research once you get here" is entirely reasonable.
 
  • #16
Vanadium 50 said:
FWIW, the vast majority of emails I have received from prospective students has pretty clearly been blasted to everyone with a pulse. Nobody seems to know exactly what I do and some can't even spell my name right.

Of course. I recommend students spend several hours doing background work on each professor they email to make sure a 2-3 paragraph email is well tailored for the recipient. Before they compose the email, they should have been able to figure out which projects the professor has published in over the past few years, and which are likely to be supporting future graduate students. From this, they determine if there is an overlap of interests and skills.

Vanadium 50 said:
But more to the point, is a professor not on the grad admit committee has very little pull with it, at least in the positive direction. A professor can say "if you admit this student, I will support her for her entire time here" and that will usually do it. But a professor being in a position to say that is rare, and being willing to actually do it for an unknown is even rarer.

I don't expect professors to offer support for "unknowns" but a lot of first year grad students that I've mentored begin with research assistantships with specific profs rather than TAs. Presumably, professors are able to review the full application including recommendation letters before offering RAs. Now maybe, profs looking for talent go through the whole stack of applications. But I suspect, most often well-qualified candidates come to their specific attention through other means.

Vanadium 50 said:
"Get admitted, and we can talk about research once you get here" is entirely reasonable.

Of course, it is entirely reasonable. But even such a reply is valuable to a student. It tells them that they are not a strong enough RA candidate or applicant at that school that admission or RA support is a foregone conclusion. It tells them that they are not such a strong RA candidate that the prof wants to be at the front of the line. The prof is not really concerned that a colleague will get there first. But the fact that the prof replied at all tells them that admission is a reasonable possibility.

If a student gets no responses from half a dozen well-researched, carefully crafted emails to potential research supervisors, it suggests that student is unlikely to be admitted to a given school. If that is repeated across several schools in a given tier, the student is likely aiming too high.
 
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Related to How to make the most of a gap year during the Covid-19 era?

1. How can I make the most of my gap year during the Covid-19 era?

There are several ways to make the most of your gap year during the Covid-19 era. One option is to take online courses or participate in virtual internships to gain new skills and knowledge. You can also use this time to explore your interests and passions, such as learning a new language or picking up a new hobby. Additionally, you can use this time to travel locally and explore your own country.

2. Is it safe to travel during the Covid-19 era?

It is important to follow the guidelines and restrictions set by your local government and health authorities when considering travel during the Covid-19 era. It is also recommended to research the safety protocols and precautions in place at your desired destination before making any travel plans.

3. How can I gain valuable experience during my gap year if I am unable to travel?

If traveling is not an option during your gap year, there are still plenty of ways to gain valuable experience. You can volunteer remotely for organizations or causes that align with your interests, or take on a part-time job or internship in your local area. You can also use this time to network and connect with professionals in your desired field.

4. Can I still apply to college or university during my gap year?

Yes, you can still apply to college or university during your gap year. In fact, taking a gap year can often strengthen your application as it shows maturity, independence, and a desire to learn and grow. Be sure to communicate your gap year plans and experiences in your application to showcase how it has positively impacted your personal and academic growth.

5. How can I stay motivated and productive during my gap year?

It can be challenging to stay motivated and productive during a gap year, especially during the Covid-19 era. One way to stay motivated is to set goals for yourself and create a schedule or routine to help you stay on track. It can also be helpful to connect with others who are also taking a gap year and support each other in your personal and academic goals.

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