• Support PF! Buy your school textbooks, materials and every day products Here!

I just failed the Physics GRE, now what?

What would you consider a "safety school" for their Physics PhD program?

  • LSU

    Votes: 7 63.6%
  • University of South Carolina

    Votes: 3 27.3%
  • University of Alabama

    Votes: 6 54.5%
  • Miami University

    Votes: 3 27.3%
  • Georgia State University

    Votes: 2 18.2%
  • Tufts University

    Votes: 0 0.0%
  • Boston University

    Votes: 1 9.1%
  • Arizona State University

    Votes: 1 9.1%
  • Vanderbilt University

    Votes: 3 27.3%
  • University of Florida

    Votes: 2 18.2%
  • University of Nebraska

    Votes: 3 27.3%

  • Total voters
    11
  • Poll closed .

Main Question or Discussion Point

So I know you can't technically "fail" the Physics GRE, but I came about as close as you can- so low that I really wish I didn't take it at all, like I wish the schools were left to wonder what I might have made instead of knowing what I made on this. So low that I'd rather not even mention it here. (Hint: a single digit percentage of people who took the test scored lower than I did.) I have already taken the test again since I took this particular test, but the results for the second time around won't be back until late December.

My question is this: where do I go from here? Will this completely ruin any chance I have of being accepted into any Physics PhD program anywhere?

A little background about myself: I'm currently in my third year of study at a major public university after transferring from a local community college, (so my fifth year as an undergraduate overall). My GPA is somewhat below average for someone looking into grad school, (2.7 on a 4.0 scale). However I've done a ton of extracurricular work, from Society of Physics Students, to undergraduate teaching assistantships, to undergraduate research with two different faculty members. I already have four senior faculty members that have agreed to write recommendation letters for me for graduate school.

I also took the General GRE Test back in April and score 590(84%) Verbal, 630(54%) quantitative, and 5.0(84%) analytical.

So would it be possible to get into a Physics PhD program now, even at an unranked, low prestige institution?
 

Answers and Replies

eri
1,034
20
I got a 10% on the PGRE, got into several grad schools for physics, passed the qualifiers with no problem, successfully defended my PhD a few months ago, and just started a great postdoc. However, I had a very high college GPA and a lot of research experience to offset the fact that I didn't memorize many equations at my top liberal arts school. A low PGRE combined with a poor GPA means you probably won't get into any programs; the GPA will hurt you more than the PGRE score.
 
eri
1,034
20
Keep in mind that even low ranked schools (which tend to be low ranked because they have small program, and rankings are directly correlated to the number of PhDs you graduate each year) have a GPA cutoff of 3.0 in most cases and expect much higher. With a 2.7 GPA, no grad school is a safety school.
 
Vanadium 50
Staff Emeritus
Science Advisor
Education Advisor
23,471
5,923
Eri is right - the low grades reinforce the low GRE scores. I think you also have to realize a 2.7 is not "somewhat below average for someone looking into grad school". It's very far below average. Remember in grad school a C is considered failing, so an average below 3.0 sends the message that you can't handle undergraduate classes at the level expected, which doesn't bode well for graduate classes.

Second, there are some very good schools on your list, even if they are not "big names". They can afford to be picky.

I think the first question you need to ask is "why do you think you will do well in graduate school, despite your record?". Your SOP needs to bring this out. The next thing you need to do is to get your professor's letters in the hands of people who know them personally. Otherwise the natural thing to do is for the admissions committee to select someone with good letters AND good grades and scores.
 
Eri is right - the low grades reinforce the low GRE scores. I think you also have to realize a 2.7 is not "somewhat below average for someone looking into grad school". It's very far below average. Remember in grad school a C is considered failing, so an average below 3.0 sends the message that you can't handle undergraduate classes at the level expected, which doesn't bode well for graduate classes.

Second, there are some very good schools on your list, even if they are not "big names". They can afford to be picky.

I think the first question you need to ask is "why do you think you will do well in graduate school, despite your record?". Your SOP needs to bring this out. The next thing you need to do is to get your professor's letters in the hands of people who know them personally. Otherwise the natural thing to do is for the admissions committee to select someone with good letters AND good grades and scores.

That's true. I guess what I've thought until this point was that graduate level classes would be more independently oriented and less test-based. I've done quite a bit of independent research and I've excelled at it. (I've always been able to write better than take tests). I guess that's why I felt like I would do better at grad school.

Also, I guess I figured that a 2.7 was really closer to a B- than a C+ (while still considered a C+), and I didn't think that everyone getting into physics graduate school would have a much, much higher GPA than that. (although this certainly may be the case)

However, you both bring up interesting points. Is it unreasonable for me to *expect* to get in, at least *somewhere*? I suppose underlying my thinking until this point has been the notion that there was a complete "curve" of grad schools, with a few very good ones, lots in the middle, and a few that would accept you if you had points on your resume but low gpa and test scores. Is this line of thinking false?
 
eri
1,034
20
Your line of thinking was indeed false. Even low-ranked schools often have excellent programs, they're simply smaller, and can still be picky - many still accept fewer than 10% of applicants. Your first few years of grad school will mostly consist of coursework, which is like undergraduate work but a lot harder and more of it, and you'll almost certainly have to pass a qualifying exam before you get into the real research.
 
I see what you're saying. What about the schools that don't require a PGRE score? If I left that blank could I still get into a less competitive school with my research experience and reasonable General GRE score, or is it not worth trying?
 
292
1
Reasonable GRE scores? Hate to break it to you, the quantitative is the one that counts, and 630 is pretty bad. It's high school math. The 50% you beat are probably all applying to humanities programs.

Honestly, even if you can convince some schools to accept you, grad school is not going to be a fun place for you. You may be able to do research up to a certain level, but grad school is supposed to make you an independent researcher. In order to do that, you need the theoretical and analytical skills to inform everything you do in the lab. Without those, you are just going to be a lab monkey, and you will feel like crap since other students will be running circles around you. Just get a job, you can still work in a lab and do research, but you won't be expected to be a star at the mathematical or theoretical aspects.

It might sound like I'm being harsh, but you need to realize how many people go into a PhD program who never should have. It's easy to think that if you get in, you're golden. Go talk to some grad students and see how much they complain. You're not going to think it's fun, and it's not going to help your life unless you're one of the ones who is going to become a strong, independent researcher. If you think you can do that with your lack of quantitative ability, you are fooling yourself.
 
Pengwuino
Gold Member
4,854
14
One thing I would suggest you do is apply at the universities that the professors you've worked for graduated from. To echo what everyone has said, on paper your application is going to look terrible and it does scream out "I am not prepared for graduate school". However, if you are a good researcher and do have potential and you have professors who graduated from not so great universities, you might have a chance there. It might require going above and beyond the "can you write me a letter of recommendation" request and see if they can put a good word for you.... though I'm not even sure how that would work.
 
153
1
Also, I guess I figured that a 2.7 was really closer to a B- than a C+ (while still considered a C+), and I didn't think that everyone getting into physics graduate school would have a much, much higher GPA than that. (although this certainly may be the case)
Every grad school I've seen has a hard cut-off at 3.0 GPA. A few have said they might consider others, if everything else makes up for it. In your case, your poor GRE scores do not make up for your poor GPA.

You barely passed undergrad, I can't figure out why you think you can suddenly do well in the next step up.
 
Every grad school I've seen has a hard cut-off at 3.0 GPA. A few have said they might consider others, if everything else makes up for it. In your case, your poor GRE scores do not make up for your poor GPA.

You barely passed undergrad, I can't figure out why you think you can suddenly do well in the next step up.
Hmmm... fairly bleak sentiments. I may be under prepared for graduate study, but I was unaware that having a GPA just below B- meant I "barely passed". (When you get a 78 on an exam, do you feel like you "barely passed"?)

In addition, the feeling I'm getting here is that grad school is basically "like undergraduate classes, but harder, and you can't fall below a 3.0" for the first few years. That comes as a surprise to me, but I'm here to be surprised, I suppose.

I guess the over-arching theme to this thread seems to be that I should apply for some lower-tier grad schools, if my professors know someone there, but not to hold my breath. (And to apply for jobs that only require a bachelor's degree at the same time.)
 
Pengwuino
Gold Member
4,854
14
Yah i feel like I barely passed getting a 78 on an exam as a grad student :(

You can also apply to a Masters program and then move on to a phd program! A Masters program can help you get a better idea if pursuing a PhD is actually a good choice for you. Plus it's 2 years that will improve your knowledge of physics and hopefully make you look better to a graduate school.
 
An interesting option, to be sure. However I've read that admissions committees look at PhD program applicants more favorably that MS program applicants. Would you agree with this?
 
699
5
An interesting option, to be sure. However I've read that admissions committees look at PhD program applicants more favorably that MS program applicants. Would you agree with this?
I agree with the idea of applying for a Masters program. This can be your proving ground. Despite the bleak statements, you have to realize that these opinions are accurate, but based on averages or typical cases, and there are always exceptions to rules. You clearly feel that you have something inside you that will come out in a grad environment. The simple thing to do is apply to many Masters programs, and you should get accepted somewhere. Then work as hard as you can to prove everyone wrong. Even if it turns out that you are not able to excel to the level of getting accepted to a PhD program, the Masters degree would give you a chance to get an applied research job, which is probably where you want to be eventually.
 
eri
1,034
20
It's true that most programs that offer a PhD won't really want to accept people only doing a masters; leaving with a masters is equivalent to dropping out in the rankings, so it's in their best interests only to invest in students planning to do a PhD. So you'd want to find some terminal masters programs that don't include a PhD and see if you can get into those. I know some of the Rutgers satellite campuses have them.
 
Yeah, absolutely, and thank you all for the encouraging posts. I feel like I have a more realistic idea of my goals now.
 
And my girlfriend just said that it looked like I was being sarcastic when I said "thank you all for the encouraging posts", but I totally wasn't. :) I do appreciate your help.
 
153
1
Hmmm... fairly bleak sentiments. I may be under prepared for graduate study, but I was unaware that having a GPA just below B- meant I "barely passed". (When you get a 78 on an exam, do you feel like you "barely passed"?)
I've never gotten a 78 or below on an exam, but if I did, I would not feel like I barely passed. I would feel like I failed. But that's just me; I hold ridiculous standards for myself that I don't hold for other people.

But anyway, yes, a C is barely passing, because one grade lower, a D, is failing (for any class in your major, at least at my university).

In addition, the feeling I'm getting here is that grad school is basically "like undergraduate classes, but harder, and you can't fall below a 3.0" for the first few years. That comes as a surprise to me, but I'm here to be surprised, I suppose.
Yeah, but you couldn't maintain a 3.0 in undergrad classes. What makes you think you can maintain a MINIMUM of 3.0 in harder classes when you couldn't do better than a 2.7 in the easier undergrad classes?
 
Pengwuino
Gold Member
4,854
14
By the way, when I said you should try a Masters program, it was implied that you shouldn't do one at a PhD granting university. Especially now that graduate schools are having more and more people apply due to the economy, some flat out say "do not apply if you are applying to just get a masters". You'll probably want to find one at a Masters only university.
 
I've never gotten a 78 or below on an exam, but if I did, I would not feel like I barely passed. I would feel like I failed. But that's just me; I hold ridiculous standards for myself that I don't hold for other people.

But anyway, yes, a C is barely passing, because one grade lower, a D, is failing (for any class in your major, at least at my university).



Yeah, but you couldn't maintain a 3.0 in undergrad classes. What makes you think you can maintain a MINIMUM of 3.0 in harder classes when you couldn't do better than a 2.7 in the easier undergrad classes?

On the first part, I guess you're right. The reasoning I was using was that a 'B' is usually defined as "above average". So if a 2.7 is "barely passing" and an 3.0 is "above average", then what is your definition for "average"? 2.85?

On the second part, I was mainly coming from the physics grad students I've talked to here at my university. They will say things like "you have to keep a 3.0, but everybody keeps a 3.0, and that a professor will almost never give you below a B grade. Not to say that it's easier, just that it's more of a genial relationship between you and your professors than it is in the undergraduate world, and they're more willing to work with you before just handing you a grade. I may be wrong, and I'm certain it has to be different from institution to institution.

Lastly, I'm impressed by the fact that you've never made a 78 or below on a test, but this alone signifies to me that you probably weren't worried about "safety" schools when you were applying to grad school. I mean, you were probably applying to the top schools in your field, with a few thrown in there that weren't ranked just in case, or something, right? Does this mean that you've talked to others who were less prepared than yourself about their application experiences or what?
 
Pengwuino
Gold Member
4,854
14
Remember, you've probably grown up in a society where "C" is passing and that passing is... well, acceptable. In Physics, not to sound too elitist, but we like to think we're the above average students. Then to be a graduate student, you want to be above average of the above average students!

Getting a phd in physics is probably one of the hardest academic routes there is so don't be surprised if you run into people who think anything but an A is unacceptable.
 
2,956
5
Lol, you placed Tufts and BU as "safety cards".
 
153
1
Lastly, I'm impressed by the fact that you've never made a 78 or below on a test, but this alone signifies to me that you probably weren't worried about "safety" schools when you were applying to grad school. I mean, you were probably applying to the top schools in your field, with a few thrown in there that weren't ranked just in case, or something, right? Does this mean that you've talked to others who were less prepared than yourself about their application experiences or what?
I'm only a 3rd year undergrad, I'm in the process of researching grad schools now. This time next year, I'll be actually applying. I fully expect to get below a 78 at some point, and when I do, I'll be very upset with myself.

So, my only experience with grad school applications is reading admissions pages and talking to classmates who are applying now. But from that, I can tell you that every one of the 20+ "application requirements" pages I've seen required a minimum 3.0 for your application to be even considered. This includes so-called "safety schools."

Here's an example. One of my "safety schools" is UMBC. This is their admissions FAQ webpage:

http://physics.umbc.edu/grad/faqs.php [Broken]

A low GPA does not automatically exclude you from the program, as long as it is explained and compensated by positive factors, such as a high GRE score, relevant research experience, etc. According to the rules of the Graduate School, you can only be admitted conditionally, if your GPA is below 3.0. The usual condition is that you pass all your courses during the first year with an A or B. Otherwise, you are dismissed from the program.
Emphasis mine. Your low GPA is not compensated by high GRE scores. In fact, it's amplified by low GRE scores.

At my liberal arts state school, they have a "Professional Science Master's" program. It's a very small program and they're just starting up. Here's their admissions requirement for a terminal master's program.

http://grad.towson.edu/program/master/apph-ms/ar-apph-ms.asp

An undergraduate GPA of at least 3.0 is required for full admission and at least 2.75 for provisional admission.
Your application would be tossed in the trash, even for provisional admission to this tiny, no-name school's M.S. program.

It's going to be very difficult for you to get admitted into even a masters program, and even if you do get admitted, based on what you've told us so far, I don't think it's a good fit for you. You should probably just look into industry and start making money.
 
Last edited by a moderator:
Pengwuino, that's true and I guess I bring that upon myself.

Jack, I appreciate your input, but I've looked at Towson's admissions page before and while they do have concrete requirements, another 30 schools that I've looked at don't.

Furthermore, I can't see that you're qualified for saying my application would be "tossed in the trash" because you've looked at 20 websites and you think it's hard to get into grad school and your buddies agree with you. The logic you're using when referencing your own boldface quote isn't even really 100% accurate; what I mean is that it seems to me the excerpt is alluding to possible low GPA compensation by high GRE scores OR relevant research experience, and since I have the research experience, it seems as though I would be a candidate.

So while I appreciate your thoughts, there's no need to burn me down, because you're speaking to me from a level of knowledge about graduate school that I was at two years ago.
 
153
1
Pengwuino, that's true and I guess I bring that upon myself.

Jack, I appreciate your input, but I've looked at Towson's admissions page before and while they do have concrete requirements, another 30 schools that I've looked at don't.

Furthermore, I can't see that you're qualified for saying my application would be "tossed in the trash" because you've looked at 20 websites and you think it's hard to get into grad school and your buddies agree with you. The logic you're using when referencing your own boldface quote isn't even really 100% accurate; what I mean is that it seems to me the excerpt is alluding to possible low GPA compensation by high GRE scores OR relevant research experience, and since I have the research experience, it seems as though I would be a candidate.

So while I appreciate your thoughts, there's no need to burn me down, because you're speaking to me from a level of knowledge about graduate school that I was at two years ago.
Well, let us know how it turns out for you, I guess.
 

Related Threads for: I just failed the Physics GRE, now what?

Replies
6
Views
1K
Replies
11
Views
2K
Replies
5
Views
585
Replies
1
Views
1K
Replies
6
Views
4K
Replies
10
Views
2K
Replies
3
Views
2K
Top