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Testing I just failed the Physics GRE, now what?

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  1. Nov 21, 2010 #1
    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?
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 21, 2010 #2


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    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.
  4. Nov 21, 2010 #3


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    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.
  5. Nov 21, 2010 #4

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    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.
  6. Nov 21, 2010 #5

    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?
  7. Nov 21, 2010 #6


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    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.
  8. Nov 21, 2010 #7
    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?
  9. Nov 21, 2010 #8
    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.
  10. Nov 21, 2010 #9


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    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.
  11. Nov 21, 2010 #10
    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.
  12. Nov 21, 2010 #11
    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.)
  13. Nov 21, 2010 #12


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    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.
  14. Nov 21, 2010 #13
    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?
  15. Nov 21, 2010 #14
    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.
  16. Nov 21, 2010 #15


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    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.
  17. Nov 21, 2010 #16
    Yeah, absolutely, and thank you all for the encouraging posts. I feel like I have a more realistic idea of my goals now.
  18. Nov 21, 2010 #17
    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.
  19. Nov 21, 2010 #18
    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?
  20. Nov 21, 2010 #19


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    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.
  21. Nov 21, 2010 #20

    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?
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