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Schools Importance of advisor vs. ranking for grad school?

  1. May 8, 2017 #1
    So some brief backstory about why I’m asking this question: I’m applying to grad schools next fall, and everything on my CV looks great (2 REUs, I know four professors I can get a great research letter from, I’m doing honors at a top 10 university for physics, etc.) except my gpa, which is around 3.3 after this last semester. I took way too much for me to handle and things ended up being pretty disastrous (in one year I went from a 3.65 to 3.3). The bad grades were in math and CS courses though (my physics grades were still A’s and B’s, and I technically showed an uptrend). I definitely learned my lesson with the courses, and will be taking a very light load in the fall, but obviously I’m concerned about getting into grad school with bad grades on my transcript.

    Anyway, I went from looking at places like MIT and Illinois to wondering if I can even get into my local state schools. I asked my current PI for places to apply to just based on advisors (barring my CV), and according to him there are good advisors at places that I’ve never really heard of, like UT-Arlington. I trust his opinion, but I honestly started stressing out when I looked up these schools, because some are not even ranked on US News! (Usually a red flag when I was selecting places for undergrad.) I realize that I may have been falsely trained to put this artificial emphasis on rankings throughout my life (e.g., it makes my school look better if I get into a prestigious grad school, regardless of if I do well there or not), but I’ve also heard some professors say that to be a leader in your field you must go to a top school; the better the ranking, the more it may help you; etc.

    My dream is to continue doing research as a career. I’ve had so much experience with it already, I absolutely love it, and I’m sure I don’t want to do anything else as a career. So, I'm really worried about having thrown away chances at being a leader at what I do just because of some immaturity with course selection in undergrad. I guess I’m looking for reassurance and/or advice on how to approach the application process in my position...

    For example, will it really weigh against me heavily career-wise if I go to an unranked school that has a "good advisor?"

    Edit: Btw, just for clarity, I'm going into experimental high energy physics, so I will likely work on a collaboration/experiment.
  2. jcsd
  3. May 8, 2017 #2


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    I can't really quantify it, but I think prestige is definitely. There are benefits from name recognition but there are also benefits such as having more funding/resources and a stronger on average student body (which is important because you learn a lot from your peers in grad school). Also, if you switch fields when you get to grad school, you will be in a much better position.

    I think it sounds likely that the positive parts of your application will outweigh your GPA. They will definitely not consider the other courses in CS and math as strongly as your physics courses and they will also be looking a thing your whole transcript which gives much more information than just your GPA.
    Letters may actually be the most important part of your application to grad school, so if you have exceptional letters that makes a huge difference. If you are coming from a top ten physics department then people at the schools you apply to should know your letter writers which is also a huge benefit.

    You should also ask your recommenders if they think you are competitive at the top places since that is also a way to tell how good your letters will be.
  4. May 8, 2017 #3


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    I wouldn't put a lot of weight on school prestige or ranking. Not that I would totally ignore it, but at the end of the day, a school's name isn't going to do any work for you and it's quite possible that at least some of the factors that have gone into the ranking process have little relevance to you as a student.

    In general, what you do as a graduate student is far more important than where you do it. To that end you want to pick a place that's going to give you the best possible conditions for you to be productive and able to learn. Having a supervisor who is an effective mentor for you is a major factor in that. And all the prestige in the world won't matter if don't get along.

    I would pay attention to what your PI has to say, since he's in the best position to assess you. Check out the schools that he's recommended that you look into and if you have concerns about them, talk to him about them if that's possible. I also recommend trying to pick schools based on your own criteria for what's important. Are they doing research that's interesting to you? Where are their graduates going? What kind of financial support will you receive and how does that relate to the cost of living? The higher ranked schools tend to have better facilities, student resources, and networking opportunities - which are all factors to include as well.

    As far as the application process goes, just keep plugging away and focus on getting your GPA as high as it can be on your upper level courses. Letters of reference are important, but I think that students tend to over-estimate how much of a role they can play. If you're sitting at a 3.3 GPA, I'm not sure a professor is going to be able to say that you're the greatest student he or she has had the pleasure of supervising. If he or she did, the letter likely wouldn't get a lot of weight. But things that you can give them are objective facts. If you can publish something, or present some work at a conference with a poster or oral presentation, that adds a lot of objective weight to your application.
  5. May 10, 2017 #4
    This is a tricky question to answer because the answer depends on your future career path after you get your PhD. You mentioned that you want to go into experimental high-energy physics. If you plan a career in that field after your PhD, then you will follow the PhD to postdoc to professor track or the PhD to postdoc to researcher in a national or international lab track. In which case, the advisor is dispositive. That is, if the advisor has a strong, well-established reputation in the experimental high-energy physics community, has a strong publication record, has a strong track record of getting grants, and has a strong track record of collaboration with other experimental high-energy physicists ... then you will be OK (assuming you do good work), regardless of the reputation of the university.

    Ah, but what happens if your career track is not so straightforward? Realistically, opportunities in the two above career tracks are limited. I’ve known physicists who got their PhDs in experimental high-energy physics and then ended up working in either a different area of physics or technology, or in a totally unrelated field (such as finance, insurance, and patent law). In which case, having a brand-name school on your resume is highly beneficial. Fair or not, having schools such as MIT, Stanford, and Harvard on your resume opens doors in any field of endeavor. You mentioned Illinois. I assume you mean UIUC. UIUC holds good sway in the physics (and overall science and engineering) community, but not so much outside. And a school such as U of T – Arlington gains you nil.

    So it boils down to whether you are dead set on experimental high-energy physics as a career, or whether you want to leave your future options open.
  6. May 30, 2017 #5
    Wow @CrysPhys, thanks for the great answer! I'm honestly still curious about fields like condensed matter, AMO, and even HEP-Th, but I can strongly see myself staying in HEP-Ex as a career. The latter is my current plan, which is why I'm focused on finding a good advisor in the field.

    Concerning your second paragraph about the school name: what would you say about a university that may not be super prestigious in physics or hard sciences, but is a "name brand" just in general? E.g., somewhere like Vanderbilt or Tufts? (Assuming there is an advisor I'm interested in there.)
  7. May 30, 2017 #6
    A friend of mine, a PhD in Caltech, told me: as long as GPA > 3.1, your GPA will not make a difference to the committee.
    However, this information is literally 10 years ago...
  8. May 31, 2017 #7

    Vanadium 50

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    Your friend is wrong.
    Your friend was wrong ten years ago too.
  9. May 31, 2017 #8
    I would not place Vanderbilt or Tufts in the brand-name category. A better example would be Dartmouth. Not a particularly strong reputation in physics and engineering, but a brand name as an Ivy. If you found a strong advisor there for experimental high-energy physics, having Dartmouth on your resume would also be advantageous if you were to switch fields.

    Just to clarify: I'm not making any comments on the quality of the schools. I'm talking about brand-name recognition from a superficial marketing perspective. Keep that in mind: Whenever you apply for a position, you are marketing yourself. The usual hypo discussed is the following: You have two candidates with otherwise identical resumes, except Resume A lists MIT and Resume B lists Okefenokee Swamp U. Do the two candidates make the same subjective first impression on the audience reviewing the resumes?
    Last edited: May 31, 2017
  10. May 31, 2017 #9


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    @Vanadium 50, if I'm not mistake from your previous posts, you are a faculty member of a physics department in an American university.

    If you were on a committee determining whether to admit a graduate student into a physics program, how much would you weigh someone's overall GPA vs {GPA for physics courses, REUs, strong letters of recommendation, strong GRE scores, etc.}?

    In addition, based on what the OP has stated in his/her post, what would you consider to be his/her chances on being accepted into a graduate program? And what additional steps should he/she take to increase his/her chances at acceptance?
  11. May 31, 2017 #10

    Vanadium 50

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    I don't consider REU participation at all. Whether a student got in or not was the decision of some other committee in some other time and place, If the student got something useful out of it is important, but that will show up in the letters.

    I don't think it's possible to say I weight the PGRE by x% and in-major grades by y%. It varies, and it's non-linear. A 3.8 vs. 3.9 GPA makes almost no difference. A 2.99 vs 3.09 is huge. While both GPAs are weak in the second example, the first one is below a 3.0 which is almost always a dealbreaker. You have to see what story is being told and what evidence supports or undermines that story. For example, a moderately low GPA can be balanced by a strong PGRE, because clearly the student learned some physics somewhere.

    I don't want to "chance" students. Past history is that if I don't say "you're the bestest bestest student ever!" it doesn't go over well. My advice is to apply to a broad range of schools.
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