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Interested in PhD but no research experience

  1. Mar 13, 2014 #1


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    Hello all,

    I'm interested in any advice anyone can offer me. I graduated with a BSEE a few years ago and then worked in an electronics role for a little over a year. I saved enough money while working to quit my job, travel for awhile, and ponder my future. Even while working, I felt the pull to return to school. Since then, during my time away from the real world, I've decided I'd like to return to pursue a PhD in either physics or EE. I've been self-studying to brush up on some rusty theory, but my bigger problem is I lack research experience. I did well in school but I only have the grades to show for it. I also lack quality letters of recommendation. For this, I was thinking about taking a class or two as a non-degree seeking student to hopefully get current recommendations.

    Couple questions...do you think the fact that I haven't worked or been in school for a couple years will be a major obstacle for admission to graduate school? Am I better off applying to lesser known PhD programs or first paying my way through an MSc to gain research experience?

    Thanks for your time!
  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 14, 2014 #2
    I have experience in your situation but my experience is now >30 years old. I even had poor grades, but possibly good letters of recommendation and one semester of undergrad research. Even the research was under a cloud. I was supposed to complete it by May graduation, but it hung on until October. I graduated in May because I had enough credits without the research.

    Here is what I did. I enrolled as a non-degree student for a graduate physics course in math-physics and made a B+. I asked that professor for a recommendation. He was (still is) a famous author and noted researcher. I do think he did not have to be notable though, so don't be discouraged. Two more professors filled in LOR.

    My graduate school later discussed my entry and said the year off I took working (city civil service; not even physics related) and doing the course spoke well for my maturity. They felt it was a merit.

    However, I did have 55% Physics GRE, (not great but better than average).

    I applied to three schools; the best ranked was about 35. The second also had a Ph.D program, the third had no PhD program but a masters. The grad manual read that after masters with good grades/research, transfers could be made to a nearby university with a PhD program.

    I got into all three. Attended the best ranked but sometimes I think the second would have been better.

    Long Story short, If you want to get into a program in the top (ten or maybe 20) universities in the US, it will be difficult (still possible). I think with good physics GRE's you have a good chance at the next 20. I also feel physics graduate schools outside the top 20 are strong educationally.

    I applaud your idea to take one (or 2) classes as a non-degree student, and I do think it will be effective.
    (I hope graduate schools today are as far-sighted as they were > 30 years ago.)

    Good Luck, at least you have the grades. My cum was about 2.4 although I had a 3.3 the last semester.
  4. Mar 15, 2014 #3


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    mpresic, thanks for your encouraging reply. I'll be happy if my situation works out as well as it sounds like yours did.

    One concern I have is that there probably won't be an appropriate class to take until the fall, and with application deadlines usually coming by the end of year, I'll need recommendations before I finish the class.

    Also, I need to look into how feasible it is to pursue an MS and have it funded. My hope is that would allow me to gain some research experience and increase my chances of getting into a better PhD program. We'll see...a lot to think about, and more urgently, I need to get to studying for the physics GRE.
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