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Admissions Issues with undergrad GPA, Masters Applications

  1. Dec 29, 2017 #1
    Greetings All,

    So I've received my first round of rejections from schools, and I must admit I am a bit surprised.

    This is my second degree, with my first being in EE from 12 years ago. At that time I had pretty
    severe (and documentable) mental health issues, and this really held me back academically, I did
    very poorly but still graduated.

    I spent a lot of time working and doing unrelated things, including the equivalent of an entire arts degree before returning to science, doing a specialist degree in biomedical physics. I've done substantially better in my 3rd and 4th year subjects, with my 3rd year being B/B+ ish grades and my 4th year being B+/Aish grades, and averaging among these classes I'm standing at a modest 3.4, from a pretty tough school. I also did a full year of experience in a research lab and did fairly well in this. I had two professors who were willing to write me good letters of recommendation, and thought that even with my modest GPA (3.4 in 3rd/4th and 3.0 cumulative, mostly due to the arts degree) that things would balance out and I would have a decent shot.

    This isn't really the case, and I got two rejections after some very favorable exchanges with supervisors (who I was pretty clear with about all this before applying), and due to this, I'm seriously considering delaying my graduation and taking even more advanced classes in things that I got B's in, such as statistical mechanics and optics. I think perhaps if I can bring my cGPA up beyond 3-3.1, and also have
    say 3.5 in my last two years, this could perhaps make a difference? Schools do define 'last two years'
    as senior grades, and not strictly in terms of time? I've done things a bit out of order, but the grades
    in my senior classes make a compelling case from my understanding. I also send all schools unofficial transcripts filtering out arts courses and simply putting year-by-year GPAs, to substantiate this case.

    There's also part of me that worries my supervisor last year wrote me a bad letter of recommendation. My performance wasn't as great as expected (though I still did all things I was tasked with) mainly due to my father dying.

    I'm at the point now where I don't know if I should even bother, or if my chances are just utterly shot. I would love to keep spending more money and time ploughing through undergrad, but its getting exhausting and expensive, and I'm starting to feel like this isn't going anywhere. The two programs that
    rejected me had very generic, and unspecific feedback - one simply said 'low grades', the other said 'skills mismatch'. I followed up with a request for more details, but nothing has come back since.

    If I knew for instance that I was on the fence (the school with the low grades comment had a supervisor that seemed keen on talking to me about his project) I wouldn't hesitate to work harder and reapply.

    Anyway, is there any hope in all of this or would I be better to just cut my losses? I really love this work in spite of all the challenges, and am really hoping I can find some good reasons to try again with more challenging classes and reapply.

    Any advice would be greatly appreciated.
  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 29, 2017 #2

    Vanadium 50

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    I'm not sure what to say.

    First thing you need to keep in mind is that graduate school admissions are competitive. Only N students are admitted, and the only way they can give a studentg a chance is to not give some other student a chance.

    The next thing to keep in mind is that the admissions committee has a very long track record of how you have done academically. You've been in school for sixteen years, at least half time (to get 3 degrees), and have a GPA that's, frankly, too low. A 3.0 is the minimum to stay in graduate school, and grad classes are harder. If you were cranking out 4.0's in the last year or two, that might send the signal "got his/her act together". As it stands, a 3.4 looks a lot like an upward fluctuation of a 3.0.

    Finally, 16 years of school with 3 degrees really looks like you don't know what you want to do, other than liking being a student.

    So I am not surprised that you went 0 for 2 this round - especially since outstanding students can go 0 for 2. If you are convinced graduate school is for you (and it might not be), you need to apply to a large - perhaps a very large - number of schools.
  4. Dec 29, 2017 #3
    As I mentioned before, the 3.0 is cumulative, which includes an entire degree in arts classes unrelated. The bulk of iffy marks are from unrelated coursework. I spent a lot of time doing other things and exploring life, but I don't think that necessarily implies that I don't know
    what I want to do. People grow and are adaptable, I wouldn't have been capable of making the improvements I did academically if I didn't follow the path that I did. It doesn't make me stupid or aimless to have done other things in my life, including work and traveling, in the past several years.

    My 4th year marks are a better 3.6, with my third year being more problematic at a 3.2. I know lots of people who got in with senior grades at about a 3.5 in their last two years (many are doing PhD's at the school I am at now), so a 3.4 isn't lost cause territory as far as I am aware. Many made up deficiencies with research experience and good recommendations.
    As far as I know, the school I am at is known for grade deflation, and getting A's is fairly uncommon, B-C grades are usually the course average. The later year courses were more assignment and project focused, and I enjoyed that stuff more.

    Applying to more schools is certainly a valid solution, however, what I find frustrating is that most masters programs don't say much as to what kinds of numbers seem to get accepted to their programs. In both of the places I applied, I was very transparent about my grades and circumstances, I handed both prospective supervisors unofficial transcripts, the output from my projects, and my cGPA, and in
    both cases they suggested I apply. If I wasn't sufficient from the outset, they could have at least been transparent about that, or listed a higher minimum average (both listed a B minimum) or perhaps statistics on the average grades of last years class, to give a better idea of where the bar was.

    I've opted to delay graduation as I mentioned in order to bring my senior grade point average higher before reapplying. I was really just looking for moral support, to see if others have been in a comparable situation or overcome similar obstacles to attain their goal of advanced work.
  5. Dec 29, 2017 #4

    Vanadium 50

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    Yes, I read that before I wrote my reply.

    You seem to want people to tell you you have a really strong application. In fact, accepting you would be risky, and like I said, applications are competitive. You haven't indicated any particularly strong upside compared to other applicants, but you have indicated reasons why it would be risky to take you. That's not a really strong combination.
  6. Dec 30, 2017 #5


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    I started a reply to this yesterday. Interestingly, I started off with the same point as V50, that getting into graduate school is a competitive process.

    Generally when a program refers to a student's most recent two years, they mean chronologically. I doubt many programs are sophisticated enough that they go back and scan your transcripts for relevant 300 or 400-level courses and calculate your GPA that way. Individuals on an admissions committee will probably pay attention to the more relevant courses when evaluating your application, but your GPA is your GPA. They also won't ignore grades in less-relevant courses. If you struggled in say, an art history course, while it may have little to do with the subject material you'll be covering as a graduate student, it was still a university course. It can draw into question how well you might perform if you need to learn something you don't think is relevant.

    I certainly understand how it can be disappointing when you specifically speak to potential supervisors and they sound excited about taking you on and encourage you to apply and then you end up rejected. It's particularly frustrating if you feel mislead about your chances. But it's also important to remember that professors can be contacted quite frequently by potential applicants - particularly if they're in a popular program or doing work in a "hot" topic. The standard response is to encourage the student to apply to the program, so long as there's a reasonable expectation that the student is qualified.

    I missed the details about what kinds of programs you're trying to get into. If you're trying to get into an accredited medical physics program (I'm assuming you might be interested in that direction if you're doing a biomedical physics undergraduate degree), they can be quite competitive. Typically accepted students have GPAs north of 3.5 and research experience and good letters of reference. So it may not be necessarily that your application is "bad" but more a case of others being ahead of you in line. As mentioned already, the approach in this situation is to apply to more schools, and in the mean time do whatever you can to continue to bolster your GPA.

    You might also want to consider how your current degree in biomedical physics matches up with the graduate programs you're applying to. The reason I say this is because some "biomedical physics" undergraduate programs sacrifice depth in physics for breadth in the biomedical arena. So for example, if your program doesn't have two semesters of senior-level E&M and the program you're applying to has a mandatory graduate E&M course, they might just reject you outright.
  7. Dec 30, 2017 #6
    I just went through this, but in a slightly different way. I'm a undergrad senior still, but I asked a prof of mine if it's harder to get in once you get older. She said it was as most schools are age-bias for masters and PhD programs. She has her condensed matter physics PhD from Harvard to add to that
  8. Dec 30, 2017 #7
    Greetings Choppy,

    It is certainly competitive, though how competitive is always a question. Websites list minimum averages that (In my opinion)
    are usually very out of step with the "real" stats : Listing a B average minimum is great, but very misleading I think, from everything
    I've read here and heard from colleagues. I don't doubt that admissions committees have an acceptable range (say 3.5+/-0.1) below
    which is an automatic rejection and above which is an automatic acceptance. Why isn't the low end of this range, along with specifics,
    something which is made public? I feel like if I had known what they clearly new in advance, I wouldn't have wasted the money
    applying this year. The rejections suck, sure, but not really knowing how to troubleshoot my application and improve sucks even more.

    I'm less interested in the medical physics not because I don't find it interesting, but because of the competition and how tough it
    seems to be (CAMPEP publishes all these stats on schools that offer masters/PhD, and the residency numbers aren't great even at the best
    of schools). I was more interested in something research oriented, preferably in optical spectroscopy / fluorescence / NMR, as I really
    loved doing this kind of work, and it relates well to my experiences. I'm even taking my frustrations out now by designing and building
    a microscope similar to the one used in the lab I was a part of, to at least prove to myself I have the skills to do this at home. One of
    the supervisors in an applied physics field had showed interest, and I had offered to showcase my skills through an advanced electronics
    class I'm taking in the fall (his project needed programming and some basic amplifier design) so I thought I could build my side project,
    showcase it to him and get course credit all at once, and perhaps reapply if he was persuaded also from practical output that I had
    matured and developed as a student. Not sure if this is a good idea, but it was a thought of mine. Perhaps cemented skills will also
    help my case significantly? Taking a chance seems less of a concern when you can prove yourself in a practical sense, I think.

    That is solid advice Choppy, I will be taking advanced optics, statistical mechanics, computational physics and a few other relevant
    classes next year, and doing more biology courses, as the program I am in is very physics heavy with only one highly compressed
    bio course. Quantum I/II, EM/Electrodynamics/StatMech/Computational and Mathematical Physics are the foundation.

    Do you think I would be significantly less
    of a risk if I were to :

    - Raise my 3.4 among senior classes to a 3.5
    - Show in the past year and a half improved B+ to A grades in advanced classes
    - Have project work perhaps on some kind of blog, or in a portfolio to demonstrate practical competencies
    such as programming/mechanics/electronics/chemistry/etc.
    - Have the year of research experience, presentation poster
    - Two good letters of recommendation from professors I have worked with
    - raise my 3.0 GPA to a 3.1 cumulatively
    - Perhaps write the 'Physics GRE' to show some less subjective measure of physics understanding ?

    I think its well within my ability to do all of this, and would just require shelling out more money/time and energy, which
    (again, I am passionate about this work) I am willing to do, but if I would, after attaining these realistic increments of
    one year of my life and $6000 more of school, still be a huge risk or have it very unlikely of being taken on as a
    masters student at a decent lab (again, I'm not too crazy about top-tier labs, having had my year in one and finding
    it insanely stressful, not helpful, and not all together the best learning experience for me), then perhaps it won't be
    worth any amount of effort.

    Making this decision is difficult because I can only trust anecdotal opinions of supervisors, fellow students, forums
    and places like gradcafe. Yes, you and Vanadium are absolutely right - its very competitive, and that's fine, but grades
    can be really subjective I think. Some schools inflate grades heavily, others deflate. I've been in classes where marks
    are curved up from exams with dismal %40 averages, passing on students who haven't learned the material, not from
    lack of effort, but from the notion of making things more 'competitive'. I've witnessed oodles of rule-bending and coaching
    of all kinds. I refuse to believe that professors, themselves very smart people, aren't able to occasionally look beyond
    the marks and see potential that they would be willing to bet on - they can certainly do this in the context of an experiment,
    where the numbers might tell a very different story if there was a draft in the room that day, or if the laser was on
    for too long.

    Also on the matter of courses unrelated to science weighing in to a decision, I find it interesting that
    an iffy B grade in Canadian Lit would really suggest I'm not capable of learning outside of physics. I would hope that it might suggest the opposite - that I am a versatile learner who could perhaps offer decent writing skills in putting together a research paper, instead.

    What cmyers152 suggested about an age bias is also interesting - I am a much older student, and I certainly feel 'ageism' much more among those teaching me than fellow students. It makes me think that there's a convention in the form of a narrative that goes something like this :

    A young student achieves consistent and high grades throughout the prescribed curriculum. The student proves themselves worthy of being ushered into the lab, at which time they are given the chance to further prove themselves by conducting independent research. Upon completing this final task, they will have proved themselves worthy of being considered as a masters student. And so on. Unconventional students such as myself aren't a part of this narrative, and perhaps represent outliers whose lives for one reason or another didn't go that way, so are disregarded as 'Broken Merchandise'.

    Again, my intent with these posts is to get a better idea of where a student like me might find admission doing research
    I enjoy at an ok school, and to perhaps find some certainty that the above improvements would suffice in this goal, rather
    than to get a sense that my application is good as it is (obviously it is not).
    Last edited: Dec 30, 2017
  9. Dec 30, 2017 #8

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    I don't think that's the case. I think it really boils down to "if you want a career in physics research, why have you spent the last N years not moving towards that goal?" And as N gets larger, the question gets more weight. But people I know who have good answers to that question have gone on to do well. People whose plans are "I tried this, that, and the other thing, and now I'll try grad school", on the other hand, tend to have lower acceptance rates - and those who are accepted seem to drop out quickly. If you're not 100% committed, grad school will squash you like a bug.

    Why is that misleading? A minimum GPA of 3.0 means they will not accept anyone with less than a 3.0. It doesn't mean they will accept everyone with more.

    This is a competitive process. Meeting the minimums doesn't make you competitive - indeed, most people who just hit the minimums are not competitive.
  10. Dec 30, 2017 #9
    Lets say that the minimum average is the average required to be considered for admission, for them to so much as glance at
    your application, and that some other number, the competitive average, is a threshold at which point they will very seriously
    consider your application for acceptance, after which this gets passed along to supervisors accepting students.

    If nobody with the minimum average can get in (or very, very few), and the competitive
    average is far greater than the minimum, then should this minimum not be adjusted accordingly, with the minimum average
    being the student with the lowest average that is accepted (lets say) last cycle being the new minimum?

    If the minimum average and competitive average don't have much overlap, then I don't see the function of having a minimum
    average, other than making an extra $100 for glancing at an application that they know isn't competitive. Since the statistics on
    this aren't often made public, how is a prospective applicant to make an informed decision?

    All I'm saying is, some of these programs could stand to be much more forthcoming (and indeed, scientific) about what
    constitutes a competitive student for that particular school / program / recent years. It would mean less "noncompetitive"
    applications for them to sift through, clarity for the student applying, and more applicants of the kind they would like.
    The vagueness here in the application can't be unintentional with "minimum averages" that are disparate with the lowest
    average student accepted.

    Just my 2 cents.
  11. Dec 31, 2017 #10
    Choppy and V50 are giving good advice here.
  12. Jan 1, 2018 #11

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    If you Google "physics admissions average gpa" the third link is a paper by Makkinje. Figure 1 shows the GPA vs admissions rates, country-wide. You will see that 99% of the admits are above 3.0 and 50% were above about 3.7. You can also see a discontinuity at 3.0, where many places impose an absolute minimum. Which number should a university report? The 99% number? The 50% number? Some other number?

    Furthermore, universities admit based on multiple factors: test scores, GPA and letters. If someone is in the bottom half of all three, they are usually not competitive, even though the numbers taken one at a time might be well within the admit pool. On the other hand, if someone does below average in one but well-above average in the other two, they don't want to discourage her from applying. There is an inherent conflict between "I want the university to consider all factors in admissions" and "I want a formula that shows me exactly where I stand."

    The "universities are just in it for the $100" argument is ridiculous, so I will proceed to ridicule it. Take an average physics professor's salary. Add 40% for fringes, and then another 40% for space and overhead charges, so effectively double it. Now add 50% for the costs outside the department for handling applications - e.g. effectively three times the faculty salary. That's about what the work costs. Now, divide by the number of work hours per year. Multiply it by the number of hours spent reading and discussing applications, per application. Now compare that number to $100. You say you want to be a scientist - you should be able to work these numbers out. You will quickly discover that there is no profit in this. The purpose of the $100 is to restrict applications to those who are serious. (Monty Python had an alternative plan where the insurance company asks for 12 gallons of urine. "Just to prove you're serious about buying insurance.")

    You seem to be claiming you were treated unfairly: "I certainly feel 'ageism'", "I've witnessed oodles of rule-bending", "Unconventional students such as myself aren't a part of this narrative". That's not your problem. Your problem is:
    • Poor GPA - with a huge track record behind this
    • No pGRE
    • At least one poor letter - and students tend to overestimate the quality of their letters
    It might be comforting to think that you were treated unfairly, but it isn't going to help you improve your application.
  13. Jan 4, 2018 #12
    V50 :

    A few things. I'm Canadian, so PGRE isn't required to apply to Canadian schools (though it can help).
    The article you sent me is one I've seen, though it is particular to the US, and may not reflect Canadian
    admission standards.

    Secondly, if you concede that a professor might not waste much time looking at an application
    (by virtue of their time being exceedingly costly) then its probable that my cGPA didn't even warrant
    much of a glance, despite there being better grades (particularly in my 3rd/4th year) and research
    work that redeem my "poor GPA". Its not ridiculous, given that professors time is so precious, to
    suggest that the application wasn't looked at, and that the money spent didn't actually result in
    a thorough review of my grades.

    Thirdly, all you've pointed out to me is what I already know : that my GPA is a bit sub par among
    physics classes, and that I will need to improve it. Your need to ridicule me and point out the obvious
    here isn't helpful at all. As far as being treated unfairly goes, you're right - its irrelevant with respect
    to the stated goal. I only mentioned my experiences to point out that GPA's aren't always the most
    reliable to determine the quality of a student. I happen to think that is true.

    I suggested a few posts ago seven things that I think might put a new shine on my application,
    including project work. Beyond the obvious 'improve your grades', how much of a difference would
    showcasing my skills make, do you think?
  14. Jan 4, 2018 #13


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    For what it's worth, I'm Canadian too.

    Probably the biggest thing you can do to improve your chances, beyond the obvious of raising your GPA in the courses you have yet to take, is to get your name on a publication or two, even a conference abstract. That said, in most cases publications will improve your chances incrementally. For want of an analogy, a 3.4 with a publication might be competitive with a 3.5 without, but probably not as much with a 3.8 (unless it's a first author publication in Nature or something).

    Building up your portfolio of skills is a great idea for the transition to an eventual career outside of academia, but it's rare for professors to want to bring a graduate student into their group because they happen to have a portfolio of codes. (Perhaps the exception might be if the professor has already worked with the student.)

    Also, for what it's worth, I haven't seen any evidence of ageism in the departments that I've worked at. If anything in my experience older students may have a small advantage because they are seen to be more focused and bring a maturity to the program that sometimes isn't there with the younger crowd. To the best of your ability market your strengths rather than worry about potential biases you can't change.
  15. Jan 4, 2018 #14
    Agree with the other comments here, the only thing I might add is this. If I'm giving horrible advice, someone who is an expert can yell at me. But it's what I would tell someone to do.

    1. If you are going to retake classes to improve your GPA, it might be beneficial to take harder versions of the classes you are retaking. I mean, if I was a graduate program and I had to choose between 2 people, one who took the class the first time and got an A or one who had to take it twice to get an A, I would choose the student who got the A the first time around. Sorry if that sounds harsh, but reality is harsh sometimes. But if you can successfully take a harder version of the class and do well, that proves not only (i) that you learned the material but also (2) that you can handle harder material, (3) that you are up to the challenge, and (4) it could give you an advantage.

    2. You need to have a really good statement about why you want to do graduate school in the field you want.

    3. If I was you, I might consider contacting a professor at a graduate school, clearly you have done that before, and offer to work in that professor's lab for free during a summer as a sort of trial run before you apply. If it's someone you might actually want to work with.
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