Latebloomer with many past mistakes applying to graduate school

  • #1
Confusionmatrix
2
2
Hello all,

First of all thanks for your attention and time! I am a rising senior at MSU and am applying to graduate school soon. I understand there is no shortage of information regarding ones chance of being admitted to tier X of schools on this forum. In addition, there is a valuable and long comprehensive list of annual applicants applying to graduate schools from https://physicsgre.com/viewtopic.php?t=182278 and https://mathematicsgre.com/viewtopic.php?t=6009. I have looked rather obsessively over the sea of applicants to see where I stand so that I can determine which caliber of schools are reaches or matches for me. However, this comparison is tough because I have a nuanced history in university. Because of this, I don't know how to interpret my profile and would like an unbiased and external perspective of my profile. Below, I briefly summarize my academic experiences.

  • 2012-2015 : Community college - 3.7 gpa, associates degree
    • little extracurricular activities and no research
  • 2015-2018: University of Florida (transferred) - 2.5 gpa, physics major
    • no extracurricular activities and no research (FLUNKED OUT)
  • 2022-present: Michigan State University - 3.96 gpa, math and physics major

Type of Student: First generation student, Asian male

GRE Scores: Have not taken

Research Experience:
  • 2 years research in biophysics with the same lab
  • Significant wet lab experience, simulations, machine learning
  • 2nd author on paper
  • Expecting maybe 2 or so nth authored papers soon
  • Currently working on a project which I'm unsure will develop into a paper
  • 1 poster presentation

Awards/Honors/Recognitions: A few scholarships for research and being a good student

Pertinent Activities or Jobs: Research assistant for 2 years

Any Miscellaneous Accomplishments that Might Help: None

Special Bonus Points: Expecting two strong recommendation letters from my research supervisors

Any Other Info That Shows Up On Your App and Might Matter: Retook some of my upper level physics courses. I got a B in Classical Mechanics 2 at my present university (A's in everything else). I've finished almost all my physics and math BS requirements at the time of this post and diving into more math for my remaining semesters. Heavy class load (18 credits) + research (~20 hrs/week) every semester at my present university.

I understand that probably even more important than the caliber of school is the research group that I have interest in and it is something that I have to do more research on. I am primarily looking for an applied math PHD program and secondarily a physics PHD program with a focus on biophysics. I think my profile is rather weak for mathematics since many math applicants have taken a gamut of graduate math classes and I haven't. As of now, I have a few things I could do to enhance my profile before submitting my applications in ~6 months.

Path 1: Spend time studying for MGRE, PGRE, and GRE to demonstrate academic competence
Path 2: Focus on getting a strong third recommendation letter
Path 3: Focus on my current research, my profile is probably good enough
Path 4: Wait another year to apply so that I can further enhance my profile
Path 5: A combination of the above

Sorry for the long post! But to summarize: what tier of schools are matches/reaches for me? How should I spend my time to improve my profile?

Thank you all in advance!
 
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  • #2
Congratulations on pulling yourself out of the hole you were in!

I think you need to decide quickly about whether you want a math or physics PhD. If you want to go with math, working on math will help you a lot more than working on physics. You want to have as close to a BS in mathematics as you can get, and as close to the grad school track as you can get. That means tough classes, with proofs. Math degrees intended for school teachers will not be very competitive.

In physics, the usual rule is to center your applications one notch down from your undergrad. Since your background is more...colorful...I'd recommend a wider net. Apply both a few notches above and below the general advice.
 
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  • #3
In physics, the usual rule is to center your applications one notch down from your undergrad.

I wouldn't accept that to be a universal rule of thumb. It's not been my observation from following Physics graduate admissions over the past few years that the ranking of an applicant's undergrad plays a significant role in determining where they get admitted for grad school (at least not for domestic applicants). Rather from what I've seen it's the applicant's overall profile that's the main determiner of where they get admitted. Students with stellar profiles very often get admitted to Physics graduate programs higher ranked than their undergrad.
 
  • #4
It's an average.

There are ~750 schools that offer a BA/BS in physics. There are ~170 that offer a PhD. Many (not all) of these are toward the top of the 750. About half the PhDs are awarded by ~15 schools. Many (not all) of these are toward the top of the 170.

This doesn't mean nobody goes up. They do. But the numbers are what they are. If a student got their BS from East Cupcake College, applying to Princeton with Harvard as a backup is unwise.
 
  • #5
Since only about 28% of US 4 year degree granting institutions offer an undergraduate degree in Physics to begin with, and of their domestic graduates, only about 22% go on to attend a US Physics PhD program, I'd say the chances of the graduate of East Cupcake College applying to Physics PhD programs is pretty low. In any case the OP is currently attending Michigan State which is ranked about 35 domestically for Physics. At that level, the academic rigour of their Physics undergraduate program is going to be sufficient for admission to top PhD programs provided they can present a competitive profile. The "name" of their college is not going to be an issue.

In addition, if 15 out of 170 programs, or just 9%, the majority of which you say are "top" programs, enrol 50% of all PhD recipients, then they enrol a vastly disproportionate amount of PhD students. Given that many of the top PhD programs have small undergraduate classes, and that only about 22% of US domestic Physics bachelor's recipients actually go on to a US Physics PhD each year, I'd say your chances of ending up in a program at a higher ranked university than the one you attended for undergrad is pretty high. That doesn't mean however that the program you attend will be "top".
 
  • #6
It's a rule of thumb, not a law of nature.

I stand by my advice - a typical student at MSU would do well to center their applications around, say, Florida, Virginia, Indiana and not Caltech, MIT and Stanford.
 
  • #7
After some thought, I will commit to applied mathematics for graduate school. As my profile stands, I think I will center my applications around schools in the MSU range but cast a wide net as Vanadium 50 mentioned. I understand my profile may be a little strange and may cause my admittance applications to be volatile since my past mistakes can be seen either as a weakness or somewhat of a strength since it demonstrates my ability to overcame challenges. If committees see it more as a weakness, would it be wise to focus much of my attention towards MGRE scores or math graduate courses to demonstrate academic competence or focus more towards math research and get a strong third recommendation letter? Ideally, I would try and do it all but I don't think this is realistic given applications are due in roughly six months. I need to get the most bank for my buck if you will for the remaining time before the deadline. If I'm successful in improving my profile from either path, would it be reasonable to center my applications in a slightly higher range of schools?

Thank you all for your help! I really appreciate it as I don't really have much guidance in my personal and academic life.
 
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  • #8
I wouldn't bother with the GRE. I got a great GRE score and didn't notice it did me much good. Graduate school is all about specialization. I did not do very well on the math achievement test. I'm sure that carried much more weight.

I'm not sure what graduate schools look for. I do know that recently Harvard once again requires the SAT. They said it was a better predictor than letters of recommendation and grades so they were using it again.

My best guess is the best thing is a strong letter of recommendation from a trusted source. Someone they know whose judgement they respect, someone whose reputation would be damaged if the student proves a clinker, someone who won't write a puff piece to help out a likable and charming young person in need. Someone whom they deal with regularly who wants to remain in good odor with the group. Standardized tests are a good measure of knowledge and skill but say nothing about imagination, intuition, persistence, collegiality, and the other qualities needed for success in research. And there's no rule that your sponsor can't make a phone call to colleagues to discuss the matter. If you're hot stuff, that is.

At the graduate school in math was a new student far above the others. He knew everything already. He'd somehow gotten a bad letter of recommendation. The next year he transferred to Princeton, quite possibly the number one school in the country. Grad courses are not taught at Princeton. They take the students who already know all that stuff. I'm sure the professors where I was did everything they could to correct this gross injustice. And they did.

I would be inclined to do things in a very targeted way. Pick one area, do all you can with that, and target those who are doing research in this area. If you can convince a professor that you can actually help them in what they are working on, that is a very big plus. That professor will call up the admissions office and insist that you be allowed in. I actually had an offer like that but knew the prof was mistaken, that I couldn't deliver, so passed on that.
 
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  • #9
Hornbein said:
I'm not sure what graduate schools look for. I do know that recently Harvard once again requires the SAT. They said it was a better predictor than letters of recommendation and grades so they were using it again.
The SAT is only for undergraduate admissions.

Hornbein said:
I would be inclined to do things in a very targeted way. Pick one area, do all you can with that, and target those who are doing research in this area. If you can convince a professor that you can actually help them in what they are working on, that is a very big plus. That professor will call up the admissions office and insist that you be allowed in.
I will agree that fit with potential supervisors is the most important criteria for shortlisting programs to apply to, and it can make or break your chances of admission. Whether or not individual faculty have the ability to influence the choices of the program's admissions committee, the committee will be aware of which faculty are in a position to be accepting new students. If you don't match with any of the available faculty in terms of research focus and experience, you won't be admitted regardless of how glowing your profile is. I would also recommend targeting applying to programs where there are multiple faculty that you could potentially match with.

Best of luck
 
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  • #10
gwnorth said:
The SAT is only for undergraduate admissions.
Right. Making a note of the trend.
 

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