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Courses Low GPA, Some Experience & Guidance?

  1. Apr 2, 2017 #1
    Hey all,

    So I just joined this forum, thinking it might be a good source of advice for something.

    I'm a Junior year Physics major at a decent state university school, and I have a GPA of 2.87. I had a few internships in High School and a summer/part time coding job for some planetary geologists at Goddard mostly streaming their processing workflows with basic to intermediate scripting and programming, where my mentors emphatically like my work.

    I also volunteer to run a major space industry gala annually where I've met folks like Buzz Aldrin, a US Senator, and the likes, and run the campus Astro Club. I'm also a Resident Assistant and am well liked there, and have saxophoned for NFL team marching bands and developed a quirky hobby of learning languages.

    I am fairly concerned about getting into Grad school. Since I'm paying for my tuition I'm taking a guilt free 5th year to crank up my GPA, but constantly struggle to understand and perform well in my Physics and Math classes after hours of pain sometimes, and in particular am worrying about getting a first F somewhere this semester despite using office hours and the like.

    I breezed through Chemistry and don't really think I'm a hardcore math robot anymore, but can't switch out of Physics and still graduate in 5 years or less. I'm thinking of getting into planetary, geology, or atmospheric, but there is no department or any knowledge of the former 2 at my university, and don't know if they like my GPA or experience. Or maybe I'm wanting to close the Physics door too early?

    Any guidance on either surviving both a Physics undergrad and getting into grad school in some of the areas I mentioned earlier? At this point, I'm really craving for my full time place to be one that values me and I value back as much as my original goal to be in space science.

    Help.
     
  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 2, 2017 #2
    Please excuse me for not giving individual advice. I hope the following comments on this disturbing topic will be helpful in general.

    I've noticed there is a common problem faced by students who ask for this kind of advice on PF. Many students are not prepared to make good decisions about their future. It's not the fault of the students. They simply lack adequate information. So students should not feel bad about themselves. The system is the problem.

    Sometimes students lack adequate information about their own aptitudes, and about how they compare with their future competition. This is entirely the fault of schools in my opinion. Perhaps mother will say you can be anything you want to be, but it's up to the schools to teach reality. There should be aptitude tests and tracking to steer students into the education they will benefit from the most.

    Sometimes students do not know enough about the opportunities that will be available after they graduate. I wish there was a national online service -- run by the government, not by private industry or schools -- to help students figure out what is the past, present, and future demand for a certain type of graduate. It's a tragic waste to dedicate four years to a bachelor's degree, maybe in addition several more years in grad school, only to finally realize there are no jobs in your field.

    I would prefer a more planned system in which we not only have tracking and apprenticeships, but a well grounded plan for each student, including possible job assignments after graduation. The uncertainty we have now is stressful and wastes a great deal of human potential. It causes a lot of unhappiness.

    Here's one thought of a practical nature for all the undecided people. Unless one is absolutely fanatic about a certain field, and is 100% determined to become a master of that field, then I would suggest casting a wide net in the search for opportunities before making a commitment to many potentially unprofitable years in school.

    For example, I hear there is a strong demand for medical technicians. Perhaps people with a strong interest in EE or physics should consider a program for radiological technicians? It's something to look into at any rate. This is just one possibility. I'm sure there are many.

    Concerning GPA, it may be wise to raise it by taking easy courses. That's not "cheating," it's just being practical. I would imagine it's tough to get into any grad school with lower than a 3.0.

    Finally, if you do have your mind set on grad school, it's a good idea to prepare well for your GRE exams. In my experience it helps a lot to prepare. In addition, if you have a stellar GRE, that will compensate to some extent for your GPA.

    Of course this is just my opinion, not individualized advice, and as always YMMV.
     
    Last edited: Apr 2, 2017
  4. Apr 2, 2017 #3

    russ_watters

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    What is your endgame? What do you want to do for a living?
     
  5. Apr 2, 2017 #4
    I want to end up somewhere in the space science world, perhaps at Goddard or something. I don't any particular strong inclinations for a field (although I've had the most success and connections with planetary), whatever that's going on with my undergraduate education would be unbearable.
     
  6. Apr 2, 2017 #5

    Choppy

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    Generally speaking a 2.87 GPA isn't going to cut it for graduate school in physics. In most places, you need a 3.0, just to be considered. Even then "just crossing" the line is not likely to make you competitive. You have to remember, that most of the people in graduate school are the ones who did extremely well in their undergraduate courses. So if you do get in, you'll be on the low end of the distribution amongst your peers - at least as far as undergraduate grades go.

    That said, a GPA is not necessarily the be-all and end-all measure of a student. So it might be worth looking at WHY you're earning the grades you are, and if there's anything you can do to improve them.

    This is all great stuff. Most isn't going to help you much with graduate school though. So from the point of view of someone who knows only what you've posted, one thought is that perhaps you're doing too much on the extra-curricular side and not putting enough time into your studies. Cutting ALL of the extra stuff out may not be the best idea, but have you thought about or tried scaling it back to give you a little more time to concentrate on your studies?

    One thing to keep in mind about this kind of strategy is that it can backfire. Sometimes the "easy" courses are a lot harder than you might have thought. It's possible to get caught up in a course that's more challenging than you expect and made even more challenging by the fact that you didn't want to take it in the first place.

    Of course. I can certainly understand that as a student trying to break into a field, you don't always get to feel the love. One tip though is that this feeling of value really needs to come from within you. If you're hoping for external signals that you're a valued contributor to a program, it's probably going to take a while for them to come. And often whether or not they do has less to do with the field you're in and more to do with the people that you eventually work with and for.
     
  7. Apr 3, 2017 #6
    As Choppy said, many (perhaps even most or all) grad schools have a firm 3.0 minimum GPA for admission.
     
  8. Apr 3, 2017 #7
    Thanks for the replies so far.

    Something I definitely see from all of this is that bringing my GPA would help out a lot, and that starting some GRE prep this summer would probably do me a lot of good. A 3.0, which isn't too far away, wouldn't make everything better, but seems to be the boundary between a weak application and satire.

    To avoid diving deeper into TL'DR territory I didn't mention how the Ravens band was in the past, and that the whole space gala only uses me one night a year. I am going to step down from running the Astro Club though, mostly for my sake as that can be a bit much at times. The remaining sounds more manageable

    I am particularly curious about better study habits/strategies, and in the longer run, what my prospects would look like if I jumped to geology, chemistry, atmospheric, or some sort of computer science in the space science world. What could I do as a Physics major in my situation?
     
  9. Apr 3, 2017 #8
  10. Apr 18, 2018 #9
    My GPA is 2.98 but I calculated my GPA within my major to be 3.20. Does that help?
     
    Last edited: Apr 18, 2018
  11. Apr 18, 2018 #10

    Choppy

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    A lot really depends on how the school you're applying to does the calculation. In many cases, what happens is that the application and associated transcripts first go through a faculty of graduate studies, which acts like a kind of filter. They translate your transcripts into the local grading scheme and weight as appropriate. Some schools will calculate your GPA based on your most recent 2 years, for example. If it's over the threshold, it gets forwarded to the graduate department for assessment. If it's not, or if it's incomplete, or there's some other kind of major flag, then it stops where it is.

    So you need to pay attention to the details. In some cases what you calculate to be a 2.98, can change depending on the weighting.

    And yes, people on the admissions committee will pay attention to the courses in your major. How formally they do that depends on the school. It will look better if you kind of struggled in your first year courses, but pulled off some very high grades in your upper year courses compare to someone who was mediocre all the way through. But if the other applicants in the pool all have GPAs north of 3.7 and you show up with a 3.2, well, you can probably guess how that will turn out.
     
  12. Apr 18, 2018 #11
    I heard that anything above a 3.0 is good. Are schools really that picky to only choose students with the highest grades? I mean it could be the case that I have a lower grade because I took more difficult classes or had a more difficult major or had more difficult professors. I don't see how a higher grade student is necessarily smarter or better than me. Don't these things get taken into consideration?

    Personally I think a 3.2 GPA in a tough major is already quite good.
     
  13. Apr 18, 2018 #12

    Choppy

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    Graduate school admissions are competitive.

    When it comes to graduate school admissions there's a considerable investment in each student they accept. Admission comes with an obligation to support the student financially, to provide a supervisor and the means to complete a thesis project, as well as smaller stuff like office space, supplies, teaching opportunities, travel support, etc. Each department has a finite budget, so, every year they have N available spaces. In most cases schools will have M > N applicants. So they have to sort through the pool somehow.

    GPA is not the only metric that gets applied. Every school has its own system, but also factored in are typically letters of recommendation, GRE performance, and other evidence of academic potential such as publications, conference abstracts, awards, etc. Admissions committees will typically build a profile of each applicant and rank them from 1 to M. The top 1 to N are offered positions (or maybe more depending on how many acceptances they expect) and the rest are rejected.

    And there are finer details too. Say you want to study cosmology. Even though the school may have a cosmology group, it may not be accepting any cosmology students that year. Say one of the professors is going on sabbatical, one is due to retire, and one already has seven students that he's struggling to keep up with. Even if you have a stellar application, you might get rejected because they don't have a spot for you, and someone with a "lesser" application might get in because she happened to apply to a group that had a lot of room that year.

    That's not to say that getting a 3.2 in a challenging major is bad. A GPA doesn't define who you are, and there are a lot of examples of people who have just managed to "squeak in" to graduate school who've gone on to have very productive careers as researchers. But when M > N they have to figure out which N students to choose.
     
    Last edited: Apr 25, 2018
  14. Apr 19, 2018 #13

    Vanadium 50

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    Not from us you didn't.

    Since this is at risk to turn into the perennial "Delong and Grad School" thread, let me quote from the 2nd-to-last time we went down this path:

     
  15. Apr 21, 2018 #14
    Actually it was from you that I remember reading there is no hard cut-off above a 3.0 GPA. Also I've learned that being a good student and being a good researcher are two different things so anyway...you lose.
     
  16. Apr 21, 2018 #15
    What you think does not matter. What matters is the thoughts of those making the decisions. I gotta say, I haven't seen many 3.2 GPA physics majors I'd be interested in sinking much time and money into as grad students. Most got there through poor work ethics. Why take the risk when there are so many 3.8-4.0 physics majors to choose from? Gotta be slim pickins before I'd risk the time and money for a grad student (or employee) on a 3.2 physics major. I've known a lot of them. Risky propositions.
     
  17. Apr 21, 2018 #16
    Okay I hear what you're saying. My plan is to take two or three of the classes I didn't do well in that were also important to my major and then redo them. Also my major was in biochemistry and I want to pursue microbiology so I'm not sure if all the classes matter anyway. It's really the hands on microbiology techniques that I most want to gain so I will focus on those classes if I could...
     
  18. Apr 21, 2018 #17

    symbolipoint

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    This is not believable. True, research and earning grades (high ones) are not the same thing. This difference does not justify Medium-Letter-Grade imply Excellent Researcher. How clever are one and what sort of intuition have one for practical decisions? That is part of research. Earning grades in courses is somewhat different but explaining this more clearly is something my head-gears are not helping me to do at this moment.
     
  19. Apr 22, 2018 #18

    Vanadium 50

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    Do you really think these are synonymous? Really?
     
  20. Apr 25, 2018 #19

    StatGuy2000

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    Let's keep @Delong 's posts out of this for a moment and ask a more general question here (and I'm especially interested to here @Vanadium 50 and @Dr. Courtney on this front). Let's say a student (say, a physics major) is already well on his/her way through their major but has a low GPA (e.g. <3.0 GPA). Even assuming that he/she works very hard to better understand the material and raise their GPA in their senior years, their overall GPA would still only amount to, say, a 3.1 GPA at most.

    What would you advise the following student to do? The conclusion is that graduate school is no longer an option. However, in the absence of substantive work experience, finding meaningful employment after a BS degree may not be possible, since employers will typically assess all new graduates based on their GPA, and a low GPA would definitely be a mark against a graduate.
     
    Last edited: Apr 28, 2018
  21. Apr 25, 2018 #20

    Joshy

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    Regarding work: I graduated with below a 3.0 in engineering.

    Combat the low GPA by giving them the tradeoffs- throw them a bone. I think a lot of people say "the classes were hard" or "I was unlucky", and so you're really giving them nothing at the expense of your low GPA... sometimes a low GPA even with basic modules and little to no experience.
    • I did several internships, and I participated in professional and academic societies; especially attending local workshops and seminars.
    • I signed up for the programs at school such as study abroad and a term in DC.
    • I didn't opt for the easy classes to pad my GPA as suggested above.
    The measure of GPA isn't entirely based on your knowledge too (as we all know). I think it's also a measure of your intuition, and so a low GPA might look like the employer will really have to hold your hand throughout your career! That's obviously very undesirable. I knew my word for it going into the next interview or applying for the next program wouldn't have any value without support. My GPA clearly wasn't very supportive, but I could showcase my experience, diversity, and I personally felt like it was easier to explain why I got a 2.9XX with challenging modules compared to explaining a 3.0XX with the easy ones. I graduated with a concentration in controls, but my electives were in circuits and systems, advanced chemistry, semiconductor physics and devices; I'm not talking about a mere one or two classes as I finished with over 260 quarterly units. Give them something to show for it.

    I admittedly felt like I knew what I wanted to do and aggressively catered my modules around my dream careers. I'd constantly look up these positions and see what they were looking for, and then I would try to get that experience. My thoughts were it would be difficult to find a 3.5+ GPA student who covered many corners/bullets of their qualifications and desires, and so they might be willing to compromise with lower GPA should they have the experience to balance it. My resume was more enticing and I had a lot to talk about during the interviews. I was correct at least for what I wanted to do. I had a lot of competitive offers and I was beginning to turn away interviews elsewhere. I love what I do ;)
     
  22. Apr 25, 2018 #21

    Vanadium 50

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    I don't think I have a good answer to that. Your description is of a student who doesn't do well, and after trying to improve things does only a little better, and the question is how do they get some highly selective position. That's not going to be easy.
     
  23. Apr 25, 2018 #22

    symbolipoint

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    • Change major field to something at which you are better (suited).
    • Include practical courses and get into other formal or informal experiences to add (practical) experience (as was already mentioned).
     
  24. Apr 25, 2018 #23
    The door to grad school is not really closed with a 3.1 GPA. I'm mentoring a student now in a situation much like you describe, but a number of factors will open the doors for grad school for this student: 1) Ourstanding lab skills with a track record of success documented by publications and outstanding recommendation letters 2) Improvements over time so grades in most major courses were As last two years of undergrad 3) A careful review of the transcript shows a couple specific weak areas with the lowest grades. These specific weak areas would be deal breakers for pursuing some sub-fields in grad school, but not for an experimentalist in several other sub-fields.

    Bottom line: experimentalists are always looking for outstanding laboratory talent. If grades are poor, you gotta have something else to offer. But bad grades are not the end.

    There are also a number of lower-tier schools that will take just about any grad student with over a 3.0. Go there, bang out a MS with better grades, pick up the needed lab skills, and earn some glowing letters of recommendation. No, you won't land in a top 10 PhD program, probably not even a top 50 program. But the dream will survive.
     
  25. Apr 25, 2018 #24

    Vanadium 50

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    Can you name some? I know some faculty at the absolute bottom-ranked school, and in discussions that's not the situation they were in.

    Furthermore, even if you are great in labs, that doesn't help if the university doesn't think you will pass your qual.
     
  26. Apr 25, 2018 #25
    I'm not talking R1 schools (not even bottom ranked ones), I'm talking schools that only offer MS degrees and where many students pay their own way.

    If an experimentalist is sure they'll get 2-3 years of quality lab work before dicey deal with the PhD qual comes around, they may take the gamble. The internal dynamics of admissions processes vary greatly by institution. But in a lot of places, if a faculty member wants a specific student, and that student meets the department's minimal admissions requirements, they are in. Sometimes faculty have very specific labor requirements for a specific project. They'll worry about the PhD quals down the road. A grad student who is a lock to be productive in research their first year is often worth the gamble. Shoot, often untenured faculty are in such a squeeze, they're not even sure they'll still be there when a new student gets to crunch time in their quals.
     
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