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Low GRE's, am I totally screwed?

  1. Jul 10, 2011 #1
    Preface: This is kinda a long post, sorry!

    I'm wondering if I'm totally screwed getting into a graduate program. I want to get into a PhD program for Planetary Sciences.

    I'm a chemistry major with a 3.9 GPA in my major (post-baccalaureate). However, I already have a degree in art history and Spanish with a minor in astronomy where I graduated with a pretty lousy GPA of a 3.2. This was mostly due to my first year and a half where let's just say I was having some personal issues. lol. But my last 2 years of my first degree I think I had around a 3.6 average, so there was definitely an upward progression.

    My GRE's are awful. The first time I took it (3 years ago) I got a 540 on the Verbal and a 660 on the Quant. 4 on the writing section. I just retook the GRE's this week where I was hoping to raise my quant significantly (i was getting around 700-750's on the practice exams). Unfortunately, I ended up only getting a 690 on the Quant, and a 490 on the Verbal (I know, awful. I wanted to cry). No idea about the writing section yet.

    I did 1 year of research during my first undergrad in astronomy and I ended up getting a published paper out of it (not first author). I've also been doing research with a planetary science professor for a few months and will continue to work with him for the next year. So I will have some experience going in, but I know a lot of people apply with much more.

    So basically, will I get in somewhere? I'm not asking if I will get into Harvard or anything. But ANYWHERE? I know that a lot of the planetary science programs usually take students with physics majors and close to perfect Quant scores on the GRE. (Some planetary science programs also require the physics subject test, but I won't be applying to those programs). But after this week's GRE, I can't help but think that I don't stand a chance. :( :( :(

    I mean, I got A's in Calc 1-3. So I can obviously do simple math. I'm just slow and I'm also prone to panicking on exams. The GRE is my enemy!

    I don't know if it helps my chances at all, but I'm hispanic, and female! Don't they need more of those in the sciences?? haha. Increase diversity or something, especially with the hodgepodge that is my academic background! LOL. Yea maybe not.

    The list of schools I could potentially apply to is:
    1) Brown
    2) University of Hawaii
    3) University of Washington-St. Louis
    4) University of California-Santa Cruz
    5) UCLA
    6) University of Chicago
    7) University of Virginia
    8) Arizona State University
    9) University of Arizona
    10) Berkeley
    11) Johns Hopkins
    12) University of New Mexico
    13) University of Washington-Seattle
    14) Rice
    15) University of Michigan
    16) University of California-Santa Barbara
    17) Caltech
    18) Harvard
    19) University of Illinois-Urbana Champagne
    20) Columbia
    21) Northwestern

    Obviously, I'll never get into Harvard, Caltech, etc. But are there any schools on here that I might have an easier chance getting into?

    Sorry for the long post. I tried to keep it concise but it didn't quite happen, haha.
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 10, 2011 #2
    I am pretty sure it does actually. To what extent I do not know.
  4. Jul 17, 2011 #3
    Sorry to not be so optimistic, but you may need to lower your standards for grad schools. I mean you mostly just have really good schools on there, you should apply to a broader range of schools on all levels.

    Like QuarkCharmer said, it actually does help that you are hispanic and female.

    It's just odd to me that you will have two degrees and neither of them are in physics or astronomy. I don't know how that is going to look. Did you take any physics at all?

    I wouldn't give up though, your research experience sounds great and your chem gpa is good. Just try to do better on the GRE. I don't think many schools will care much about the lower verbal score, if you are going into science they just want to see that quant score nice and high.
  5. Jul 17, 2011 #4
    there is sort of a long, confusing story as to why I did not get a degree in physics or astronomy. I won't get into it, but I do have the minor in astronomy! lol but I really don't think it will mean much since the minor didn't require any physics. I did take Physics 1 and 2. Got an A- and an A.

    And I can't "lower my standards" for the grad schools, because those are ALL the schools that I have found that have planetary science phd programs that accept students from backgrounds other than physics. (They require any science background). So there really aren't any other schools I could consider. If you know of any that are not on my list, please let me know and I'll look into them!

    Partly why I am trying to get into "planetary science" vs getting into a phd program in astronomy is because of the physics background requirement. Basically, without getting into my life story, lol, i'm really intimidated by physics, and since I am 25 I don't have any more time/money to try physics and see what happens (even though I would kinda like to). It sort of came down to making a gamble, and which degree I thought I would have a greater chance of doing well, and I felt chemistry was just a smarter choice for me (maybe I am just lacking self confidence or something, lol).

    I know the other issue I will have to consider is what professors are actually researching at each school. I know I definitely would be of no use to a professor whose research is heavily based in physics, regardless if the program would accept me. So I have been looking into each school and all their professors and making a list of people whose research is based in chemistry/cosmochemistry/geochemistry/etc. I've also looked into a lot of their CV's to try to find professors whose background was in chemistry rather than astronomy or physics. There are definitely a bunch of people I could consider and I'm hoping if I start a dialog with these professors before the application process that it will help my admissions. I'm hoping that since most people applying have physics backgrounds that perhaps my having a background in chemistry might be appealing to at least some of the professors whose research specializations are more heavy into chemistry.

    But don't be sorry for not being optimistic, I'm not very optimistic either! LOL. Which is why I posted on this forum because I'm kind of freaking out that I won't get accepted anywhere.
  6. Jul 17, 2011 #5
    What about getting a job? Starting graduate school at 25 is a big money loser. With your anything-but-love for physics even if you get through it you'll be well into your 30's before you finish.
  7. Jul 17, 2011 #6


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    My guess would be that your chances are poor. It's not just the GRE's but the combination of that plus your undergrad GPA and your lack of upper-division physics coursework. If you can afford the application fees, then you might as well apply to all 21 of those schools. It's just money. But I would suggest considering that as a long shot and focusing on finding a plan B in life.
  8. Jul 17, 2011 #7
    So it doesn't mean anything that I have a 3.9 GPA for my second degree? God I feel like my first few semesters in college are going to haunt me for the rest of my life. It's like, no matter how well I have done since my Junior year in college, I'm still screwed because of how poorly I did my freshman and sophomore year, which was 6-7 years ago!

    If the programs don't require a physics background, why is it that it seems my lack of upper division physics coursework is going to such a problem? I won't be applying through any astronomy or physics departments. Only geoscience and Earth and planetary science departments. I would actually be applying through the chemistry department at University of Virginia. ARR this is just frustrating.

    I can be very flexible with my schedule and so I could fit in 1 or 2 extra physics courses. Which ones would everyone say would be the most important for me to take to make me a better applicant. (And they have to be courses that only require phys 1 and 2 as prereq.)

    I have been thinking that maybe I could take a chemistry GRE, and assuming I did well, could that help me?

    And I definitely can't afford to apply to all 21 schools. I was going to narrow it down to maybe 8 or less. That's why I wanted to know which schools were my best chance.

    I often struggle with the question of whether or not I should just get a job now and call a quits. But the more I think about it, the more I believe that I would be really unhappy if I did that. I know I'm not brilliant, and many people who get into these types of careers are, but I really really would like to find a way to make it happen. It was sort of my dream career and I really regret that things got so messed up my first year--year and a half in college that it didn't work out.

    Sometimes I feel that I just totally missed the boat, and now I'm trying to swim across the Atlantic Ocean to try to catch up with it! LOL
  9. Jul 17, 2011 #8


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    Take everything I say with a grain of salt. My statements are really based on what I know about astronomy programs, so they may not apply to planetary science.

    You refer to your "dream career," but you haven't said anything about what career you have in mind, just that you want to get a PhD in planetary science. There are many different careers you could have with that degree. If your goal is to do research at a university or a government lab, then you need to realize that getting into grad school is much, much easier than landing a permanent research job. Given your weak background, there's also the question of whether you would actually succeed in a PhD program.
  10. Jul 17, 2011 #9
    I got accepted into a PhD physics program under similar circumstances, so I can tell you from first hand experience that the GPA is not a deal breaker. My undergrad GPA (after spending 9.5 years getting my B.S. in physics) was somewhere in the neighborhood of a 3.0. This was up from a cumulative low of 1.7 at the five year mark (at which point I officially flunked out of that particular institution and took two and a half years off). I made up for it by achieving a 3.9 my final two years, which I was able to leverage into acceptance into a PhD program. The schools you apply to will probably put much more weight on the last few years than on the first few, so don't let this discourage you from applying.

    However, that said, you'll probably have more chance getting into a chemistry program than a planetary sciences one with your background. Furthermore, in my personal case my resume was supported by an 800 on the Quant. portion of the GRE and a relatively high score on the physics subject test (don't remember the exact number).

    Edit: One last thing - as someone currently in the process of trying to track down a post-PhD job, I can tell you that the job market in academia is bad. Really, really bad. So, even if you do make it into a PhD program, have a fall back plan.
    Last edited: Jul 17, 2011
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