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Nervous about Grad School and Recommendations

  1. Nov 15, 2014 #1
    I'm applying to grad schools soon, and I'm really nervous about my prospects. I grew up in a really violent and screwed up home situation, and I was pretty much a fish out of water when I came to college. I almost flunked out during my first two years. Once I shook myself out of it and decided I wanted to do physics, I managed to get myself turned around to the point where my GPA steadily climbed up to about a 3.1.

    That would all be one thing, perhaps understandable, I think. But even today I flip back and forth between A's and C's due to a lack of concentration and bad habits, and there is no reason for my recent performance to be so dismal. I do well on tests and my research, but I can be awfully scatterbrained when it comes to classwork and I feel very ashamed at how poorly I've managed that.

    I've been doing theoretical work on BEC dynamics with a professor for about a year now, and he has agreed to write me a recommendation letter. He wants to go over my transcript and personal statement before doing so, however. I've never mentioned any of these problems to him, or the fact that this will be my sixth year in undergrad. I will have to explain this to him, and I'm dreading the conversation. It's one thing to explain it all in a letter to people I will probably never meet, but I don't want to disappoint someone I know and work with, and it's a personal subject for me.

    Does anyone have any advice on how to broach that kind of subject with someone you only know professionally, without coming across as making excuses?

    Another question I've been turning over is whether I would even be cut out for grad school. I know no one here can really answer that for me, but if anyone from a similar background has any advice, I'm all ears.

  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 15, 2014 #2


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    You have someone willing to help. Be honest, maybe he'll help you. You won't know until you come clean.
  4. Nov 15, 2014 #3


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    As far as talking to this professor about your history, it's just one of those things you have to do, I think. Your other option is to shyly skirt the issue, in which case this professor can only make assumptions about you and ultimately you're likely to end up with a worse reference letter.

    One thing that can make it better is to remember that not everyone who is successful in academia was always a top student as an undergraduate. Most professors are aware of this, however, because of the absence of any ability to quantify future success, they tend to evaluate potential graduate students based on what they can quantify. In seeking a letter of reference, your goal is to get an accurate assessment of those difficult to quantify characteristics.

    But before you get to any of that, it's important that you yourself understand why you want to go to graduate school and that you believe you'll be successful there. That involves taking a hard look at how you have performed as a student and critically assessing why in some cases you have not performed to the level you might have wished. One thing that's critical to understand is that as a graduate student, "C" grades are not generally acceptable. So you'll have a hard time convincing a graduate admissions committee that you're not a risk if you have some C grades in your senior undergraduate classes. (If they are from courses not related to your major, that might be another story). Beyond the marks though, is the purpose of graduate school. What do you want to study? What kind of project do you want? Why do you want to work on that? What will you do with the skills that you gain? Once you have questions to these yourself, you'll be in a better position to convince others that you should get a spot in graduate school.
  5. Nov 16, 2014 #4
    Thanks for the advice.

    I have no intention of skirting the issue or hiding anything. I'm just looking for some perspective on this from anyone who might have had similar experiences, or knows someone who has. I hope that I could do a lot better in grad school because I've always done well working on research or in my most challenging classes. The classes that I screw up are always the ones where a professor spends half of the quarter reviewing material that we covered freshman or sophomore year and I just check out. I miss classes and forget to turn in assignments because I'm working on problems from graduate textbooks in the library and I lose track of time. I know that's not an excuse, but that's what happens. It's irresponsible and stupid of me to not keep my head up no matter what, but the fact is that I have had trouble and I can't change that now. My senior year has been better, but I'm still probably going to get a B or two this quarter from missed assignments.

    So my hope is that graduate school would be a better fit for me, since research would be a higher priority, and I enjoy my work. But I don't know that, and I have serious doubts about my abilities. I'm not sure how to put any of this in an application without sounding arrogant. Even the above paragraph seems pretty suspect when I look back at it.

    Sorry to make this sound like a pity party. I'm grateful for the advice, and I'll talk to my professor tomorrow. Hopefully I can at least send some applications off, and in the meantime strongly consider whether graduate school is where I really want to be.
  6. Nov 16, 2014 #5
    I mean, 11 years from now when you've finished your PhD and post-docs, if you've got the research impact (~1200 citations, from what I've seen, but that's clearly a murky indicator) and the specific skills a department is looking for, none of this will matter. They probably will not even ask you questions about the C you got in some undergrad class.

    But the fact that you have the issues you do (and I have similar issues, if I find a course to be boring it can make it very difficult for me to get the grade) can certainly interfere with this, since obtaining that impact requires working very hard on tedious, boring things more often than not. Academic freedom is hard to come by, even post-tenure (and tenure track positions are rarer than unicorns these days, or so it seems); you'll always be battling for grants, and that's a war between your desire to do stuff that advances your career and can get funded and stuff you're really passionate about. If you can figure out your issues, it might not matter if you go to Mickey Mouse State university to get your PhD, though.

    But you might want to pursue more applied work, since the funding environment is more fertile, ala materials science, mechanical or electrical engineering, biophysics, atmospheric/geophysics etc.
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