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PhD Applications with a low GPA (due to depression in my junior year)

  • #1

Main Question or Discussion Point

Hi all,

It's a few short months before grad school applications are due, and I find myself in a bit of a dilemma. Prior to my junior year, I knew what I wanted to do is physics research for my career, and I'm particularly interested in biological and condensed matter physics. My skills are more computational than experimental, although I'm not opposed to any particular type of work.

However, in the summer before my junior year (and possibly long before that) I started having symptoms of depression, and after seeing a few therapists and doctors, received a diagnosis of Persistent Depressive Disorder and appropriate medication (which has been HUGELY helpful) the summer after my junior year. But in between the manifestation of the symptoms and my treatment for them was two of the most important semesters in my undergrad career, and they were an enormous disappointment as a result of higher level classes and the general symptoms depression tends to give.

Prior to my junior year, my cumulative GPA was a 3.63 with my major GPA a little higher than that (I'm from Arizona State Univ for context). But after the two semesters (with term GPAs of 2.88 and 2.36) it was dragged all the way down to 3.35. Amazingly, I passed all of my classes (only because Cs are somehow considered a passing grade), but this has the effect of rendering my GPA totally noncompetitive for a reasonably good school. I've yet to take the GRE/PGRE (will be doing those later this semester), but I have been working in an x-ray crystallography lab on the data analysis/simulation side of things for almost 2 years now, with an associated internship through BioXFEL one summer and will be going to SLAC next month for an experiment. No publications have come yet (although there are two current projects which might be publishable, but probably not until PhD admits have been made for the most part).

I wanted to know precisely how competitive I am for various programs, as I'm painfully aware that my low GPA and lack of something really good to make up for it frankly eliminates me as a candidate many places. I've been considering alternate routes (working in a lab for a few years, getting a master's degree in maths or nanoscience to replace undergrad work, etc.), but my ideal was to go straight into a PhD program. I've listed a few of the programs I'm interested in below (in no particular order). I know some of these I'm not competitive for, but I've included everything on my radar so far for completeness.

PhD Programs in Biological/Condensed Matter Physics:

Arizona State University
University of Michigan (Ann Arbor)
Rice University
UCSD
Cornell
UCSF
Berkeley
Johns Hopkins (Jenkins Biophysics Program)
Stanford
University of Illinois @ Urbana-Champaign
Princeton
MIT

If there's any advice on my competitiveness for any of these schools, as well as other schools I might be interested in and more reasonably suited for, that would be hugely helpful. Thanks in advance.
 
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Answers and Replies

  • #2
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Do you know anyone working there (students don't count, professors would be ideal)? Does your advisor? What does your advisor think?
 
  • #3
Vanadium 50
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I wanted to know precisely how competitive I am for various programs
That's impossible. If one could tell precisely how competitive one was based on a single post on a message board, universities would not need applications packages.

There are three main elements to applications packages: grades, GRE and letters of recommendations. You've given us one. (And won't see the third, ever) That one is pretty uncompetitive. If you want to get into grad school,the other two need to be very strong.
 
  • #4
That's impossible. If one could tell precisely how competitive one was based on a single post on a message board, universities would not need applications packages.

There are three main elements to applications packages: grades, GRE and letters of recommendations. You've given us one. (And won't see the third, ever) That one is pretty uncompetitive. If you want to get into grad school,the other two need to be very strong.
You're right, I suppose I was unclear in my question. I know I'll have at least two good letters from professors I do research with (not sure exactly how good, but good). What I wanted to know really is if my GPA alone without some special circumstance (e.g. publication in Nature) would disqualify me at some of these schools.
 
  • #5
Do you know anyone working there (students don't count, professors would be ideal)? Does your advisor? What does your advisor think?
I know we have contacts at Stanford and Rice (due to the BioXFEL consortium), but I don't know about the other schools. I don't personally know any professors from outside of my university, and I'm not sure quite how many people my advisor knows.
 
  • #6
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What I wanted to know really is if my GPA alone without some special circumstance (e.g. publication in Nature) would disqualify me at some of these schools.
Who knows? You're asking us to read the minds of the committee.

2.88 and 2.36 is, frankly, bad. Very bad. It demonstrates that you cannot handle upper-division undergraduate work. Graduate work is harder still. If your letters are "good" and your GRE is "good" and your grades are "really, really bad", I don't think MIT and Stanford are going to jump up and say "we gotta get us some of that!". That should suggest what you need to do re: GRE and letters.
 
  • #7
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Recomendations from professors who know you count for a lot. (I say that from personal experience.)
That being said, you should master the material you were weak in. And let your professors know it. Graduate school in PhD directed courses are a different ballgame. There will be many students who are reviewing material that they already know and the competition will be very rough. (more personal experience)
 
  • #8
Choppy
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I can't say how competitive you would be for those programs. I'm sure you already know that it's likely an uphill battle, but not completely unreasonable that you'll get in somewhere. That said, here's a few thoughts that might help you out...
  1. If I understand, you still have your senior year. Now that presumably your depression is under control you have the opportunity to shine. If you can show that you can excel in your senior classes, that makes the poor junior year performance something of an explainable outlier rather than a descending trend with increasing difficulty. Not knowing the details of the American system, I'm not sure if the transcripts assessed with your application will include the first semester of your senior year or not. If not that will be another challenge, but one strategy might be to employ your references to speak to your situation and such that they might include statements like "this student currently has a 4.0 in my fourth year E&M class."
  2. In a worst case scenario a bad year might set you back by a year and you'll have to apply in the following cycle. That's not the end of the world, but it does show how important your senior year grades will be.
  3. Without sugar-coating it, one major challenge before you is that physics tends to be cumulative. If you struggled with your third year material that fact that you're "smart" in absence of a medical condition may not be enough to make up for a poor third year performance. You'll have to re-learn much of what you took in your third year to do well in your fourth year (and grad school and further on in academia).
  4. Your professors, particularly the ones that you're working with in the lab, are probably the best people to ask for insight into which programs you would be competitive for. They know you much better than we do and likely have experience to draw on with what they've seen from other students in similar situations coming out of your program. When you have an opportunity, lay it all out on the table for them and ask for advice.
 
  • #9
Complete your PhD at ASU; they rarely get good physics grad students and having years of experience will make you highly desirable. They also have arguably the strongest structural biophysics department in the world right now (Graves, Spence, Kirian etc are there, along with BioXFEL).

Just talk to your adviser. I would be pretty surprised if you couldn't get in; the only reason you'd be screwed would be if they thought you were mediocre. Big experiments like these do not usually produce publications that fast anyway, so that is unlikely to be the case.

If you're not interested in ASU, there is a department in Europe, I think Germany, which also has a very competitive XFEL, and they may be interested in your skillset. Probably people there know people at ASU.

Finally, I know lots of good groups in schools that don't rank well. The rankings are pretty much completely meaningless. For instance, I have good collaborators at Oklahoma State and SUNY Buffalo, both of whom are experts in their respective areas without much competition. Different universities specialize in different things. Nobody at any of the top ten schools works in my sub area of applied physics to my knowledge, except maybe one guy at Yale. You're doing applied physics too, so there are plenty of jobs in industry/national or military labs which will leverage your skill set.
 
  • #10
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Without sugar-coating it, one major challenge before you is that physics tends to be cumulative. If you struggled with your third year material that fact that you're "smart" in absence of a medical condition may not be enough to make up for a poor third year performance. You'll have to re-learn much of what you took in your third year to do well in your fourth year
Maybe the best choice is to retake Year 3 now.
 
  • #11
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If you're not interested in ASU, there is a department in Europe, I think Germany, which also has a very competitive XFEL, and they may be interested in your skillset. Probably people there know people at ASU.
The European XFEL is the best in the world by nearly all metrics. It is in Germany and funded by European countries, so naturally they have very good groups.
 
  • #12
Now that it's near the end of the semester, I wanted to add some information I didn't have earlier.

Test Scores:

PGRE: 830 (73rd percentile)
GRE:
Verbal - 170
Quant. - 170

Two of my three letters are from research advisors and should be strong letters. My third is from a prof I took two courses with (one lower-division and a hybrid undergrad/graduate course) prior to my depression and did quite well in.

Unfortunately, my medication's effect has deteriorated and my grades have slipped again this semester. While the official grades haven't been published, it looks like I'm in danger of failing two classes. This has made me believe that perhaps I shouldn't be applying to PhD programs at all, despite my reasonable research success and good test scores. Due dates for applications are coming soon, and I was wondering if you all had any input with this extra information?
 
  • #13
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Now that it's near the end of the semester, I wanted to add some information I didn't have earlier.

Test Scores:

PGRE: 830 (73rd percentile)
GRE:
Verbal - 170
Quant. - 170

Two of my three letters are from research advisors and should be strong letters. My third is from a prof I took two courses with (one lower-division and a hybrid undergrad/graduate course) prior to my depression and did quite well in.

Unfortunately, my medication's effect has deteriorated and my grades have slipped again this semester. While the official grades haven't been published, it looks like I'm in danger of failing two classes. This has made me believe that perhaps I shouldn't be applying to PhD programs at all, despite my reasonable research success and good test scores. Due dates for applications are coming soon, and I was wondering if you all had any input with this extra information?
Here's the problem. Even if you get into a PhD program, even if it is in a "less-competitive" school, it seems that the problem that is causing all of this has not gone away. If you think undergrad education was tough, graduate school is even tougher and more demanding, especially when there is a qualifying exam looming in your near future.

You need to figure out how to solve the origin of the problem first.

Zz.
 
  • #14
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I agree with @ZapperZ . There may be a lot of stress in graduate school. You should give top priority to getting your depression under control.
 
  • #15
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Zz is right - grad school is tougher than undergrad, and all the evidence the admissions committee will get suggests you aren't ready for grad school: 2.something average in upper-division classes is not a good foundation to build upon. Further, 830 is not such a high score that it rescues you: about 1% of the admits (12 out of ~1300) had GPA's below 3 and GREs below 830, so you're around the 2nd percentile. That makes getting in at all difficult, and I think Stanford, MIT and Michigan are extremely optimistic.

My advice hasn't changed - retake your 3rd year. Shore up your foundation, and you will not only be more likely to get into graduate school, but more likely to succeed in grad school.
 
  • #16
Thanks everyone.

I think I will apply to just a few of the less competitive programs just in case I'm accepted for whatever reason and can get my illness under control before enrolling, but otherwise I'll take some time off and work in the meantime while I manage my health. Maybe save up some money and try to do a Master's later when I'm in better health to demonstrate I can handle a PhD at that time. Obviously not what I wanted to hear, but I guess I can't just ignore reality.
 
  • #17
GRE scores and letters of recommendation from your current professors can go a long way. Try to schedule campus visits as well. In person interviews can make up for a lot and if nothing else they would give you a chance to explain your situation.

I would also focus more on an advisor rather than the school. You will spend a lot of time with your advisor and if you don't get along with them your chances of completing a Ph.D. go down. 20 years later, I still talk to my advisor and exchange Christmas cards.
 
  • #18
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GRE scores and letters of recommendation from your current professors can go a long way.
The data shows an 830 GRE does not overcome a poor GRE. As I said, only about 1% of the admits (12 out of ~1300) had GPA's below 3 and GREs below 830.

I think I will apply to just a few of the less competitive programs just in case I'm accepted
I'm not sure this is a good plan. If you get in somewhere, and then do not succeed, and only then get your illness under control, what's your plan? I think the better plan is to use the time to get your foundation strengthened.
 
  • #19
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My experience was in pure mathematics, which may be quite different. But my GPA was rather low for the first 1.5 years, D's in major subject matter courses. Then I took a year off and began the hard task of starting back where I left off. In both junior and senior years I had good grades in advanced courses at an elite school and got a recommendation that got me in a good graduate school (maybe too good for my background).

My point is that acceptance was based on my final 2 years of good work and unrelated to my first year or so of poor work. I.e. since I demonstrated the ability to succeed, the overall GPA did not matter much.

So much for getting in. As to succeeding, I did not make it through the good grad school that originally accepted me, not from lack of ability (I was considered one of the better students), but from lack of academic and personal stamina. So the ability to navigate and persist in a long hard program is also key, as others have said, whatever the reasons for the challenges. In my case, further life experience gave me the maturity to return once again at another good (but not famously top shelf) school and finally succeed and experience a long career in research.

So many paths are possible, but they are all hard. Still one wants a chance to do what one loves, and it deserves a shot. Good luck.
Advice: talk to people at your schools, not so much strangers online.
 
  • #20
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"Low"

You'll get in somewhere. Stop stressing over it.
 
  • #21
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You'll get in somewhere.
On what grounds do you base this?
 
  • #22
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Thanks everyone.

I think I will apply to just a few of the less competitive programs just in case I'm accepted for whatever reason and can get my illness under control before enrolling, but otherwise I'll take some time off and work in the meantime while I manage my health. Maybe save up some money and try to do a Master's later when I'm in better health to demonstrate I can handle a PhD at that time. Obviously not what I wanted to hear, but I guess I can't just ignore reality.
@Vanadium 50, among others, suggested that you retake your 3rd year to shore up your strength and improve your GPA. Is that not a possibility for you (once you get your psychiatric illness under control, to the extent that is possible), or does your college/university not allow this?

Also, you state that the effects of the medication have deteriorated -- have you spoken to a doctor or psychiatrist about this?
 
  • #23
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Can maybe getting a Masters help you at this point? Then doing well in the masters program -> PhD program.
 
  • #24
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Ah, the perennial "get a Master's" advice. So let me list my (equally perennial) objections.
  1. I know of no case where this worked.
  2. If it worked, our elite universities (~half of all PhD candidates are in ~a dozen schools) would have many examples of this in the grad student population. They don't.
  3. This presupposes that a MS program will find someone with substantially less than a 3.0 GPA an attractive prospect. Most say they don't.
  4. This also presupposes that someone with substantially less than a 3.0 GPA is, despite struggling with undergraduate classes is ready for graduate-level masters classes.
My advice here is the same as it was - strengthen the foundation.
 
  • #25
StatGuy2000
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Ah, the perennial "get a Master's" advice. So let me list my (equally perennial) objections.
  1. I know of no case where this worked.
  2. If it worked, our elite universities (~half of all PhD candidates are in ~a dozen schools) would have many examples of this in the grad student population. They don't.
  3. This presupposes that a MS program will find someone with substantially less than a 3.0 GPA an attractive prospect. Most say they don't.
  4. This also presupposes that someone with substantially less than a 3.0 GPA is, despite struggling with undergraduate classes is ready for graduate-level masters classes.
My advice here is the same as it was - strengthen the foundation.
@Vanadium 50 , my first question would be how many colleges/universities in the US actually allow students to retake their courses. At my alma mater (University of Toronto) students who have passed their course (even just barely) are unable to retake that same course. See the link below (this is a satellite campus at my alma mater, but the rules are the same in the main campus where I graduated):

https://www.utsc.utoronto.ca/aacc/academic-advising-faq
 

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