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Admissions Rejected from everywhere. What next?

  1. Mar 9, 2017 #1
    I am in my final semester of my undergraduate career so like many others in my position I applied to a handful of graduate programs for the fall semester. I figured I had a really good chance at getting in due to the fact that I've got a 4.0, I scored in the top 10 percent on the PGRE, I have about a year and a half of research experience with REU's and projects at my home institution, ect. However, I have been rejected from all schools but two, which I still have yet to hear back from. With March 15th fast approaching I am afraid Ill be rejected for sure from all of them. Where do I go from here? I feel like the past four years have been all about this moment and now its like I've been told I should have tried harder... I suppose I have two options,

    1) Wait it out for another semester or two to reapply and possibly try and continue doing research at my home institution and possibly publish. (Money might be a problem though...)

    2) Pursue a masters degree at my home institution and apply for PhD elsewhere.

    What would be the most beneficial to my academic future? Keep in mind my home institution is UNT which isnt really well known for physics. Furthermore, there are people doing research that intersects my own personal interests (CMT) but I dont know if I'd really want to hang around here for another two years. Thanks for your help friends.
     
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  3. Mar 9, 2017 #2

    cristo

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    Well, first thing I would suggest is try not to despair -- you still have two schools to hear back from, so you might end up getting accepted to one of those.

    It might be a good idea to try and get some honest feedback from faculty in your home institution -- send them your application materials and ask if they can see any weakness. Doing "more of the same" so to speak, will not really help you if there is something in your application that is stopping you being accepted. Supposing there isn't something that stands out as a negative, then you've probably just been unlucky. How many programs did you apply to, and were they a range of schools (a mix of top schools, decent schools and backups?).

    I don't know which of your options are best; I'd probably say number 1, get a part-time job and try and apply again in a few months. Others might have other opinions though.
     
  4. Mar 9, 2017 #3

    phinds

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    I agree w/ cistro ... talk to a prof or two at your current school to see if they can pinpoint weaknesses in your application.
     
  5. Mar 9, 2017 #4

    Meir Achuz

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    Maybe you apply to some safe schools. You may be too focused on elite schools.
     
  6. Mar 10, 2017 #5

    ZapperZ

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    That's exactly what I was thinking of as well.

    @Austin Daniel : where exactly did you apply to? Did you simply limit your applications to MIT, Harvard, Yale, Caltech, etc... etc... ?

    Zz.
     
  7. Mar 10, 2017 #6

    StatGuy2000

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    This would beg the question of what would be considered a "safe school" (taking into account that the OP is a graduate of the University of North Texas, with a GPA of 4.0, scored in the top 10% of the PGRE, have about a year and half of research experience via REU's and research projects in his home institution, his interest in condensed matter theory, etc.).
     
  8. Mar 11, 2017 #7
    That's the exact same situation I went through three years ago and am going through right now. I'm waiting to hear back from two schools but my hope has died down a lot. I asked a professor what I can do to improve and she said if I contributed to a publication I would have had a much better chance.

    In any case I'm considering all my alternative plans now. Either work for a few years and try again or try for a Master's degree instead. I don't really know right now.
     
  9. Mar 11, 2017 #8
    I worked closely with several faculty mentors to ensure I applied to at least one "safe school" where my admission would be assured. My "safe school" was SUNY-Stony Brook.

    If you are not getting into schools that faculty who are intimately familiar with your entire applications think you should have gotten into, I would consider some other factors: Do you have a criminal record or are you wrongly being flagged as having a criminal record on a background check? Is there something that will appear negative that is easily discovered by doing a search of your social media: drugs, racism, etc.? Is there something else about your application or background that may be turning schools off? (Being a big, vocal supporter of a politician who is a pariah and hated by most at elite schools might do it.)
     
  10. Mar 11, 2017 #9

    Vanadium 50

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    First, it's too soon to panic. You have not, as the title suggests, been "rejected from everywhere". There are still two schools left. If one accepts you, congratulations, and you know your next step.

    While I agree that you want a range of schools - reach, match and safety - at the graduate level there are not huge differences between departments. Highly ranked departments tend to be large, have many research areas, and be good in most of them. Less highly ranked departments tend to be small, have fewer research areas, and still be good in most of them. Admissions to Michigan State or Stony Brook are not that much easier than Princeton or Harvard.

    Now, onto the rejections. If you are rejected from the other two schools, there's a reason. It's not test scores. It's not grades. It might be the UNT program, which is not particularly strong, but that is mitigated by the strong showing in the GRE. Clearly you learned the material somewhere. Some schools might still reject such an applicant, but probably not everyone. That leaves the letters. Judging by the unanimity of the responses, there's something in the letters that they don't like, and whatever it is, there is probably some confirming evidence somewhere in your packet - perhaps another letter.

    That puts you in a pickle, I'm afraid. Waiting won't make the letters better, and working at the same school and getting letters from the same people won't make the letters better.
     
  11. Mar 11, 2017 #10

    radium

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    A big factor could be the schools you applied to. If you only applied to top schools this is not to be completely unexpected even if you are a good applicant. Even though your test scores and grades are high, the content of your letters in unknown. I'm not sure about research experience, it probably depends a lot on quality, but people at those schools tend to start research pretty early, like after freshman year. They may have a leg up since they have more experience. However, if there weren't any opportunities available to you at that time, I think that would be taken into consideration while reading your application.

    Theory in general is also pretty competitive. There tends to be large fluctuations in the number of theorists they accept each year. I know this happens a lot in condensed matter theory. Around for or give years ago several schools who accepted too many so they're aren't as many people in CMT in the next few years below where it is actually noticeable.
     
  12. Mar 11, 2017 #11

    StatGuy2000

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    We should caution that the OP has never specified how many graduate programs he (I presume "Austin" is a male given name -- the OP's profile information doesn't specify gender) has applied to, and whether those programs were among the most competitive programs to apply to. After all, if the OP applied only to 5 schools -- Harvard, MIT, Caltech, Yale, Stanford, Berkeley, for example -- then the probability that he will be rejected from all school choices will not be particularly low, even taking into account GPA, the GRE scores, research experience, and strong letters of recommendation.

    The situation may well be different, however, if the OP applied to, say, 15 or 20 such programs, from a much broader range of schools. If the OP is rejected from all of these, then there may indeed be something to the question about the letters.

    The question is then, what to do about it. My general feeling is that the faculty members who have written these letters for the OP had done so with the expectation that they know him and are aware of his academic record, research experience, and potential as a graduate student, and that they think the OP would be successful in a graduate program (otherwise, they would not have agreed to write the letter to begin with).
     
  13. Mar 11, 2017 #12

    StatGuy2000

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    I find it curious that there exists such fluctuations in the number of theorists accepted into PhD programs. How does this compare to, say, condensed matter experimental (CME)? And more generally, to experimental or computational areas in other areas of physics?
     
  14. Mar 11, 2017 #13

    Choppy

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    I can't speak to what happens at some of the larger schools, but one factor that becomes more important, particularly in smaller programs, is whether there is anyone in the department that year who is able and actively looking to take on a new graduate student. This is why it pays to do one's homework, rather than just apply shotgun style. If the department doesn't have any condensed matter theory spots that year, it might not matter how great a student one is. The rejection has nothing to do with the student.

    Anyway, based on the original post, I suspect the question is more one of what to do if he or she doesn't get in, as opposed to why he or she was rejected (although the latter does influence the former).

    My two cents on the matter is that you should avoid any graduate level study that you're not keen to do in the first place. Trying to get into a Master's program (assuming you can get into one - in the Canadian system the MSc and PhD programs tend to follow the same application cycles and deadlines), that you didn't want in the first place could land you in a lot of trouble if you're heart is not in it.

    A year off shouldn't hurt you. You can used that time to re-assess yourself, and take in honest feedback from the professors who know you, and then use that to improve yourself and your application to the extent that you can. Continuing research can be a good thing. You could also take that time to work, pay off any debt and/or build up some savings, and gain some real world work-experience. This can be invaluable for choosing what kinds of skills you want to pick up as a graduate student.
     
  15. Mar 11, 2017 #14

    Vanadium 50

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    That is a good point. I assumed it's quite large with respect to 2 ("all schools but two") so it's closer to 15 or 20 than 5, but we don't know that.

    As for the letters, they don't necessarily have to be bad to keep him out. They could merely be weak ("One of our 5 best students this year") or have information that undermines the rest of the application ("He tests very well.").
     
  16. Mar 12, 2017 #15

    StatGuy2000

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    This is what I find hard to understand. If a professor agrees to write a letter of recommendation for his/her student, it is with the expectation that he/she knows the student and wants the student to be admitted into the graduate programs the student is applying to. Otherwise, why would the professor waste his/her time on this time-consuming task, when there are so many other things on his/her plate? So doesn't that give an incentive to not undermine the application by writing a weak letter?

    You're a physics faculty member. If a student you knew approached you requesting for a letter of recommendation, and you accepted, wouldn't you write the best possible letter?
     
  17. Mar 12, 2017 #16

    Choppy

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    I think the issue is that particularly at the more popular schools, students are often competing among pools of applicants where many of whom are the top students in their program. Hence a comment like "this student is the top student in our program" becomes common in the pile of applications. It may or may not be the "average" comment, but it becomes the bar against which everyone evaluated. So a "this student was in the top 5 in a graduating class of 20" comment may not make the cut, even though to the student it seems like a decent recommendation and from a general perspective, it is. Remember, not all students can be the number one student.

    As a faculty member approached by students frequently for references, many of whom have worked very hard for you, you can't sit back and say I'm only going to write a reference letter for the best student of the year. Sure, if you can't in good conscience give the student a positive reference then you should suggest the student find someone else (although I have known professors who do otherwise - not sure why - perhaps they see themselves as some kind of academic gatekeepers).

    The other issue is that for many students their reference options are limited. If you work for a professor doing research in your senior year, that's probably a good person to ask for a reference letter. But if you find out that professor isn't going to sing your praises on high, it's not like going to your first year physics professor is going to do you much better - even if you were the top student in that class.
     
  18. Mar 12, 2017 #17
    I write recommendation letters for students who work hard for me and about whom I can say very positive things. I know most of them are not going to get admitted to top 10 schools. But I write the recommendation letters anyway, and give some sobering private verbal advice regrading the schools I think are long shots for them. They know some schools are long shots, but they want to try.

    It would seem funny (strange) for me to write letters for a student to a number of second tier schools, and then decline to send (largely) the same letter to their stretch school. I am very open with students for whom I write letters, always showing them the letter and asking if there is anything they would like me to add or change, within the bounds of being honest. In my whole career, I think I've only had to decline requests for recommendation letters 2 or 3 times. Students have a sense for who appreciates their work.
     
  19. Mar 12, 2017 #18
    So I had only applied to the following programs; MIT, Yale, Berkeley, Santa Barbara, UIUC, University of New Mexico, Boulder. I figured Boulder would be more of a match based on some admission statistics they had posted for the previous year (I seemed to be doing much better than the average applicant), then UNM was my one "safety". The rest were are "reach". Given that, UNM and Boulder are the two I have yet to hear back from. Furthermore, the people who wrote my letters had good experience in seeing the work I had done. They were my senior thesis advisor, research mentor for independent stuff I did UNT, REU mentor, and a fourth supplementary letter from a former professor who offered. The first two LOR writers I have taken graduate courses with and I was the top student in those classes.

    Furthermore, how is one supposed to apply to 15 or 20 schools!? I really felt that 7 was already hard enough, not to mention expensive enough. Also it was hard to get that many letters in the first place. I had one prof. tell me that I was asking for too many letters which I totally understand since he was probably writing letters for me, and other undergrads and grad students. I totally get that you could just change MIT to Berkeley on your personal statement and what not but I feel that makes the whole process less genuine. I really tried to tailor each application for each school.

    Anyways thank you everyone for the input. Its much appreciated :)
     
  20. Mar 12, 2017 #19
    Not that it helps you now but I think 10 is the standard number to try and apply to. That being said, I was frustrated enough after 7 as well and stopped there! Luckily I've been accepted to 3, rejected from 2 and waiting to hear from 2 more.

    I hope you get accepted to one of the last two! You sound way more qualified than I am, but I definitely didn't reach as high. I did 2 reach, 4 bread and butter and 1 safety. Funny enough, my safety rejected me!
     
  21. Mar 12, 2017 #20

    Vanadium 50

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    Well, the professor doesn't necessarily have the complete list at the time she agrees. So that's not really possible.

    My viewpoint is that a letter is most useful when it's primarily factual, and not primarily persuasive: it informs the committee of the candidate's strengths and weaknesses and gives them information to make a decision, rather than be a one-sided advertisement. It does the student no good to be admitted to a department where he will not succeed, it does that department no good to admit a student who won't succeed, and it does the next student I send to that department no good if the history is as I just described. So I am not going to call a "top 5" student "best this year" or even "among the best this year", even if I think he will succeed. If the student does substantially better in the classroom than the laboratory, or vice versa, I'm going to say so. There are also statements that some schools weigh positively and some negatively: "he tests well" is one. I have never written that myself, but I have read it. At a school where students (particularly in the applicants subfield) struggle with the qual, this is a positive. At others it may not be.

    Having read two letters from the same professor identifying two different students as his best student ever, I think this is a better approach. It's certainly more useful in selecting students, to the point where letters that are only positive are given less weight, or let the committee's imagination go wild. A statement that a student is outstanding in X and pretty good in Y is better than a statement that the student is outstanding in X and silent on Y. The latter lets the committee infer that the student is absolutely horrid in Y.

    Perhaps that's really not the best place to save money.
     
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