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Skipping Straight to Grad School (don't laugh)!

  1. Nov 3, 2011 #1
    As you can guess by the post's title, I have a seemingly crazy question. But before I get to the meat of my query, it might be useful to any potentially helpful readers if I gave a bit of context about myself, academically speaking. And also it's late, and I'm a bit too out of steam to do anything productive, and I just really feel like writing about myself all of a sudden. So here it goes!

    When I was 14 I dropped out of high school due to a desire to independently study software programming after having been introduced to it by a family fiend who worked at IBM. I suppose one could call what I did during that period "homeschooling" since it was nonstop reading (specifically about C, Perl, and UNIX), but it wasn't really "schooling" in that there was no formal structure to the way I spent my time. I wasn't totally inside a bubble though, and I got much help from adults by attending tech conferences and lecture events a few times every month, via which I also found some unpaid (but still very productive) internships.

    At 16 I started a full blow software career with a well paid internship, though I don't feel the need to go very deep into the details of that here. For the next two years that progressed very smoothly into an eventual full time job. Raises, health benefits, and a well developed résumé all eventually materialized.

    Then at 18 a very enjoyable turn of events occurred. I started to study 3D graphics programming, and I got the idea stuck in my head that I wanted to exercise my programming skills by writing a solar system simulation, or something of a similar nature. I popped down to the local book store and when I opened what looked like a respectable physics textbook all of those mysterious looking integral signs and d/dt's gave me a good slap in the face. I realized I was pretty stuck, and I didn't quite know where to look for help. So, I took the income I had from my software job and hired a student at Cooper Union to tutor me in calculus, for a very modest price. A few simple lessons totally got me going, and before I knew it I had my simulation up and running. That ancient old thing is still sitting here on YouTube actually: (It was posted in 2009, but it's actually from around 2007). Ahh, nostalgia.

    From that point on I was happily wedded to calculus and physics, with an eye toward computational applications given my previous skill set. I kept going with my job, and continued to study my newly found interests independently. When I was close to 20 I decided to give college a try. I quit my job, and soon after my 21st birthday I found myself sitting in Chemistry and Calculus II courses at Sarah Lawrence College here in New York. I wasn't in physics because after an interview with the physics professor there I had the first year requirement waived and was instead scheduled to take Electromagnetism and Light the spring semester.

    However, I never made it to the spring semester. I found the whole regime of assigned reading and forced homework very counterproductive. When I did the math it turned out that I was paying over $100 per lecture session (and it was on my dime, since my folks aren't exactly swimming in green). As a result of realizing the financial reality of the situation, every time I walked out of a lecture where the professor did a less than thrilling job I was left with the unpleasant thought of "wow, I just paid over $100 for that!" I should give credit where it is due though. Some professors really were up to par, and some were even well above! But the majority of them weren't worth the $100/session, not by a large margin. I soon left, got a refund for what money I could, and successfully begged my way back into the job I had quit just a few months previous. I was quickly able to pay of the few thousand dollars that I had taken out in student loans.

    Though I didn't stay, the whole experience was overall worth having, and it proved to be miles in quality above anything I had experience in my high school; though it was still nonetheless not what I was looking for in an education. Not to mention, I did find a nice girl while I was there as well. We like to joke that given the price of the 5 months of tuition, she really did cost me quite a pretty penny :-p

    Now, as for the question as per the post's title. I'm pretty intent on giving grad school a shot. I recently visited the campus at Columbia on an whim to browse around their science library, and while I was there I took a stroll around the physics building as well. I started up a conversation with a man I met there. He was probably in his late 40's or early 50's. I think he was a professor, though I'm not completely sure. I asked him if the school would consider taking a failed academic wannabe like myself directly into a graduate program despite the lack of an undergrad degree, perhaps provided that I totally aced the GREs, had a portfolio of interesting computational work to show off, and maybe hired a tutor with good accreditations to vouch for me. He smiled and gave me the impression that it might be hard, but that it wasn't impossible. He also mentioned that he even knew someone who had gotten into grad school specifically at Columbia via a shady back-door route not much unlike the one I was suggesting.

    So, I'm here on these friendly forums in search for some input on the matter. I plan to go down to Columbia's graduate admissions department next week to inquire about my situation. But I know from my experiences trying to get into undergrad programs that when you're in a seldom seen situation such as mine every damned person in admissions will give you a different story about what the rules and requirements are, and even the directors will give you inconsistent stories if you inquire today and then again 4 months from now.

    So, does anyone have any interesting or perhaps even help comments to throw my way?

    I suppose you can also feel free to tell me that I'm crazy. I'm open to some criticism or dozes of cold reality. But as a guy with no high school diploma who has gotten himself several "4 year degree required" jobs, and also as a guy without SAT scores or even so much as a high school report card who has gotten himself into a respectable undergrad program, I'm going to tend not to listen to blatant detractors unless they have a very compelling and well articulated point to make ;-)
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  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 3, 2011 #2


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    Unless I missed it, you never did explicitly indicate what major you want to go into.

    If you're thinking of going into physics or astronomy, then what I wrote earlier on someone wanting to go into such field without a degree in it should apply to you as well:


  4. Nov 3, 2011 #3
    I read your whole post and it seems there's a very natural question to ask: why do you want to go to graduate school? Also, what makes you think the problems you had with your undergraduate education are not going to be there in graduate school? You will still be faced with terrible lectures, assigned reading, homework, tests, etc.

    If you just want to learn physics, why not do so? You clearly have the ability to learn on your own.
  5. Nov 3, 2011 #4


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    Assuming you mean Physics graduate school.... why exactly do you want to do it in the first place? If I were you, take a practice Physics GRE (you can find them online) and see where you stand using the prescribed amount of time to take the test. If you get less than 50 percentile, you're probably in big trouble in terms of getting into a good graduate school with no degree.
  6. Nov 3, 2011 #5

    Vanadium 50

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    What makes you think you will "totally ace the GRE's"?
  7. Nov 3, 2011 #6


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    Grad school admissions decisions are generally made by individual departments, not by the graduate school's "main office". So you should go instead to the physics department and talk to someone on the physics graduate admissions committee. If the departmental Web site doesn't list the committee members, ask someone in the departmental office, or e-mail a departmental contact address, and find out.
  8. Nov 3, 2011 #7

    Doc Al

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    Here's a practice GRE: http://www.ets.org/Media/Tests/GRE/pdf/Physics.pdf [Broken]

    Print it out and give it a serious go. Good luck! All the topics are typical undergrad stuff that you are expect to know before entering grad school. If all that is just too easy, then you may have a shot.

    And if you think a "regime of assigned reading and forced homework" was bad as an undergrad, wait until grad school.
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  9. Nov 3, 2011 #8


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    If you are obsessed with how many $/hour you are spending on education and whether every course, every hour, is giving you value (and how much), then you are guaranteed to be frustrated and angry with any college experience. You also have a more general chip on your shoulder, from the tone of your writing. Unless you can pull off a major realignment of your value system and approach to life, I suggest staying away from universities altogether.
  10. Nov 3, 2011 #9
    What he said.
  11. Nov 3, 2011 #10
    Here below are answers to everybody, given in separate sections :-)


    It would be a physics major. If it has to be more specific than then I wouldn't yet know whether to go with astronomy, or computational physics with a focus on numerical methods, or something else entirely. But I'm sure I'd have a good choice by the time I have to decide.

    Alos, that's definitely a pertinent thread you linked to at https://www.physicsforums.com/showthread.php?t=64966

    I did exactly that a few weeks ago, expect at boarders with GRE study books. I don't know what a typical school's qualifying exam would look like, but I'll definitely go have a peek sometime soon. On a related note though, when it comes to the physics GRE I'm definitely in that category of being comfortable with the vocabulary but just not knowing how to attack the problems. I just took a moment and cherry picked a few problems from the GRE which Doc Al linked, and I was able to solve them in reasonable time. It took me slightly longer than it seems would be permissible if I had to finish all of the questions, but it was close enough. But still, for the overwhelming majority of the questions there I just don't know where to start, to the degree that looking for a problem there to be cheery picked wasn't at all easy!

    I think my knowledge of calculus and general problem solving skills are good enough to tackle the task of mastering the sort of material I've seen on GRE samples though, even if I'm not any sort of authentic genius. It's just that my knowledge of physics is still very narrow. I mean, I have notebooks sitting on my shelf full the work that I've done over the past year or so, but most of them are filled with just pure math.

    I tend to read a bit of my physics text and then dive very deeply into the associated math. If they say some derivation too long to be included in the book, then I'll take a few days and go off to do it on my own. Or if they list moments of inertia for objects without demonstrating how they were found then I'll put the physics book down and spend a lot of time reading the chapters in my vector calc book up to and including the ones on triple integrals. The result is that I end up learning a good deal more math than physics, but it's still the physics I'm really interested in.

    But regardless of my past study habits, I'm sure that I could master the GRE material given a few years if I changed my method from one of doing long drawn our problems just for the fun of it, to something focused on getting a more complete breadth of knowledge. I perhaps could have mentioned that I was planning on giving myself 2-3 years to study for grad school entry. I'm not intending to do it tomorrow. I just need to find out beforehand if it's a completely futile effort given that I basically refuse to go to a normal undergrad program.


    Yeah, I saw that one coming :-)

    It's just a social matter of everybody else getting to go to the party, and me wanting to go too. Maybe some people would find that a bad reason, but it will do me literally *zero* harm to give it a go. I'm going to be studying the sort of physics on the GRE independently anyway, so I might as well do it in the context of the GRE and have a try at it. Plus, when I get there I can always just drop out if I don't like it (I have a nice software career to fall back on anyway). And lastly, by the time I do get there I'll have enough money saved to cover the tuition up front, so the looming spectre of debt won't be there to constantly worry me, and perhaps that will result in a greater willingness to put up with annoyances in return for the resulting benefits.


    I would miserably flunk it now, but I'm sure I can get to whatever percentile I want given X number of years to study; and I'm in no rush, so X can be arbitrarily large. I'm hoping it'll be something like 2-3.

    @Vanadium 50

    Unless the GRE is designed not to be aced, I'm sure I can ace it if I study the material thoroughly enough. I definitely wasn't meaning to imply that I could ace it now. The original post did after all mention that I haven't even done very much of undergrad electromagnetism yet :-p


    Ah, yeah, I sort of suspected something like that was the case. I'll do exactly that then :-)

    @Doc Al

    Thanks a million for the link, somehow I just assumed those Kaplan study books were the only place to get practice exams.

    @marcusl & SophusLies

    No, it's not true at all that thinking about the $/hour will guarantee frustration, because I had several classes which were really great, and where that wasn't an issue at all. I wasn't thinking about the money in the least when I was taking in those classes, even to the degree that it didn't hit me until literally just now that I actually did end up paying a ton of money for those classes too. But they were worth it, I would have been more than happy to pay even more for those particular professors.

    If those sorts of classes are the minority then the school just isn't doing its job, and I won't be giving them my money, sorry.
    Last edited by a moderator: Nov 3, 2011
  12. Nov 3, 2011 #11
    This is what I tell everyone whose thinking about grad school in physics but...

    You should have a significant amount of research experience - enough to tell whether you enjoy the process and are good at it - before you consider applying for PhD programs. The PhD is a research degree. If you are interested only in the content knowledge, or teaching physics etc. do NOT do a PhD (consider just reading more and teaching yourself the things that interest you).

    It is surprisingly difficult to get involved with research when you are unaffiliated with a university - your best bet may be to register as a non-degree seeking student for a year and take a small number of upper level physics courses while volunteering in a professors research group. This also kinda kills two birds with one stone as far as admissions committees viewing your application - demonstrated ability in structured coursework (your PhD program _will_ involve a fair amount of this) and research experience.
  13. Nov 3, 2011 #12
    The main, main thing you need to convince the grad school admissions people of is that you will be a successful researcher. Other than that, you should convince them you will pass your qualifying exams.

    What evidence do you have of these things? By GRE, do you mean physics subject GRE? If you're applying for physics, you should be taking that and doing really well - such a thing is generally crucial when you're evaluated out of context.

    As for whether it is "meant to be aced" or not, that is a bit of a complicated question. You have to realize that a lot of the testing is designed so that you need to have stuff at your fingertips, which is often a result of seeing the same things in different contexts over years. You may be intelligent enough, but I don't think these are the types of thing where cramming helps you too much. So yes, you'd need to aline your strategy to this. It can be harder to do this by yourself, unless you really care about grad school. That's the question right - do you?

    If truly so, and you'll do what is necessary, then sure talk to people about loopholes.
  14. Nov 3, 2011 #13
    I'll put in my two cents regarding admissions (well "three cents"):

    Hoops to jump through/red tape to cut:
    1st penny) The graduate selections committee (aka. department) requirements: they'll be comparing you to a pool of applicants that have gone through a traditional route that generally is accepted as good preparation to the graduate program. In this economy, I think undergrads are hedging their bets a bit by applying to jobs and graduate school (not just jobs even if they'd prefer that).. so I suspect the pool is larger and more difficult. I could be wrong. But admissions committees would generally be looking at you as a risky admission... which probably will not float. Some places are more open to that (in the name of "diversity"), but I know in the committee I was on (in a "top 20" physics grad program like Columbia -- if you take the grad rankings seriously which may or may not be debatable) , it wouldn't have worked (we even refused a candidate that had a reference from a Nobel Laureate at our own institution). Maybe you've got a whiff of own of these programs... but you'd better make connections in that department (like maybe through some research) as you try to prepare yourself to look like an attractive applicant from a "different" background.

    2nd penny) The graduate school admissions requirements: typically require at least a 3.0 to 3.5 in a completed undergraduate major. Even if the department wants you, they'll have to petition the graduate school to make an exception. Red tape... but this keeps a lot of admissions committees just deciding no (in favor of an applicant that already meets the requirement).

    Then how to get through?
    3rd penny) Rock the GRE's (general and subject -- especially the subject to show you can get through the required courses, qualifying exams and/or comprehensive exams), get some research experience (to show you know what grad school is about and can perform the task)... and then you'd better have a connection (and one the department committee cares about). Like I said before, we even refused one of our own Nobel Laureates recommendations (the applicant had done research through his group... but the GRE and traditional undergraduate preparation were quite weak relative to that of accepted applicants, so there were real concerns about the ability to get through core courses).
  15. Nov 3, 2011 #14


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    well i have been wrong before in these discussions, but i think you have a shot. the most important thing is you seem to have the intellectual chops and the desire. the worrisome thing is that you were unable to make through even one year of college. grad school can be far more demeaning and less fun than undergrad, although it can be cheaper, if that was the main thing. but you might as well go for it. what do you have to lose?

    there was a kid I knew that went straight from high school to grad school, but he had been sitting in, taking, and acing, grad courses in math while in high school. for him i thought going straight to grad school for financial reasons was a mistake, since it meant he missed out on the fun of college life.
  16. Nov 3, 2011 #15


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    I simply don't see it happening. You don't have a high school diploma or a college degree. You haven't shown them that you can succeed in classes. You're missing a ton of preparation. You have no research experience or anyone who can testify to your preparation in the field. Columbia is a top program; they'd have no reason at all to take a chance on you when they get hundreds of extremely qualified applicants with the required background they can't take each year. Basically, it seems like you're doing this on a whim. A PhD is 4-8 years of very hard work.
  17. Nov 3, 2011 #16
    The value of a degree is not just the lectures and quality of teaching. It's also about being credited with completing a college degree which would open more opportunities for you, in this case graduate school. How are they going to know you can cope with more boring lectures and harder assignments when you dropped out of both high school and undergrad. You may get in somewhere but I don't think it will be Columbia.
  18. Nov 3, 2011 #17
    For what it's worth, here is my experience. By taking 5 courses per semester and taking summer courses, in 2 years I finished all of the undergraduate math courses at Rutgers U. Then I asked for permission to take graduate courses for undergraduate credit. I was told that I would be allowed, but that I would have to pay the higher price for graduate credits and only be able to apply them to my undergraduate requirement. Then I went to the math department at Temple U and told them what Rutgers had agreed to and asked would they accept me as a graduate student without the undergraduate degree. The answer was that I was to take the GRE along with the specialized Math test (different from the Math test that every GRE applicant has to take). If I got a perfect score they would accept me. I took the test and got an extremely high score, but not perfect. I went back to them and told them what happened. They said nearly perfect is not perfect and anyway, they had no more assistanceships to hand out. I said that it wasn't a problem, I would pay for my courses. They immediately accepted me. Perhaps they were reluctant to accept me and equally reluctant to watch me walk out the door, I don't know. I also had no idea where I was going to get the money from, but as things turned out, I was able to scrape together enough for the first semester and a fellowship opened up in the second semester. On the recommendation of one of my teachers, that fellowship was given to me. My experience in graduate school was not a good one. I had to work twice as hard as the others for the same result because they had stronger backgrounds than me. If I could go back and advise my younger self it would be to get the undergraduate degree first and spend 4 years getting it.
  19. Nov 3, 2011 #18
    I agree.. I mean, what is the rush? We are going to get there eventually. No point in missing out in the college experience and potentially some important material. Its the journey there that counts not the end.

    I'll also be attending Rutgers University. I sent you a message.
  20. Nov 3, 2011 #19


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    The general GRE is trivial to do well on. It's almost expected you're in a top percentile for the Math section and do fairly well on the verbal portion. No one worries about the general. It is the Physics GRE that you have to worry about.

    Why don't you just attend a BS program?? Remember, you're going to be competing against people who have been doing physics for 3-6 years, don't expect to get a high score.

    Even if you get accepted, it sounds like you're going to drop out. Everyone here will agree that those introductory physics courses are always a joke compared to real physics courses. It's usually a matter of finding the right equation and putting numbers together correctly. They don't take more than a few lines most of the time and take a couple hours to complete a homework set. At the upper division level, questions can take a couple of pages with homework sets taking a few days. The graduate level regularly involves homework assignments that can take weeks (I had one take a month) that involve only 6 problems that sometimes take 10 pages.

    If you can't handle the lower-division undergrad, why would you even want to go to grad school since it's orders of magnitude worse in the areas you seem to dislike.
  21. Nov 3, 2011 #20
    [1] that's a tricky one. what exactly is the "college experience"?
    [2] O really? :smile: you have some kind of "aim", "goal", "destination" that you're looking to reach and that's why you're taking the journey in the first place. to rule out that aim, goal, destination would render the journey pointless. One isn't more important than the other
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