Take a 5th year to do more research?

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  • #1
westisabsurd
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Hello Physics Forums!

I'm in a bit of an unorthodox position currently, and I'm open to hearing some advice.

I currently have the option to transfer to a different institution, with a more well respected and larger Physics program. I sorta applied just to see if I could get in, and I did, but I wasn't ever dead set on going. Even though it's considered a "better" more "prestigious" program, If I went, I'd more than likely have to take an extra year to make up for some general education classes that would not transfer over neatly, unless I decide to take a bunch of extra classes per term which would not be fun, and likely to stunt my performance in my core classes. But giving it some good thought, I've been seriously considering attending.

For one, I'm in about to finish my second-year at my current program, but due to early setbacks, I could not get involved in any research until this Summer. I'm from a poor hispanic farmworker community, and like many kids of my background, all I cared about was having fun and causing trouble - I didn't give a damn about my education. I grew out of it, and with some hard work, I made it into a UC for Physics, but I had to more or less force march through my early degree just to be able to graduate in four due to how behind I was. I made it, and I am currently top of my class, and even got into a really competitive REU for the Summer. But despite this, I'm afraid that me missing that extra year is going to hurt my chances at an ideal graduate program. Every successful undergraduate I know that are going to top graduate programs have more than just one year of research under their belt, alongside being a top student. I might have the good grades, the good story, an REU, and maybe even a good PGRE score, but I'm worried I'll get overlooked because I'm only getting started on research this Summer, regardless of all I had to go through to make it this far. What reason would they have to choose me? Why shouldn't I just do an extra year to get some more research in? Why not do it at a better-respected program, especially if I haven't done any actual research here yet?

Secondly, and maybe the best reason. My current school doesn't have a heavy interest in the sort of research I'd actually want to get a PhD in (Quantum Science). We have really only like, one lab, that specializes in quantum, and the Professor is not known to take many (if any) undergraduates. On the other hand, this other school has much stronger quantum research presence with multiple labs with undergrads working in them. That sort of program sounds perfect to me, but again, I'm not entirely sure how much of an effect research related to what I'm applying to will have. I've heard professors say it's more about magnitude, and how good your research was, rather than whether or not it's related to what you want to do in graduate school.

There are pros and cons to going, but I feel like ultimately, going would be the best decision, even if I have to do an extra year. But at the same time, I'm just a naive undergrad that is barely in his twenties, doing the best that I can for my future with the opportunities that have been given to me. I'm first generation, and I'm doing a lot of this stuff on my own. I don't expect my judgement to always be sound, so any advice is greatly appreciated. Thank you for reading.
 
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  • #2
(1) What does your advisor suggest?
(2) What difference would it make for the classes you take next semester?
 
  • #3
Vanadium 50 said:
(1) What does your advisor suggest?
(2) What difference would it make for the classes you take next semester?
(1) My advisor is slow to respond, so I'm not sure yet.
(2) Essentially the same material.
 
  • #4
I agree with V50 that this is a good topic to discus with an academic advisor.

One thing I might say is that if this choice boils down to needing to do an extra year of undergraduate studies for what essentially amounts to the "prestige" of a different school, I wouldn't bother.

It sounds like you're doing great at your current school. You're the top student in your program. You've got research opportunities, even if they're not quite in the sub-field you'd like.

Going to a different school risks perturbing that. Let's say you go to this other school, and now you get bored because you have to retake some general education credits you've already done, don't put in the effort and get lower grades. Or because you're now in a bigger pool and find you're a lot closer to average that you thought and struggle with the emotions of no longer holding the number one spot. Or that research field that you thought you would love turns out to be a lore more boring than you had imagined. Suddenly you're upper years have that prestige attached to them, but only a mediocre performance. I'm not saying any of this will happen necessarily. You could get there and do even better. But it is a risk.

Generally speaking*, when it comes to graduate school admissions, an awesome performance at a decent school beats a mediocre performance at a prestigious school.

On top of that, you'd be trading a year of your life including an additional year of tuition, living expenses, presumably some student loads, and perhaps most importantly a year of earing and investments for when you do eventually enter the workforce. These are tangible, quantifiable losses, compared to a gain in something that is more challenging to define.

*For what it's worth, I'm Canadian, where I don't think the differences between the top and the lower-ranked schools is as extreme as it is in the US.
 
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