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Take a year off to study for PGRE?

  1. Oct 4, 2008 #1
    Let's say, hypothetically speaking, that a reasonably good student (GPA > 3.7 in math, physics, a couple publications and research experience in both solid state and theory) expects (from '96, '01 practice test scores) to do quite terribly on the physics GRE (like ~600), but wants to go to a second-tier school.

    Is it better to cancel the test altogether, take a whole year off following graduation, study exclusively for the PGRE, do well and then apply to graduate schools?

    Or, better to stay at the same institution and complete a 1-year master's degree in math or physics and then apply?

    And if the student takes the test and it does go as badly as imagined, should they still take a year off to study and retake it (as in, does the first failure followed by a year off look bad)?

    Or see if the bad score will get them in "somewhere" and go "somewhere" even if the "somewhere" is not a highly ranked program?

    This is all assuming the score is so bad that the student is rejected from all second tier schools.
  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 4, 2008 #2


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    An undergrad with publications? I'd say you're ahead of the curve anyway. While sometimes taking a year off can be good to give you a taste of life after school, I'm not sure it would be with your time to do it for the sole purpose of studying for the GRE. For one, there's no guarantee that you would do that much better with an extra year.

    As for going "somewhere" I think what's important is that you embark on a project that you're insterested in and passionate about and that you find a decent mentor who you can learn from. Going to a "top tier" school can have some advantages, but personally I think it's over rated.
  4. Oct 5, 2008 #3
    You don't need an extra year, only a few months. This is a cram test first and foremost. You snatch all 4 previous GRE's floating around and memorize the answers and the tricks to getting those answers.

    One thing you do NOT do on the physics GRE's is physics. If you study your Griffiths or Kittel or whatever, you will FAIL the GRE's, because you will be in physics mode and try to actually solve problems and do it mathematically with rigor. That's a sure fire way to fail. You need to know instantly what is going on in the problem and intuitively arrive at the answer. You have 180 minutes for 100 problems. You just don't have the time to do anything else.
  5. Oct 5, 2008 #4
    The physics GRE is important because in a lot of respects it's the one metric that doesn't change between schools. I don't know your instructors, and I don't know what your 3.7 GPA means; all I know is that you did such-and-such compared to so-and-so sampling of students on the PGRE.

    Now, after that? Crapshoot. Do any of your advisors know people at schools you want to go to? Is there anyone at these schools that you think would have read any of your papers? These are the things that will actually set you apart.

    I think taking a year off and not getting great research or relevant work experience will actually look kind of bad on an application. Especially if after that year you don't completely ace the test. My GRE score wasn't great (730) and I got rejected from a couple places I thought I was competitive for (and a few I knew I wasn't!) but I think if I'd taken a year off I'd actually have been worse off.

    I think the getting in "somewhere" route is okay if you get in somewhere that you're comfortable going. There is a pedigree effect, and if you think you're going to get a faculty job with a Ph.D. from Idaho, you're going to have to work a lot harder than the kid who got into Princeton. If you don't get in anywhere that gives you a realistic shot at your career goals (of course, Idaho Ph.D.s don't go unemployed, and they spent their Ph.D. years in a much better winter sports scene) then I think sticking around for a masters seems to be a good path.
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