• Support PF! Buy your school textbooks, materials and every day products via PF Here!

Schools Taking a Fifth Year as an Undergrad in Physics Before Applying to Grad School?

Hi there. I'm currently in my senior year for my physics degree. I was wondering whether it would be wiser to finish up my undergrad this year, or if I'd be better off taking a fifth year to complete it. My university does not grade with + or -, so a low B is represented exactly the same as a high B: as a B.
I already talked to my counselor but would like to get some other opinions from some other people in the physics community. I apologize in advance for the length of this post.

Here is my prior performance history:
My physics major GPA is currently in the low 3.0s (~3.0 to 3.2).

In my first two years in my intro courses I often found myself earning low Bs. I received a low C in my intro QM class and upper division mechanics class in my sophomore year. We are required to take coding classes, which I earned As in.

However lately, in my junior year, I revised my study habits and received a couple of As (most notably in my required upper division QM classes).But I also simultaneously received a high C in the sequel (senior) mechanics class. My Bs from this period are all high Bs (represented on the transcript as simply Bs).

Research: I've been doing undergraduate research with one person for the past two semesters and will soon have a paper to show for it.

I have noticed myself improving and concepts and procedures became much clearer in my Junior year. I participate in class a lot more now and ask questions during and after lecture. I think I may be able to get some good recommendation letters as well.

My plan, if I take a fifth year, is to take more physics electives and a couple of applied math classes, and get more varied research done during this year instead of focusing in the subject GRE (which I feel I am not ready for) and grad school applications. I think this would allow me to soak in more knowledge before applying so that when I do enter grad school, I can spend more time on research and have an easier time with classes. I am pretty sure I can handle it financially. In addition, this year I am taking more quantum mechanics-based electives and a core EM class which I am hoping will demonstrate my strength in that area. I am also currently working on taking proofs-based and applied math classes in this year, my senior year.

My goal is to get into a good theoretical particle physics program and receive good funding, but I fear that will be much tougher due to my many Bs and the two Cs in mechanics (as well as their secondary effects on my GPA).
So my question is, do any of you out there (possibly with experience in a graduate admissions) think it is smarter to take a fifth year or finish on my fourth? And as it stands, how strong would my application be to a grad admissions committee?
 

DrSteve

Gold Member
212
53
It's good to hear that physics is becoming conceptually easier for you and that your overall trajectory is upward (as they say). Still, it's going to be very difficult if not impossible to get into a good theoretical particle physics program with your GPA. Further, it's unrealistic to think your grades in a hypothetical fifth year would be good enough to raise your GPA appreciably. One compelling reason to take a fifth year would be if you were engaged and performing well in high quality physics research. This would tend to offset your low GPA and perhaps net you a strong letter of recommendation.

A more viable option might be to apply to a mid-tiered MS program. A strong performance there would significantly enhance your prospects for a gaining admissions to a good theoretical particle physics program.
 
Hi DrSteve, thanks for your input! It's very helpful.
I hadn't yet considered going the MS route.
 

Dr Transport

Science Advisor
Gold Member
2,224
390
During that 5th year, take a course or two that are writing intensive (not a lab course, but a literature or history courses or even a technical writing course), I was advised by one of my advanced lab professors to go and do that and I have been kicking myself ever since.
 
During that 5th year, take a course or two that are writing intensive (not a lab course, but a literature or history courses or even a technical writing course), I was advised by one of my advanced lab professors to go and do that and I have been kicking myself ever since.
That's an interesting suggestion. Is this meant to demonstrate writing ability and language fluency so that they know you can write a good paper when it comes time to publish? I'm curious about the context.
I took a literature analysis course over this summer as a gen ed and received an A in it. Would that do the trick?
 

Choppy

Science Advisor
Education Advisor
Insights Author
4,499
1,589
Is it possible for you to apply to the graduate programs that you're interested in this year and then, if you don't get in, stick out undergrad for another year?

For what it's worth I don't think doing a fifth year won't look bad at all. The major cons are the obvious ones - paying for another year of school and maybe sticking around as an undergrad while your friends move on. But if that's what you need to do in order to reach your goals, then the cons are outweighed. The other advantages are that it might expose you to more areas of study and put you in a better position to decide on what you want to study as an undergraduate.
 
1,001
299
Is it possible for you to apply to the graduate programs that you're interested in this year and then, if you don't get in, stick out undergrad for another year?
To the OP: Keep in mind that the required deadline to apply for graduation may be before you'd hear back about graduate programs.
 

Dr Transport

Science Advisor
Gold Member
2,224
390
That's an interesting suggestion. Is this meant to demonstrate writing ability and language fluency so that they know you can write a good paper when it comes time to publish? I'm curious about the context.
I took a literature analysis course over this summer as a gen ed and received an A in it. Would that do the trick?

The more you write, the better you'll write..... As a physicist, I ignored that part of my education and it shows, unless I write regularly, I don't write well at all, the flow isn't there tying paragraphs and sections together coherently. Sure a lit analysis course is good, but writing 10-20 pages a week for a reading intensive course like a history or literature course is even better. My kid accidentally took three writing intensive general education courses while working on his engineering degree, they only helped him. A former co-worker had to take two semesters of technical writing for his Engineering Management MBA, so seriously, it is important to write well.
 
@Choppy: that's an idea, but it looks like the graduation application deadline comes before expected reply dates. Thanks for the reply regardless. You've given me some more things to think about.
@Dr Transport: Ah, okay. Sounds like good advice! I'll seriously consider it.
 

Student100

Education Advisor
Gold Member
1,646
416
It's good to hear that physics is becoming conceptually easier for you and that your overall trajectory is upward (as they say). Still, it's going to be very difficult if not impossible to get into a good theoretical particle physics program with your GPA. Further, it's unrealistic to think your grades in a hypothetical fifth year would be good enough to raise your GPA appreciably. One compelling reason to take a fifth year would be if you were engaged and performing well in high quality physics research. This would tend to offset your low GPA and perhaps net you a strong letter of recommendation.
A 3.0~3.2 is a respectable GPA at some universities, and abysmal at others. I don't know if admission committees look at this sort of thing, but they should.

I'm assuming your overall GPA is higher, you'd probably be able to get into a decent program if the rest of your application is strong. I.e. strong letters from your professors, decent undergrad research experience, good test scores.

If you do (can do) a fifth year, I would personally work on the above. Make sure your professors know you, and more importantly your potential, take the PGRE as soon and as much as possible, get more research experience, and take whatever graduate level courses you have time for and are offered.

A more viable option might be to apply to a mid-tiered MS program. A strong performance there would significantly enhance your prospects for a gaining admissions to a good theoretical particle physics program.
Hi DrSteve, thanks for your input! It's very helpful.

I hadn't yet considered going the MS route.

This isn't really all that viable in the US, I've only ever seen a handful of schools that offer terminal master degrees in physics. If you can get into a program worth going to, it's likely you could have also gotten into another Ph.D. graduate program.
 

DrSteve

Gold Member
212
53
This isn't really all that viable in the US, I've only ever seen a handful of schools that offer terminal master degrees in physics.
There are sufficient applied and traditional MS programs in the US to make this a viable option. The most painless option to earn one at the OP's institution.
 

Student100

Education Advisor
Gold Member
1,646
416
There are sufficient applied and traditional MS programs in the US to make this a viable option. The most painless option to earn one at the OP's institution.
I haven't seen many, examples from real universities?

If they offer one, many do not.
 

DrSteve

Gold Member
212
53
A quick web search should convince you of the viability. To give you just one example, consider the MS program at SFSU.
 

Student100

Education Advisor
Gold Member
1,646
416
A quick web search should convince you of the viability. To give you just one example, consider the MS program at SFSU.
A quick web search actually pops up more results that are counter to the notion they're prolific. The closest hit on the first page I would consider viable is: http://physics.uchicago.edu/prospective/graduate/physics_bridge.shtml [Broken], even though it isn't technically a masters degree.

The SFSU example is buried in the results, I'm assuming you're a professor there? Looking at the requirements for the program, (GPA, LOR, etc.) they're basically the same as for applying to a Ph.D. program. So assuming the OP can get in there, why couldn't he get into a program from the start?

The majority of physics students probably don't have 4.0 GPA, unless they went to Harvard. I just don't see the fatal flaw of a 3.2.
 
Last edited by a moderator:
121
3
If your goal is to just get into grad school so you can get started, which it sounds like, than I would recommend forgetting the fifth year. Consider going to a lower ranked school than you did your undergraduate so you can have easier time getting in. If your goal is to get a job and not stay in academia all your life. I got into grad school with about a 2.845 undergraduate! yikes but I also worked 30-40 hours a week all my undergraduate life and that was part of the assessment I think. I'm taking one graduate class at a time while working a degree related job full time and it's not to stress full honestly. I put work first though. You can always transfer later if you want to. Don't forget GPA does not equal an ability to actually become a assets to a company who can profit from the work you do. Answering problems that already have answers with information you need to solve the problem in a nice to easy understand matter is a lot different than answering questions that don't already have answers, have an infinite amount of possible answers, and you have to do hours and hours of research to find the information you need to even get started coming up with a possible solution.

Bottom line is some school out there will gladly take your money from you of course! and let you into their program. It may be a risk but just like all business they need money lol.

Bottom line GPA does not equal job. And some school will gladly take your money lol!

If you want to stay in academia than maybe take the fifth year.

IDK my two thoughts.
 

Want to reply to this thread?

"Taking a Fifth Year as an Undergrad in Physics Before Applying to Grad School?" You must log in or register to reply here.

Related Threads for: Taking a Fifth Year as an Undergrad in Physics Before Applying to Grad School?

Physics Forums Values

We Value Quality
• Topics based on mainstream science
• Proper English grammar and spelling
We Value Civility
• Positive and compassionate attitudes
• Patience while debating
We Value Productivity
• Disciplined to remain on-topic
• Recognition of own weaknesses
• Solo and co-op problem solving
Top