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Too inept for grad school?

  1. Feb 2, 2006 #1
    So I'm finishing up my 3rd year in a Nanoengineering undergrad, and I'm doing rather badly - only a B average... that's 75%.

    Naturally, I had a dream long ago of Stanford Master/PhD and what not, but since that's something in the 90%s, any top tier grad school is out of my reach. Now I'm wondering whether all grad schools are out of the question. (Well, I do have a philosophy minor in which I've gotten an A- average. Maybe I can get PhD in that :rofl: )

    But anyway, in doing some searching about, I've found quite a number of schools that require 'only' a B average as your minimum, a few even B-, to qualify you for graduate school. Naturally, I'm wondering whether this means that the university/program is so bad I shouldn't even bother.
  2. jcsd
  3. Feb 2, 2006 #2
    You'll need to check the schools grade levels. 75% is closer to a C or C-. Depending on the school it could be very tough to get through.
  4. Feb 2, 2006 #3
    Speaking of which, what do UK universities mean by "second class". Is that in the 80s, or the 70s?
  5. Feb 2, 2006 #4


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    Does the subject matter not interest you all that much? Or are you maybe dividing your time a lot between schoolwork and other things? Why is your performance off? Are there other subjects that you would be a lot more motivated by? Nanoengineering sounds interesting, but if your performance is off because it's turning out to not be all that interesting, then maybe look around some at other fields that might excite you more.

    Also, consider taking a year or two off between undergrad and grad school to work in the field. See if the work is really interesting after all, or if you aren't turned on by it. In addition to helping you decide what to do about grad school, work experience adds value to your application to most grad school. Good luck. -Mike-
  6. Feb 2, 2006 #5
    Oh no, I find it absolutely fascinating. I did some research with a prof over the summer, and very much enjoyed that. I also dedicate pretty much all of my time to school work/study.

    Motivation and work ethic is not the problem. The problem is that I'm just not that intelligent. (What I'm wondering now is if that disqualifies me from grad school.)
  7. Feb 2, 2006 #6


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    > I did some research with a prof over the summer

    Maybe ask that prof for his honest opinions about the quality of your work, and what he thinks you should do about grad school.
  8. Feb 2, 2006 #7
    No way, it's 50s to 70s.
    Anything over a 70 is a first.
  9. Feb 2, 2006 #8
    Typically though on conversion by grad schools (so I read)

    3.6 GPA (US) ~ first (UK)

    3.3 GPA ~ 2.1

    3.0 ~ 2.2

    (although I'm not altogther convinced)

    though a first here comes back as a mark of 70%, and a 2.1 60% etc., you have to be careful going on that.
  10. Feb 2, 2006 #9
    Hmmm, interesting. Is there a thread around here explaining these different grade systems?

    As far as I can tell, most countries accept this:

    4.0 90-100 A+
    4.0 85-89 A
    3.7 80-84 A-
    3.3 77-79 B+
    3.0 73-76 B
    2.7 70-72 B-
    2.3 67-69 C+
    2.0 63-66 C
    1.7 60-62 C-
    1.3 57-59 D+
    1.0 53-56 D-
    0.7 50-52 D-
    0.0 0-49 F
  11. Feb 2, 2006 #10
    The scale used in the US generally correlates 90-100 with A, 80-90 with B, 70-80 with C, 60-70 with D and <60 with F, although the numbers on a four point scale are the same. The pluses and minuses are used at the borders of each grade.
  12. Feb 5, 2006 #11


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    Those percentile rankings are not standard in the US. Not every university uses the same +/- distinctions, but overall, an A is usually 90 - 100, a B 80-89, a C 70-79, a D 60-69, and anything below 60 is failing.

    The university I attended didn't bother with "minuses", we had the following grade scale:
    A 4.0 Distinguished
    B+ 3.5
    B 3.0 Good
    C+ 2.5
    C 2.0 Satisfactory
    D 1.0 Poor
    F 0.0 Failing
    Basically, if you were getting anything less than a C, they didn't bother breaking it down much.

    Graduate schools look at grades in a few different ways though, so it's worth looking at how your GPA breaks down accordingly. They do look at the overall score, but will also look specifically at your major GPA, so if you're one of those people who is excellent in all your engineering courses, but your GPA was pulled down by some really low grades in some of your general education requirements, such as foreign languages or anthropology or whatever courses you took unrelated to your major, then they might be willing to admit you based on your knowledge of the subject material relevant for grad school. Also, if you struggled in your Freshman year while adjusting to college, or because you were involved in too many extra-curricular activities at some point, but were able to pull up your grades once you adjusted and learned to manage your time better, then again, they may write-off a bad semester. If you're consistently struggling with the courses for your major, though, unless that letter of reference from your summer research mentor is absolutely outstanding, it's going to be tough. You might consider trying to get into a master's program instead, which is less of a committment from you and the school, to find out if you can handle graduate level work. If you do well in that, it will outweigh a poor undergraduate record. As others have suggested, you can also consider working in the field for a few years, and see if real life experience helps. If you really are motivated to get into grad school, a good job to start with is working as a research technician in a university lab. The pay will be low because you're not coming in with much experience, but you'll see what goes on day-to-day in a lab, and if you indicate you're interested in continuing on to grad school, you might find the person you work for will assign you more meaningful tasks/projects once you've acquired the competence to handle them, and if you do well with those sorts of things, a letter of reference from that person will really offer a lot of weight to your application. Or, as you acquire experience as a technician, you might decide you really don't want to go to grad school and are content with just doing the bench work.
  13. Feb 5, 2006 #12
    Thanks, that's solid advice.

    As a specific question, when an employer looks at an advanced degree (say, a Master's), is lesser known school's degree still a good degree? I'm not going into academia as a career; but I will proabably need an advanced degree for a research career in nano. So I'd like to make sure that I bother with another 2 years for a Master's, in say, Europe or New Zealand or something, that I don't end up with something that's not very worthwhile.

    I figure that as long as it's a recognized university that does conduct graduate-level research that's relevant to my field of study (say, nanostructured materials research) then I'm good. Obviously, a Stanford University Master's student will be in a better position than a University of Auckland Master's student, but at the end of the day, a Master's is still a Master's, right?
  14. Feb 5, 2006 #13
    Also, regarding basic minimum GPA's. Looking around this website to orient myself, I found that UofT's a fairly good university, 24th in the world.

    Now, it requires A- or B+ average for entrance. That's by UofT's ranking system, meaning around 80%. So does that mean that other comparable universities in the US (assuming they have the same standards of ~80%) will require a B- or C+ average for entrance? Since that would be equivalent translation...

    Looking at GPAs doesn't seem to solve this problem anymore than the A/B/C.. system does, since what you specified to a 2.5, UofT would count as a 3.3. I'm bloody confused.


    Perfect example here, at Virginia Commonwealth University:
    2.7/4.0 GPA? I'm guessing that's on a different scale than my GPA, since at UofT my 75% is a 3.1/4.0. According to what you said, Moonbear, my 75% would be a 2.0/4.0?

    And at Rice University (78th ranked), it requires ~85% (http://rgs.rice.edu/Grad/Admissions/requirements.cfm) compared to Univ. of Toronto's (24th ranked) general admissions requirement of ~75% (http://www.sgs.utoronto.ca/SGSGuide/SGSGuide2006-2007/Admission Requirements.pdf)? Something's odd here.
    Last edited: Feb 5, 2006
  15. Feb 6, 2006 #14
    That website doesn't seem indicative of much

    for example most people would tell you that the university of waterloo is the #1 science and engineering school in Canada (macleans ranked it #1 all-around in canada)

    but that list has it at like #270, below McMaster, McGill, UofT, UofA, UBC, Queens, UofC, U of montreal, Dalhousie, Guelph, manitoba, saskatchewan, ottawa and victoria

  16. Feb 6, 2006 #15


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    At least in Electrical Engineering (where the bulk of my experience is), the school name doesn't carry that much weight, unless it is one of the top 5 schools or something. And even then, it just adds a little bit of interest on my part to my pre-interview reading of the candidate's resume. At all of the companies where I have worked, we give detailed technical interviews to the candidates for our R&D Lab positions, and we look for specific knowledge and skills. The resume is really just a starting point -- it may help you to get an interview, but it's all up to you from there on out. We test how familiar you are with the relevant subject matter, and we look at what kind of work and other experience you have. I like it when a candidate brings along a technical project or product that they have worked on, and we can talk through the design in detail. After all, if the candidate worked on it, they darned well better know it inside and out.

    So I guess one piece of advice that I would give you is to base your decision on what school to go to on what kind of work you will be doing there, and how well that will prepare you for the final work that you want to do. For example, if school X has a mostly theoretical program with little lab or project work, and not very inspired and productive faculty, then I would shy away from them. If on the other hand school Y has a very practical approach to the subject, with faculty that produce real-world research and development work, and the school has a good lab facility for building your nanostructure projects or whatever, then I'd choose to go to that school, and work hard at getting involved in complex projects there. Good luck!
    Last edited: Feb 6, 2006
  17. Feb 6, 2006 #16


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    I agree with berkeman's advice. What's important is that you are doing research relevant to your interests. You want to find a productive research lab (it's not really important if the rest of the faculty are productive or not, as long as the lab you're in is) in your area of interest. Look at the track record of other students coming out of that lab. Where do they go from there? Do they all drop off the face of the earth, or get competitive post-doc positions, get jobs at good companies...basically, are they able to do what they set out to do? Do they feel their mentor is accessible, or is he/she always off doing something else and they're struggling on their own or with only post-docs to guide them? Are the students and/or recent graduates publishing in decent journals? If you do a master's degree, you'll want to aim to get at least one publication out of it. If you do a PhD, you'll want to aim for at least 3 first-author, primary research publications to be competitive...and the more the better. People choose to work at various universities for many reasons, so you can get some real top-notch researchers at a second-rate school. The rankings look at overall ratings, research funding, etc, but it doesn't tell you much about the individuals. As an example, I've worked in three of the top labs in my field, none of them are in those top-tier universities. Ivy League schools simply don't have the facilities I would need, so I wouldn't apply for a position at any of them either. The university I formerly worked at had a second-tier program for Neuroscience, because it was fairly new and hadn't yet established a track-record. It was on the rise becasue we finally got accreditation to be a degree-granting unit (previously, students got their degrees from other departments, but we offered them access to an interdisciplinary faculty and curriculum), but it still made it easy for places like Yale to snatch up our best applicants because we didn't have the same reputation built up. Nonetheless, we had a number of excellent faculty who were well-known in their fields, brought in enormous amounts of grant funding, had a long-established track record of success with students in their labs, and if your interest meshed with theirs, you were going to get an educational and research experience on par with the top-ranked programs.

    In addition to facilities, there are other reasons faculty will choose a lesser ranked school to work...1) availability of positions at the time they are looking for one - you don't just walk up to Harvard and ask for a job, they have to have a position open for you to even apply, and if that doesn't happen when you're looking, you're not going to be working there, 2) personal preference of geographical location - some people don't want to live in a big, crowded city, and would prefer to work at an institution in the middle of nowhere, 3) family obligations - when people are married and both spouses are trying to find a job, the location with opportunities for both partners will often get chosen of the location with an excellent opportunity for only one of them, 4) cost of living - salaries in academics don't really vary that much from institution to institution, but the cost of living in the area does, so even if Harvard pays a little higher salaries than some state university in the middle of nowhere, you can buy a lot more house/property with that money in the middle of nowhere, or accumulate more savings, etc., 5) attitude - there's a lot more back-stabbing type competition at some of those top institutions, where collegiality just isn't what I'd like it to be; there are plenty of people like me who just don't want to work in an environment like that when we can do so much more with friendly, collaborative colleagues.

    So, just because someone works at a "second-tier" institution, don't dismiss the quality of research. Just be careful not to choose one of the unfunded or poorly funded labs that is dragging the reputation down. Funding is awarded to those who prove they have good productivity on good ideas, so if a lab is well-funded, no matter where it is, it's a sign that it's a good lab.
  18. Feb 6, 2006 #17
    Nanoengineering sounds very interesting, and it sounds as though you're extremely interested in it, and that you really enjoy it as well. It also sounds like you have a strong work ethic and do indeed work very hard. You should keep up your hard work, but I definitely don't think you should believe that you're "not that intelligent". :confused: Besides that; even if a person has an average IQ it's important to remember that high intelligence doesn't always equal school with no trouble and perfect grades, and average intelligence doesn't always equal the impossibility of getting perfect or near perfect grades. I have to say, I don't know anything about nanoengineering, but I have a pretty good odea what it is, and it doesn't seem like the kind of major that someone who is "not that intelligent" could do.

    I have a genius level IQ; I went to school originally for fine arts, and there were times that I had quite a bit of trouble in some of my classes; especially Philosophy. So you see it's not always intelligence that is the problem. Keep in mind; even Einstein had trouble in school! :eek:

    Have you considered some serious tutoring? Also, not everyone learns the same way; some people need to hear what they're learning, some need to read, and some need to write it down for themselves, etc... A friend of mine is actually doing research about this for school, and sometimes when a person isn't getting the grades they want, or someone doesn't fully grasp what they're learning it's because of how the information is presented. A tutor may really be able to help you because it's one on one, you can ask questions and get immediate answers, and they can present the information to you in the method that is most effective for your learning style.

    I myself have learned that you have to try to model your studying to your learning style. For me personally; professors can lecture and write notes and outlines, and I'll comprehend and retain a good amount of the information, but writing it down myself gives me complete understanding and fully cements the information into my mind, this way I can pretty much master the information.

    You should also try to evaluate where your grades are slipping, is it in projects, lab, homework, or are you losing it on tests? Also evaluate why your grades aren't where you want them, is it that you aren't fully comprehending what you're learning, or is it that you aren't retaining the information. Depending an what the answers are to these questions should make a differnce of how you go about tackling this problem.

    I don't think you should give up on your dream though and resign yourself to believing that you can't achieve more. It may even be useful to spend an extra year as an undergraduate before you move on. It's a cliche, and a simple statement, but if you tell yourself "you aren't that intelligent" or decide you can't do better you won't! It's silly, but it's like that childrens book; "the Little Engine That Could". Don't defeat yourself! :smile:
  19. Feb 6, 2006 #18
    berkeman and Moonbear, excellent advice - really appreciate it. I guess a very strong part of what you're saying is go for the prof/group that matches your interests, and make sure that they're well-funded and competent. What are some ways of evaluating a lab's funding/competency? I guess some are:
    - # published papers, and where they were published
    - number of people this prof/group is able to attract
    - industrial connections
    - equipment list
    - funding, period, but I guess no labs show this on their website...

    Any other ideas? (I guess I can also ask some professors around here who they judge to have the top groups in nanostructured materials/composites research.)

    Aridea, I was a bit blunt, and perhaps misleading. I don't mean "not that intelligent" in any objective sense; it's a relative judgement. There's thousands of top-tier researchers out there who go on to be university professors and whatnot, and I'm not one of them. Thus, relatively to the best in the field, I'm "not that intelligent". I know enough about myself to realize and accept this - I won no particular jackpot in the genetic lottery.

    That doesn't mean I'm permanently depressed or insecure about my position. I realize that doing decently well in a physics/math-intensive program is nothing to be casually dismissed; I'm certainly pleased that I've been able to come as far as I have. And furthermore, even non-genius people can go on to very rewarding careers in research and/or engineering... and luck always plays a big part in discoveries as well. So do other qualities like motivation, communication skills, business acumen, etc.

    In short, my claim of being "not that intelligent" was said in the specific context of top-tier graduate school admissions. The normal, other contexts have me being as quietly confident... well, as quietly confident as any intellectually curious and competent human being has a right to be :smile:
    Last edited: Feb 6, 2006
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