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Schools Top School, Low GPA, Good CV -- Grad School for Theoretical Physics?

  • Thread starter Ellegal
  • Start date
Hey Everyone.

So basically I'm having tonnes of anxiety about my future and would like a bit of a reality check on where I stand and what I will be able to achieve. I go to one of the best universities in the US for undergrad Physics, yet my GPA is on the lower side (3.1). This university was historically known for it's grade deflation (should give the school away lol) so maybe that will help?

I'm seriously in love with Theoretical Physics and I have a pretty solid understanding of what specific field of theory I want to go into. By the time I graduate I will have done 3-4 research projects, one of which has a chance of publishing. These projects have all been theory/computation based and so I feel like I will be able to write a really good and convincing personal statement showing off what I love and how I've got a good interest focus. I'm hoping that my rec letters will hold a fair amount of weight, given the professors are really well known in their fields, and maybe I can boost myself with GRE scores. My grades are really scaring me, though. Should I be worried if I intend to try and go to grad school, as I've heard that to go to grad school to do theory you need a seriously competitive GPA (no matter where you apply). I'm not looking to go to Harvard or anywhere of that caliber, I just want to continue my passion.

If grad school is off the table straight out of undergrad, simply because the GPA doesn't hit the mark, in what way can I boost my CV to look more competitive to theory grad programmes? I'm also looking at doing a masters in the UK but it seems they all want 2:1's (~3.3 equivalent), so I feel very lost on where to go after undergrad if not grad school?

Thank you.

EDIT: I'm about to enter my final year so there isn't much chance improving the GPA.
EDIT2: I also come from a poor background and am the first of my family to go to university. I personally hate to play this card but is there a chance that they will take this into consideration when assessing my performance?
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I also come from a poor background and am the first of my family to go to university. I personally hate to play this card but is there a chance that they will take this into consideration when assessing my performance?
I can't comment on the chances of entering a theoretical physics program (I'm an experimentalist), but I can tell you that this may help you. When you are admitted, you may receive a diversity fellowship/scholarship. This will make you a more attractive candidate to research groups because you wouldn't require full funding from the PI. I'm not sure whether it helps your admissions chances, but once you are admitted, it would help your chances of being able to join a theoretical group.

I also played this card although I felt bad about it (also poor and first-gen HS grad), and my current institution gave me a two-year full fellowship for "diversity". As I become more familiar with the background of other grad students, I don't feel bad about playing that card because whether you realize it now or not, we are at a disadvantage because of our background. College is just harder if your parents don't understand what you're going through, and coming from a economically disadvantaged background makes everything harder. This is just my opinion, but no, you should not feel bad about playing that "card".

Dr. Courtney

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A lot will depend on your PGRE scores and recommendation letters. Whether your worse grades are in your physics courses, your math courses, or other courses may also be a factor.

I bet you will get admitted to a PhD program with adequate funding. But you should take the PGRE soon, and get guidance from your research supervisors who are writing your letters of recommendation. Odds are against being a strong candidate for top 25 schools. But they'll be able to tell you your relative odds of admission to schools ranked 25-50, 50-75, and 75-100. I doubt you'll have to apply to schools ranked below 100. Only those writing your recommendation letters know what's in them. Students almost always guess wrong here. Also, with a low GPA, your PGRE score will weigh more heavily.

Different schools factor different "diversity" classifications in different ways. Be frank, but avoid any language that might be interpreted as excuse making. If you come off as making excuses based on some socio-economic factor for poor undergrad GPA, those assessing your application may be concerned you'll make the same excuses for poor graduate performance as well. Check the boxes, but don't causally link socio-economic factors to your mediocre GPA. Instead, describe what you've learned to do differently to assure better performance in the future.

Vanadium 50

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I just want to continue my passion.
If you weren't passionate enough to get better than a 3.1, why do you think passion is going to sustain you through graduate school, which is quite a bit tougher, and where 3.0 is the usual minimum? I think you need a very good answer to this question, and it needs to come across in your application. Lots of students say "I'm passionate", and it doesn't take long for an admissions committee member to figure out that walking the walk is more important than talking the talk.

Research is all well and good, but with a 3.1, the committee is going to be very worried that you won't be able to carry a 3.0 and that you'll end up having to withdraw. It doesn't matter how much potential you show as a researcher if you can't finish the program.


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There is another issue that you need to consider. Even if you are accepted into a grad school, how do you know that you'll make it past the qualifying exam.

You may have "research" experience, but the low GPA implies that you do not have a good grasp of the physics being taught in your courses. These are the very type of questions that you will encounter in your qualifying exams. And fair or not, these do not care what race, religion, nationality, etc. that you possess. In many schools, the 'passing' level is not curved. Either you are able to do it, or you can't.

This is something that I would worry more than getting accepted into a grad school.


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