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Truly Needing Academic Guidance to Prep for Grad School!

  1. May 26, 2012 #1
    Hello all,

    This is very long and I apologize! I tend to be somewhat thorough, haha. I have a couple of things that have been weighing on my mind that I hope someone may have some insight on. Mainly, I am concerned with my preparation for grad school. Specifically I am worried about my courses, research, and the PGRE. First, I think it would be helpful to give a little background information so that any advice and/or perspectives can be most applicable.

    After several years of community college working on my General Studies AS degree, I have been accepted to a university in Virginia (VCU) with the prospect of attaining a BS in Physics. The freedom of my degree at the community college allowed me to complete every gen ed course required by the university so that all I have left to complete are physics and math courses to get the BS. In fact, I was able to complete University Physics I and II, Calc I, II, and III, and Differential Equations. I scored high A’s in all of the courses, with the exception of a B in Physics I. It was actually one out of only two B’s that I received in all of the 70+ credits. The B in Physics was definitely a fluke, so don’t let it weigh too heavily on any advice! :P I consider myself a well-rounded student with interests and completed courses in Accounting, Economics, American History, Logic, Spanish, Composition, Literature, and even Public Speaking. I’m finishing up with a little over 3.9 GPA. Yes, I know, it was at a community college. But all I have left are physics and math courses! And I trust that we all agree that you do best at what you’re passionate about, what gets you enthusiastic, and what you have some talent in, so I’m not too worried about what my performance at the university will be like. Also, it may be important to know that I am happily married and a father to two boys, 3 and almost 18 months. I’m self-employed and we are fortunate enough that my wife gets to stay home with our boys; she’s also in school and almost done with her degree in Early Childhood Development at the community college. We don’t have much help or support as far as grandparents or other relatives, so we work hard to make do. I do have my wife’s support and some flexibility in my work schedule, which gives me faith that I will be able to complete my last two years of undergraduate study with not much more difficulty than I’ve encountered to date. Now, on to the issues. I’ll number them to make it easier on anyone who I am lucky enough to receive a response from.

    1) Since I’m coming in as a junior with not too many courses left on the Physics BS required courses list, I have to take extra classes to fulfill the minimum 45 upper-level credits requirement. The advisor of the Physics Dept spent some time with me and informed me that if I use upper-level math courses to meet the requirement then I will actually have enough math courses to double major in Physics and Mathematical Sciences. That’s awesome, especially since I know that some of those upper-level math courses will come in handy in many of the graduate level physics courses. All I need for the Physics BS as far as math classes (not including what I’ve already completed, of course) is one elective, which I was going to fulfill with Linear Algebra this fall. To attain the double major I’ll complete courses such as Mathematical Modeling, Concepts of Statistics, Intro to Computational Mathematics, Intro to Mathematical Reasoning, Bridge to Modern Analysis, Numerical Analysis, and Mathematical Expositions. Some of these are even more basic than classes I’ve already completed, but I don’t seem to have much wiggle room by the time I take the required core classes and take the courses that actually seem to be offered (and not just in the college catalog). Would these courses be helpful? Would the double major be helpful? Make me more marketable? More successful on the PGRE? More useful in doing research? I know there are other math courses that I have heard are more helpful (ie Topography), but they don’t seem to be offered very often, or at all in some cases. This leads me to my next question.

    2) The only physics courses it looks like I’ll be taking on the way to the Physics BS are Visualization of Physics Using Mathematics (I think it’s pretty much a semester of Matematica), Modern, Classical Mechanics, Electromagnetism, Quantum I, and Stat Mech and Thermo. Of course I also have Senior Physics Lab and the senior Seminar to Conceptual Physics, and I will be TAing for University Physics I and II and also doing at least a semester of Directed Study (research). But that’s it! And it’s my understanding that Modern isn’t even very in-depth. So, it sounds as if there is little if any Quantum Mechanics, Condensed Matter, Particle, Nuclear, Atomic, Special Relativity, Astrophysics, etc in my core courses. Should I be extremely worried about the PGRE? There is no graduate physics program at my school and apparently the physics department in some ways is “propped up” by the engineering school. I didn’t realize this until just yesterday (the latter part) and have been slowly freaking out, haha. I’m going to this school because they have active research, which could give me ample opportunity to get involved, and the location of the school allows me to commute there, although it is about an hour and a half away (not including traffic). My family and I live in a house with a yard and plenty of privacy, and we didn’t want to up and leave to move to another college only to have to move again when grad school comes along in two years. My advisor informed me that I may have to just start studying for the PGRE now and self-teach myself any topics that may not be covered as thoroughly as a physics grad student would need them to be. Ouch. I have to take the test by next November and definitely want to do as well as humanly possible, so I’m going to follow his advice. But should I be freaked out?? Or better yet, what can I do to best prepare myself for the exam? I’m not as worried about the GPA, but I’m also worried about getting research opportunities in fields that I may want to pursue, especially since my school so heavily focuses on engineering. They also have graduate degrees available in Chemical Physics, Medical Physics, and Nanoscience, so there are some possible opportunities there, as well. But nothing really dealing with High Energy, Particle, or Quantum Field. Bah.

    3) Lastly, I haven’t taken Chemistry yet in college and was planning on taking I and II over the summer next year since it is offered in a 10-week session. Might be a somewhat heavy load, but the work should be easy enough. However, doesn’t that blow any opportunity to get an REU before submitting grad school applications? Will a little research at my university be enough? It doesn’t seem like it. I guess I had understood that the undergraduate school didn’t matter as much as the graduate school, so I made the decision to do what I thought would be best. And now in the last 24 hours my perception has really started to morph. Could I have screwed myself and any chances at getting into an excellent grad school? Or is there some way I can fix all of this and get into an excellent school if my passion and talent warrants it? My eventual goal is to work at a research university or a national research lab, on the front lines, getting my hands dirty :D , but don’t worry.. I’m not going into it for the money! Haha. I just really love the subject, I love math, and I ecstatic about doing something that I truly enjoy for the rest of my life – and getting paid for it!

    I hope there’s someone out there who takes the time to read this monstrosity and has something helpful to offer. Thank you in advance!
  2. jcsd
  3. May 26, 2012 #2
    Personally, I'd focus on trying to get a good score on the Physics PGRE, which means focusing on testing taking skills and trying to as much hard math as possible. The reason that the PGRE's are important is that since you are a non-traditional student, the PGRE's allow the admissions committees to calibrate your physics ability.

    Also it would be a good idea to set up your schedule so that you can take the test multiple times so that if you mess up once you can go it again.

    The other thing is that do whatever gets you a good score on tests. If you get good scores by freaking out, then freak out. If freaking out causes to you get bad scores on tests, then don't freak out. :-) :-) :-)
  4. May 26, 2012 #3

    I don't think you need to freak out quite so much. It sounds like you are on the right track and that you are making the best decisions for you and your family so far. If it makes you feel any better my path to physics graduate school was somewhat similar (although I am not married or have two kids) and everything has worked out well for me so far.

    In my response to each of your questions.

    1.) Since you need to take the extra advanced classes, mathematics courses are probably the best choice based off the information you have provided. Mathematical Modeling, Computational Mathematics, Statistics and Numerical Analysis will all prove useful, especially if you want to go into experimental physics.

    2.) How many semesters of E+M and Quantum will you have? Ideally, you will have 2 semesters of each but if you don't it is not the end of the world. I know several graduate students who only have had one of each and have been successful in graduate school. Besides, from what I remember of the physics GRE, most of the questions on E+M and Quantum could be answered using stuff I learned in my freshman/sophomore classes and the first semester of junior/senior E+M and Quantum.

    It sounds like you are planning to take the physics GRE in November 2013? Do you know what physics classes you will have taken or will be taking by then? My recommendation would be that, after your junior year, you sit down and go through one of the physics GRE practice exams out there and try to determine what subjects you need more practice on. This way, you fan focus your studying over the next 5/6 months on these areas. Also, make sure you actually sit down and take at least some of the practice exams under "real" conditions so you can gain practice answering 100 multiple choice questions in a few hours.

    3.) I didn't have any REU's and only about 6 months of research experience at my university when I applied to graduate school and I ended up getting into a pretty good physics program.

    Hope this helps you to feel better. I think you are in great shape so far. Just try to do well in your upper level courses and do as well on the PGRE as possible.
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