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Undergraduate Research with poor grades

  1. Jan 8, 2012 #1

    I understand marks are important because, when the time comes to chose between applicants, GPAs are a quick tool to narrow the list. Additionally, to any credible scientist, simply claiming ability isn't enough - you need to provide some evidence.

    Indeed, unfortunately for me, my grades are not representative of my knowledge. For quite some time now I have been reading graduate texts on Quantum Field Theory and the like, and, in my spare time, I write old practice exams (e.g. http://www.maths.cam.ac.uk/postgrad/mathiii/pastpapers/), and do quite well on them (upwards of 95%). Where school is concerned, however, I only have a 3.03 cGPA.

    So, in short, my question is this: how can I properly demonstrate, when asking professors for employment, that I am a capable researcher?
  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 8, 2012 #2
    Well, we don't know your professors, so your best bet is to just ask them. Make sure you question yourself on why it is that that your grades aren't stellar and why they should consider you for research? Surely anyone that can work through those exams has a good handle on undergraduate material, so I'm confused a little by what you say.
  4. Jan 8, 2012 #3
    Perhaps some more background is needed: I am in a second year engineering program. Most of my marks lie in the low eighty-high seventy region, but I have two fifties in courses unrelated to physics (one was an Engineering Policy course, the other was about Digital Circuits). Except for the two courses just mentioned, I am above average in all my classes.

    From experience, my poor performance is due to: 1) Skipping too much class/lack of practice, and 2) Neglecting to complete assignments / submit them on time. Previously, this was due to a lack of interest in the material, as I just decided to read about physics instead, or party.

    I know it was irresponsible, and I hope to change my game this semester. Fortunately for me, it will be easier for me to get 95+ in the courses I will be taking, as they are more relevant to the things I have been studying.

    Note that I have done some volunteer research with a professor in first year. My ambition this year is to get paid.
  5. Jan 8, 2012 #4
    Stop skipping class and stop neglecting to do your assignments. I don't think your professors are going to care as much about what you know as they do how much you are willing to put in effort. To show you are a capable researcher, start going to class and start doing your work regardless of its interest to you. You will have uninteresting tasks in research (i.e. grunt work), this doesn't mean you should neglect that.
  6. Jan 8, 2012 #5


    Staff: Mentor

    I think,you need to talk to all to them because the skipping class because you're bored will lead them to think that you do the same on their research hitch means they will be delayed in publishing...

    Perhaps the prof you worked for before could help you convince the others.
  7. Jan 8, 2012 #6


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    I don't think you have too much to worry about. Talk to your professors and tell them you're interested in a research position. It is fairly common for GPA to come up when professors are looking for students, but it's not like you're applying to graduate school.

    The only way to really demonstrate that you're a capable researcher is to hand them a list of your publications. Seeing as how you're a student, it's unlikely that you have such a thing and any professor looking to hire you is not going to expect you to have any experience.

    It's surprising how often the selection criteria comes down to which student is keen enough to come to the office and inquire about a position.
  8. Jan 9, 2012 #7
    Really, Choppy? That is so relieving!

    But, to be perfectly clear, I am definitely cleaning up my act. Not only am I extremely passionate about physics, but I do have a sophisticated store of mathematical knowledge.

    Still, suppose I want to go work with a different professor. Is it acceptable to drop by during office hours, and inquire about their work?

    Last year, all the professors I emailed rejected me. It was only when I snuck into some graduate courses that the professor paid attention to me.
  9. Jan 9, 2012 #8
    But that brings up another question. When talking to the professor, I do not feel I represented myself as well as I could-indeed, he made me feel very nervous. I believe he got the impression that, while I certainly an above average first year, I was not yet Masters level.

    As an example, he wanted me to precisely define what I meant when I talked about the "Equivalence Principle." I tried describing it physically, as, in a local reference frame, the effects of gravity and an acceleration were indistinguishable. However, he was looking for a more mathematical answer (in terms of the Christoffel symbols).

    In another instance, we were talking about the Unruh effect: I explained this in terms of the emergence of a horizon in Minkowski spacetime, as motivated by the orbit of a particle under the action of the Poincare subgroup of Lorentz boosts. He was expecting an answer in terms of an accelerating observer, with a particle detector.

    My question is: how do I properly gauge when to speak mathematically, and when to speak physically? I am apt at both (at least, all of his responses occurred to me), but do not know which is warranted in discussion. This is something I feel I need to improve upon this year.
  10. Jan 10, 2012 #9
    I can't imagine that, given those answers, he'll be unsatisfied given that you're a 2nd year physics student.
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