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Unusual background, need perspective & personal statement advice

  1. Nov 1, 2012 #1
    Ok, I'm applying for fall 2013 PhD programs and one masters (at an institution that funds its MS students!) in astronomy, specifically planetary science. I'm a somewhat nontraditional applicant and need some perspective on my application.

    I majored in English and minored in Astrophysics, but took more Astro & Physics courses than the minor required - I would have graduated with 3 majors if not for the biannual rotation of certain courses (my undergrad institution was small, upper-division courses in Physics typically enrolled 2-7 students, even when taught biannually). This all started when I took Intro Astronomy to fulfill my "science is good for you" distributional requirement. Then I took the next course in sequence, and the next... and suddenly, there I was.

    My grades in most of my upper division courses aren't so hot - low Bs and Cs. Same for Calc I & II - I got a D in Calc III (not required, but I thought it would be good to take it). My grades in the fields where I ended up doing research - planetary astro & applied optics - are great, high Bs and As.

    Yes, I did research. A summer of astro, 12 months of experimental optics, two independent studies, one in each subject. Presented at conferences for all but the summer of astro (I was in a motor vehicle accident and my data was destroyed - LEARNED MY LESSON ABOUT BACKING EVERYTHING UP. I was less concerned about recovering my data than I was about recovering my ability to walk).

    Did quite a bit of public outreach & education during the 3 years I worked for the college's observatory. Directed a grant-funded optics outreach & ed extravaganza (I didn't write the grant, though). I also worked for 2 years as the instructor's assistant for intro astronomy lab classes - showing students how to set up telescopes, answering questions about the data analysis, operating the Really Big Telescope.

    The PI I was working for after graduation made a sudden departure and I had to find another job. I've spent the past year and a half working in a non-scientific field as a data analyst - I toodle around in Excel and Access all day and write scripts in Python and VBA. I'm hoping that work experience, even outside the sciences, will count for something. It sure cured me of my problem with meeting deadlines!

    Took the general GRE today and my insta-scores were 91st percentile verbal, 57th percentile quantitative. Taking the PGRE next saturday - my undergrad mentor warned me that students from liberal arts colleges tend to score poorly on the PGRE. For comparison, a peer of mine with better grades and equal amounts of research scored in the 40-something percentile on the PGRE and still got into Iowa with an assistantship.

    I have 3 recommenders, 2 of which I did research for and 1 who supervised my work in the observatory's public outreach program, who have all said that they'll give me strong recommendations. I'm confident that they'll have good things to say.

    I'm sort of lost on what to write in my personal statement. I know I need to talk about my unusual background and poor grades. I'm an English major who did some research, I've worked both in and out of the sciences, and I'm confident that this is what I want to do and that I can do it. Now how the hell do I convince someone to let me in?

    Oh yeah, I wrote a 30-page senior research thesis in English (on Alan Moore's use of Nietzschean philosophy in Watchmen). Should I mention that at all on my CV or statement? Will anyone care?

    I'm also female. Will anyone care about that?

    I asked for advice and perspective, so sock it to me. But if that perspective is "you are not qualified", I humbly request that you say it gently.

  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 1, 2012 #2


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    What's your overall GPA? The general GRE doesn't really matter, but anyone applying to a grad school in a science or math field should score higher than that on the quantitative part. Your research experience will help you, but probably not as much as you'd hope with your grades the way they are. The senior research in English probably won't help at all. At the liberal arts college I attended, a senior research project usually resulted in 60-200 pages of work. But it's not the length that matters, it's the quality. Being a woman won't help as much as you think it might, since astronomy is one field that really isn't hurting for women applicants. Physics, yes, but astronomy is getting close to 50% women (at least attending the AAS meetings from what I have seen).

    If you don't get in the first time applying, consider trying to get a local university to let you take some graduate physics courses as a non-degree student. You can't earn a degree that way, but you can take courses (if you pay for them) and if you do well in them (A's) you can use that as leverage when re-applying to grad programs in the future. That's what they'll really be concerned about - can you maintain at least a B average in graduate level physics classes. If you can't do that, your research won't matter.
  4. Nov 1, 2012 #3
    Thanks for the reply. My overall GPA is a 2.97 (argh!). Grad-level courses in the event of rejection are a good idea - there are 2 universities in my city that have grad-level physics & astronomy programs - one of which is on my application list. I've heard of folks being admitted to grad programs in other fields with acceptance conditional upon the applicant achieving a certain grade in certain courses before enrolling. Would it behoove me to bring that up in a personal statement?
  5. Nov 3, 2012 #4
    vector calculus is very important in all fields of physics. if you got such a low grade in it then you probably don't remember what grad div curl are. That's a really big problem since undergrad mechanics and electromagnetism uses grad div curl and other parts of vector calculus, undergrad thermodynamics and quantum uses partial derivatives.
  6. Nov 3, 2012 #5
    Yes, I have foggy memories of gradient, divergence, and curl in Calc III.

    I actually took one semester each (all that was offered) of Quantum, E&M, Classical, and Thermal during my undergrad years - the professors all gave a quick & dirty "math you need for this course" lesson during the first week of each course, including applied vector calc. I earned marginally better grades in those courses than I did in Calc III - C's being marginally better than a D.

    Math has always been an issue - I skipped from high school geometry straight to calc I (teaching myself trig along the way). As I posited above, perhaps it might behoove me to point this out and offer to retake Calc III as a condition of admission?

    Thanks for your reply.
  7. Nov 3, 2012 #6


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    A D in calculus III is not good. It is much worse that it was also your highest level math. Most students applying for physics graduate programs have also taken linear algebra and differential equations. Most have also taken two semesters of quantum, EM, stat mech and advanced classical dynamics. There are students in my year that took Complex Variables, real analysis, abstract algebra, PDEs, etc as well. A 2.97 is below the threshold for most all top and middle tier programs.

    I don't know if such things exist, but you may want to search for programs in science writing or technical journalism or something of that sort. Your strength seems to be in outreach and many scientists cannot communicate with the public in clear and concise ways. This is to your advantage.

    As it stands, I think you would have much trouble in a graduate program with any merit.

    Best of luck.
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