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What are my graduate school prospects, and how can I better my chances?

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  • Thread starter Zebrostrich
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  • #1

Main Question or Discussion Point

I am getting to where I am really trying to get myself in shape for the future. I plan on graduating next Spring, so I don't have much time left. The thing I am worried most about is my GPA--it's not the greatest. After finishing my second year, my cumulative was something around 3.0. Since then (fourth of five, now), I have found my motivation in physics, and ever since my third year I have been strongly applying myself. I am expecting that when the time comes, my GPA breakdown will look like this:

Cumulative: 3.5 (3.42 now)
Math: 3.5 (3.5 now)
Physics: 3.9 (3.9 now)

Edit: Forgot to mention here that I am also majoring in applied math, since I planned on taking all but two of the required classes anyway.

How much does this gap matter?

Also, how much weight is put on the physics GRE subject test? What about letters of recommendation? Does a lack of undergraduate research significantly hurt me?

Also, to what extent do the electives I take matter? To elaborate, due to the scheduling of classes at school, I will have room for taking additional graduate level courses (already taken one in particle physics), so I am wondering if this has any significance.

Basically what I am fishing for is if there are ways to make up for the lower cumulative GPA. I want to have the best shot at going to a great graduate school. I do not want to have the misguided mistakes I made early in my college career decide whether or not I am accepted to one of my first-choice schools (whatever they may be).

So what can I expect?
 

Answers and Replies

  • #2
144
1
a great letter of reference from a professor you did research with will override almost anything.

ie: if Richard Feynman wrote a letter saying "This student is way smarter then me", I'm sure every graduate program would take you.
obviously, Feynman isn't going to write your letter, nor is the professor going to say that about you, but a great letter will make up for any numeric differences.

EDIT: goes the other way too. if you have great numbers but every professors hates you, no graduate program will take you.
 
  • #3
6,814
12
Cumulative: 3.5 (3.42 now)
Math: 3.5 (3.5 now)
Physics: 3.9 (3.9 now)
Looks pretty decent. Your GPA is higher than mine.

Also, how much weight is put on the physics GRE subject test? What about letters of recommendation? Does a lack of undergraduate research significantly hurt me?
Letters of recommendation will help a lot. If you can get yourself on a research project even for a few months, it won't hurt.

As far as how things are weighted, different schools will weight things differently.

To elaborate, due to the scheduling of classes at school, I will have room for taking additional graduate level courses (already taken one in particle physics), so I am wondering if this has any significance.
The problem is that you'll often get the grades after the applications have gone out. It looks good.

Basically what I am fishing for is if there are ways to make up for the lower cumulative GPA.
I wouldn't worry about that. I'd put more effort into getting better letters of recommendations, studying for the GRE, and trying to get some research experience (if only a one or two month mini-project).

I do not want to have the misguided mistakes I made early in my college career decide whether or not I am accepted to one of my first-choice schools (whatever they may be).
The thing that you have to accept is that there is a very great deal of randomness in graduate school admissions, and so there is a lot of randomness as to whether or not you will get into any particular school. The reason for applying to six to eight schools is that flipping the coin multiple times reduces the randomness factor, so as long as you get in anywhere you are o.k.

At this point, I'd worry less about the GPA since it's decent, and focus on the other parts of the application, particularly letters of recommendation and getting any sort of undergraduate research that you can get.
 
  • #4
ZapperZ
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I am getting to where I am really trying to get myself in shape for the future. I plan on graduating next Spring, so I don't have much time left. The thing I am worried most about is my GPA--it's not the greatest. After finishing my second year, my cumulative was something around 3.0. Since then (fourth of five, now), I have found my motivation in physics, and ever since my third year I have been strongly applying myself. I am expecting that when the time comes, my GPA breakdown will look like this:

Cumulative: 3.5 (3.42 now)
Math: 3.5 (3.5 now)
Physics: 3.9 (3.9 now)

Edit: Forgot to mention here that I am also majoring in applied math, since I planned on taking all but two of the required classes anyway.

How much does this gap matter?

Also, how much weight is put on the physics GRE subject test? What about letters of recommendation? Does a lack of undergraduate research significantly hurt me?

Also, to what extent do the electives I take matter? To elaborate, due to the scheduling of classes at school, I will have room for taking additional graduate level courses (already taken one in particle physics), so I am wondering if this has any significance.

Basically what I am fishing for is if there are ways to make up for the lower cumulative GPA. I want to have the best shot at going to a great graduate school. I do not want to have the misguided mistakes I made early in my college career decide whether or not I am accepted to one of my first-choice schools (whatever they may be).

So what can I expect?
First of all, I don't think you will have a problem in getting into a physics graduate school.

Now, you might have a problem in getting into the highly competitive schools. However, you need to realize one very important thing. The seemingly less competitive schools (the non-brand name ones) often can also offer some of the best physics graduate program you can find. Because they are smaller, they tend to also specialize in a few specific areas, and tend to be very good at it!

For example, Iowa State University in Ames, IA, is NOT a "brand-name" school for most people. Yet, it has one of the most respected condensed matter program in the country, and it has access to Ames Laboratory, a terrific place to study material science.

Want another example? The University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) is also a non-brand name school. Yet, do a search on research work on ARPES technique on high-Tc superconductors. They rivaled more prominent schools such as Stanford in such area.

My point here is that you appears to already be dejected about the possibility of not getting into "good" schools, when in reality, your grades will get you into many "good" schools, but not the ones you've imagined.

Zz.
 
  • #5
Your replies are definitely relieving! My adviser constantly reminds me of the importance of grades, which led me to compare my GPA to my fellow physics students', and subsequently noticing that I fell short. I have always had high expectations of myself (or maybe an inferiority complex :rofl:), so I must admit that this did leave me feeling a little 'dejected.' However, my expectations are realistic enough that I understand there's probably not a high chance of ending up in a "name-brand" school like you mentioned. I am just worrisome, and increasingly so as I read about the availability of university faculty positions. I, like most of my peers, would love such a career, and it seems that I must distinguish myself to have hopes of landing that dream job. Of course, I realize that this path provides me with many options, so I shall emphasize the 'dream' part.

I have a few questions regarding letters of recommendation. First, what should my criteria be in deciding who to ask? I assume it would be best to have all three coming from professors, but in my case I don't know if that would be the best option. I have one professor who I know would gladly write me a LOR, as I have taken courses from him three times, done well in all of them, and talk regularly with him, and I have my adviser but I have only taken an intro course with him. Most of my other professors I either haven't had enough contact with, or genuinely do not care for them (and thus haven't distinguished myself). I assume that anyone in the physics field, yet not necessarily a professor, would be a good choice, but in regards to outside the field where should the line be drawn? For example, the engineer who supervised my work over the summer explicitly told me to call him should I ever need a LOR. Would it be better to get a strong LOR from him, or a weaker one from a professor?

Also, I am curious as to how much the writer's background can help me. The first professor I mentioned got his degrees from Harvard and studied under, and along-side, many well-known physicists, and as such knows many people (not even joking, the list grows every time I speak with him). Would this make getting accepted to a 'name-brand' school like Harvard more than just wishful thinking?

Again, thank you for your replies. And thanks to you especially, Zz--knowing that really calms my mind. I will make sure to do further research when the time comes.
 
  • #6
201
0
Because you can get into a physics grad school doesn't mean to relax on your grades (since you said that's your expected GPA). Small programs tend to be more concentrated and your advisor will probably know who you are and check up on your work more often than some of the bigger schools.
 
  • #7
Because you can get into a physics grad school doesn't mean to relax on your grades (since you said that's your expected GPA). Small programs tend to be more concentrated and your advisor will probably know who you are and check up on your work more often than some of the bigger schools.
Oh, well clearly! Grades definitely aren't something to be skimped on, I understand that.
 

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