Low GPA, working around it

coletrane
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Low GPA, working around it

Postby coletrane » Tue May 03, 2011 3:58 pm

Hi Everyone - I am looking to get my PhD in physics, despite my mediocre (2.4 cumulative and 2.7 subject) GPA. Under the advice of my former research advisor and friends working on their PhD's now, I am looking at earning a Master's before I apply to "the big show." I has been one years since I left and am now feeling a bit gun-shy about taking the subject test (I'm that will disappear as I study). I'm also going to be working on my backup plan between now and hopefully attending a Master's, I'm going get a BA in chemistry in one year. My concern is does earning a Master's matter at all (as far as getting into a good school) or have I already dug my own grave with my first undergrad GPA?

I've had over two years of doing research under one of the professors at my first school, but because I started the project from ground up I have no publications with it. I was a TA for nearly two academic years, and I am currently a tutor. I took part in two colloquia and three poster sessions in my two calendar years of research.

Thanks in advance for any and all advice you guys can give me.

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HappyQuark
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Re: Low GPA, working around it

Postby HappyQuark » Tue May 03, 2011 4:57 pm

coletrane wrote:Hi Everyone - I am looking to get my PhD in physics, despite my mediocre (2.4 cumulative and 2.7 subject) GPA. Under the advice of my former research advisor and friends working on their PhD's now, I am looking at earning a Master's before I apply to "the big show." I has been one years since I left and am now feeling a bit gun-shy about taking the subject test (I'm that will disappear as I study). I'm also going to be working on my backup plan between now and hopefully attending a Master's, I'm going get a BA in chemistry in one year. My concern is does earning a Master's matter at all (as far as getting into a good school) or have I already dug my own grave with my first undergrad GPA?

I've had over two years of doing research under one of the professors at my first school, but because I started the project from ground up I have no publications with it. I was a TA for nearly two academic years, and I am currently a tutor. I took part in two colloquia and three poster sessions in my two calendar years of research.

Thanks in advance for any and all advice you guys can give me.


You'll find that most graduate programs have a minimum GPA requirement, including for their M.S. programs. Just as an example, I checked a university that I know has a terminal masters program, San Diego State, and found that their GPA minimum is 2.85

SDSU Physics wrote:What are the requirements?

First, you must have a 2.85 GPA for your last 60 semester-hours of credit, or the equivalent thereof. You must also submit official GRE scores. We do not have a specific required score on the GRE, although we do take them into consideration, particularly for students with low GPAs and/or a non-physics background. You do not need to take the physics subject GRE.


http://www.physics.sdsu.edu/prospective/gradprog.html

Every school is a little bit different so your first step might be to figure out which schools have a requirement you could even meet. Once you are in, you need to hit the ground running on research like your life depends on it. Keep in mind that a school which offers a terminal masters program and has minimum requirements low enough to accept you likely won't have a lot of strong research going on so you'll really need to be persistent. Additionally, you need to be effectively perfect in all of your coursework to show prospective doctorate programs that although you couldn't hack it as an undergrad, you can excel in a graduate program. You should also set aside plenty of time to study for the subject GRE because poor grades as an undergrad plus a low score on the subject exam may keep you out of the poorly ranking M.S. programs and most definitely will keep you out of most PhD programs.

coletrane
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Re: Low GPA, working around it

Postby coletrane » Tue May 03, 2011 5:41 pm

Okay, now for hypothetical question:
Let's assume I end up somewhere that reflects my numbers, like Cal State - Northridge, and I do everything you said; would that make me a strong candidate for a tier 1 school like say CU - Boulder or will it just mean that I will still end up at Joe's Fine College type of program?

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grae313
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Re: Low GPA, working around it

Postby grae313 » Tue May 03, 2011 5:55 pm

Unfortunately I think it would be pretty tough, even if you ace all your classes it only means so much because they have to consider your competition and the rigor of your courses. Also, grading is not nearly as tough in graduate courses, the average grade being an A-/B+, and this makes it really difficult to distinguish yourself grade-wise in a master's program. Doing well in research is especially important. My feeling is that if you had a publication or two and a strong recommendation from someone with connections at a tier 1 school, admission could be possible, but I think you'd be more likely to eventually end up in a 50-20 ranked program, assuming you kick ass in your master's program.

bfollinprm
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Re: Low GPA, working around it

Postby bfollinprm » Wed May 04, 2011 9:52 am

coletrane wrote:Okay, now for hypothetical question:
Let's assume I end up somewhere that reflects my numbers, like Cal State - Northridge, and I do everything you said; would that make me a strong candidate for a tier 1 school like say CU - Boulder or will it just mean that I will still end up at Joe's Fine College type of program?


Unfortunately, at this point you're a risk, and top schools don't take risks, ever. There's no real incentive anymore, so many excellent undergrads apply that they don't need to take anyone with any red flag anywhere in their history.

Now, it's not the end of the world. A top school has two things going for it, both of which can be mitigated against at a lower ranked school if you plan carefully.
1. Top schools are good at everything. Lower ranked schools, on the other hand, only excel in 1-2 focused research categories. Many of them don't even have research that covers the full breadth of physics (leaving out nuclear research, for instance, or plasma research). So, when applying, you're going to have to already know what you want to do. Find a research group in your master's program whose work you're excited about, get to know the field really well (publish!!!), and then apply to schools that focus on that particular subfield. I don't mean something as general as, say, CME, I mean something as specific as nanolithography or superconductors.

2. Top schools are more prestigious, and generally have better placements for their grad students in academia. Lower ranked schools have some dead-end research groups. Identify them, and stay away. Look to see where your potential advisers have sent their grad students for postdocs, and make sure there is close to 100% placement, with a good percentage getting into top 10 programs. Also, it's good to take stock of which schools provide collaborators for your PA (in fields where this makes sense). Working under a guy who works really closely with groups at Caltech or Chicago is almost as good as working with the guys at Caltech and Chicago--you'll probably interact with the bigwigs pretty often, and will have a chance to ask them for recommendations and affix their name in some way to your application. Identify the leading lights of the department (the professors the school is most proud of). If you have no interest in any of their research, don't apply to that school (there are more schools in the 20-50 range than the 1-10 range; choose wisely). When you get in, work tirelessly to get in to the groups headed by the leading lights.

It's not the end of the world, but it is a major setback. You have a long fight ahead of you, and you'll have to compete from a disadvantage at every level of the journey--to get in, to join the best research groups, to get a good postdoc, and to get a faculty position. Missing on any of these could be a death knell to your physics career. That said, I gave up a top 15 school to attend a school ranked somewhere in the 30's, and I don't feel like I gave up much in terms of future opportunity. The school I will attend is strong in my interests (their astrophysics department does it exclusively), and my potential advisers are connected closely to top people and are in leadership positions in major collaborations (headquartered at places like Chicago, Berkeley, LSST corp, etc). I've also already been given a position in the research group I wanted, but for most people in your position things wont work out as well.

coletrane
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Re: Low GPA, working around it

Postby coletrane » Wed May 04, 2011 11:03 am

bfollinprm wrote:2. Top schools are more prestigious, and generally have better placements for their grad students in academia. Lower ranked schools have some dead-end research groups. Identify them, and stay away. Look to see where your potential advisers have sent their grad students for postdocs, and make sure there is close to 100% placement, with a good percentage getting into top 10 programs. Also, it's good to take stock of which schools provide collaborators for your PA (in fields where this makes sense). Working under a guy who works really closely with groups at Caltech or Chicago is almost as good as working with the guys at Caltech and Chicago--you'll probably interact with the bigwigs pretty often, and will have a chance to ask them for recommendations and affix their name in some way to your application. Identify the leading lights of the department (the professors the school is most proud of). If you have no interest in any of their research, don't apply to that school (there are more schools in the 20-50 range than the 1-10 range; choose wisely). When you get in, work tirelessly to get in to the groups headed by the leading lights.


That's pretty much what I was expecting. I have a fairly strong interest in quantum optics, looking at schools like Arizona that offer a seperate PhD in optical sciences, which would be a bigger benefit? Studying physics or joining their Optical Sciences program? That seems like a pretty basic question, but it's something I've never really gotten a straight-forward answer on.

bfollinprm
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Re: Low GPA, working around it

Postby bfollinprm » Wed May 04, 2011 11:29 am

coletrane wrote:
bfollinprm wrote:2. Top schools are more prestigious, and generally have better placements for their grad students in academia. Lower ranked schools have some dead-end research groups. Identify them, and stay away. Look to see where your potential advisers have sent their grad students for postdocs, and make sure there is close to 100% placement, with a good percentage getting into top 10 programs. Also, it's good to take stock of which schools provide collaborators for your PA (in fields where this makes sense). Working under a guy who works really closely with groups at Caltech or Chicago is almost as good as working with the guys at Caltech and Chicago--you'll probably interact with the bigwigs pretty often, and will have a chance to ask them for recommendations and affix their name in some way to your application. Identify the leading lights of the department (the professors the school is most proud of). If you have no interest in any of their research, don't apply to that school (there are more schools in the 20-50 range than the 1-10 range; choose wisely). When you get in, work tirelessly to get in to the groups headed by the leading lights.


That's pretty much what I was expecting. I have a fairly strong interest in quantum optics, looking at schools like Arizona that offer a seperate PhD in optical sciences, which would be a bigger benefit? Studying physics or joining their Optical Sciences program? That seems like a pretty basic question, but it's something I've never really gotten a straight-forward answer on.



For Arizona, optical sciences (it's where the optics research is, and you're only going to get accepted based on fit of research). But if you get a bunch of offers, some from schools that have separate departments and some from schools with only the physics department, it's a judgment call dependent on what your career goals are. I know I had to make that decision with Astronomy programs (I decided I wanted a PhD that said physics, and classes that focused on the fundamentals of physics and not, for instance, planetary science). The separate programs might have different admissions criteria, so try to figure that out. They might be easier to get into at this point, since they're more likely to be interested more in your research background, which you can improve, rather than your GPA, which you can't.

EDIT: Also, at this point, I'd get into the habit of saying your interest IS quantum optics (you should make sure you can do Quantum Optics in your masters program). Your background doesn't give you the luxury of figuring things out later; it's time to get pounding now. You have a lot of catching up to do, make the decision and own it.

coletrane
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Re: Low GPA, working around it

Postby coletrane » Wed May 04, 2011 11:55 am

Obviously, it would be nice to have the luxury of easily jumping back and forth between industry and academia, but my main goal is being able to return to academia and teach/research (I'm a much better teacher than my numbers imply).

bfollinprm
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Re: Low GPA, working around it

Postby bfollinprm » Wed May 04, 2011 12:15 pm

coletrane wrote:Obviously, it would be nice to have the luxury of easily jumping back and forth between industry and academia, but my main goal is being able to return to academia and teach/research (I'm a much better teacher than my numbers imply).


If your PhD is in optics, and you don't have the traditional physics qualifiers classes, you might have trouble getting a faculty position in a physics department. Now, it must be possible to get an academic job, or no one would separate their departments in this way. It'll be a lot easier to make this decision after you apply and get a better feel for your options; I'd apply to at least a few of both.




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