3-Year Physics B.S.: Benefit or Hindrance?

DomesticChinese
Posts: 3
Joined: Sat Nov 08, 2014 1:19 am

3-Year Physics B.S.: Benefit or Hindrance?

Postby DomesticChinese » Sat Nov 08, 2014 3:25 am

Hello everyone,

As the title says, I'm curious as to how a graduate admissions committee would look at my application considering I will be graduating with a physics B.S. in three years (next semester, yay). One immediate consequence of finishing my B.S. in three years is the limited time I have to do undergraduate research and potentially cut my opportunities to give talks or publish a paper. I was able to do research during the second semester of my first year, but the first year of research turned out more to be a try into HEP-Ex, which in the end, I did not like. I'm now happily doing research in CME, but considering that I've basically only had a semester and a half of research in my current group (significantly stunted by PGRE studying), I simply did not have the time to accumulate enough research and results to give a talk/publish a paper.

A bonus however, to finishing in three years would be that graduate courses taken as a junior would probably look great on my application. I'm not saying that they wouldn't look great on any other application (except maybe for Masters students who should have taken those classes as requisites), but because of the shortened duration to take even the core physics courses, it would look particularly nice to take grad courses as a third-year student (and get A's).

Now I ask: what is your opinion on applying as a 3-year B.S. student? Will they simply consider me as another 4-year B.S. student who's merely taken advantage of high school credit to get ahead? Or will there be some hidden benefit that I've completely overlooked in analyzing this whole situation in applying to grad school?

This has been running on my mind for a while and it would be great to hear other opinions on this. Thanks!

P.S.: Here are my statistics if this bears any significance towards forming an opinion:

Undergrad Institution: Big State School, not well-known for physics - ranked 60ish on U.S. News
Major(s): Physics
Minor(s): Astronomy, Math
GPA in Major: 3.91
Overall GPA: 3.93
Length of Degree: 3 years
Position in Class: No. 2 (out of 60-ish) :evil:
Type of Student: Domestic Asian male

GRE Scores :
(revised)
Q: TBD tomorrow
V: TBD "
W: TBD "
P: 910 (86%)

PathIntegrals92
Posts: 190
Joined: Tue Oct 07, 2014 12:42 pm

Re: 3-Year Physics B.S.: Benefit or Hindrance?

Postby PathIntegrals92 » Sat Nov 08, 2014 9:27 am

You have a great gpa/pgre score! Are you graduating early because of financial constraints? If not, then why not stay and take more courses and get more research experience.

One of the most important parts of your application would be your research experience/rec letters! If you want to do CME, it would be important to develop more experimental skills etc. You will have stronger letter of recs then and you would make a very competitive applicant ( not saying that you are not already).

Have you applied for REUs in the past? You say that you are domestic, are you also U.S citizen? This would give you more research opportunities too.

slowdweller
Posts: 62
Joined: Wed Oct 15, 2014 8:47 am

Re: 3-Year Physics B.S.: Benefit or Hindrance?

Postby slowdweller » Sat Nov 08, 2014 10:05 am

This is a tough choice only if staying a fourth year causes significant financial problems. While your profile may be good at the present moment (very good PGRE scores and GPA, graduate courses etc), what really gets you into the top places (if that's what you're aiming for) is excellent research and glowing recommendation letters. Think about what you could do in an extra year to improve your apps. You could take more graduate courses, particularly in the areas which are of interest to you. More importantly, you can get more research experience and build better relationships with your mentors. Staying an extra year will only improve your application. If finances are a problem, consider being a part-time student, taking only a couple of classes, while focusing on research.

bfollinprm
Posts: 1197
Joined: Sat Nov 07, 2009 11:44 am

Re: 3-Year Physics B.S.: Benefit or Hindrance?

Postby bfollinprm » Sat Nov 08, 2014 11:27 am

More to the point, I don't think very many people applying straight from undergrad are really mature enough for grad school, so in general (of course, I don't know your specific situation) I'd worry that leaving school early would exacerbate that problem. If it's a money issue, I understand it, though. Maybe you could find a lab that'd take you on (for pay) for a year? Or get a job building/prototyping equipment, since that'll be really useful for a CME track.

astroprof
Posts: 95
Joined: Fri Feb 15, 2008 4:47 pm

Re: 3-Year Physics B.S.: Benefit or Hindrance?

Postby astroprof » Sat Nov 08, 2014 2:11 pm

The fact that you were able to complete a standard 4-year BS degree in only 3 years will not matter in your application, and likely will not even be noticed by the admissions committee. The important aspects of your transcript are that you have completed the expected coursework and done well in those classes. The added bonus of a strong performance on the Physics-GRE provides a consistent picture of your strengths in academic coursework. However, as the other respondents have noted, getting into (and succeeding at) Graduate School is not only about the coursework, but is also about your ability to do research. From what you have posted, it sounds like you have worked on at least two different research projects. I would not be concerned that neither project has yet turned into publications. Despite what you read here (where the posts are dominated by super over achievers), many applicants have not published their undergraduate research prior to (or even during) graduate school. Thus, I strongly encourage you to graduate this spring as planned and start graduate school in fall 2015. There is no reason to delay starting on the path that will lead to your dissertation research project and future career.

TakeruK
Posts: 813
Joined: Mon Jan 02, 2012 3:05 pm

Re: 3-Year Physics B.S.: Benefit or Hindrance?

Postby TakeruK » Sat Nov 08, 2014 2:23 pm

My opinion is the same as astroprof's. It won't matter that you finished early. I would not even try to emphasize it or mention it in any way.

Normally, I would advise against students cramming extra courses at the expense of e.g. research in order to graduate a year early. However, it seems like you have done everything that many strong applicants do in 4 years (multiple research projects, completed coursework, strong PGRE, graduate courses), so it's not like you will be at any disadvantage at all. In fact, I think you have a very competitive application profile. Therefore, why not apply this year?

As with everyone else interested in grad school, I would say you should have a backup plan if you don't get into the schools you want. Since you are in your junior year, one potential backup plan could be to remain a student for a 4th year and do more research, especially since it's sometimes harder to get research projects at universities if you are not currently a student somewhere.

tsymmetry
Posts: 50
Joined: Mon Apr 01, 2013 5:59 pm

Re: 3-Year Physics B.S.: Benefit or Hindrance?

Postby tsymmetry » Sat Nov 08, 2014 3:31 pm

I know two people at Harvard who did this. One was from a lower ranked university and the other from MIT. If you have to for monetary reasons then I would do it, but if you can stay an extra year it's always beneficial to have more research experience and advanced coursework. However it does seem you are competitive right now. I would apply, see if you get into top ranked schools (I think you have the ability to) and if you are happy with your acceptances graduate this year.

DomesticChinese
Posts: 3
Joined: Sat Nov 08, 2014 1:19 am

Re: 3-Year Physics B.S.: Benefit or Hindrance?

Postby DomesticChinese » Sun Nov 09, 2014 2:02 am

Thank you so much for the replies everyone!

I come from a lower-income family (a couple thousand away from the poverty line to be exact for a household of four...), so money is a significant issue in any choice I make for next year, since: a) I am currently paying out-of-state tuition and b) my sister will be attending an out-of-state university as well starting next year. Because of the money troubles, I feel that graduating in three is probably the best option.

Now to address each reply:

PathIntegrals92 wrote:You have a great gpa/pgre score! Are you graduating early because of financial constraints? If not, then why not stay and take more courses and get more research experience.

One of the most important parts of your application would be your research experience/rec letters! If you want to do CME, it would be important to develop more experimental skills etc. You will have stronger letter of recs then and you would make a very competitive applicant ( not saying that you are not already).

Have you applied for REUs in the past? You say that you are domestic, are you also U.S citizen? This would give you more research opportunities too.


Yeah, I'm working my butt off this end of the semester in the lab to try to squeeze as much research time as possible. I'm making great progress with my project so far, and it seems that my advisor is pleased with my work ethic and results. Speaking of letter of recs, my top choice for grad school is Berkeley, which is where my current (CME) advisor went for his post-doc. He keeps in contact with his colleagues frequently, so his letter will be a huge bonus when I apply to Berkeley, I think? I'm not sure... any thoughts?

I applied to the E3S REU at Berkeley last summer and made the final cut. Unfortunately, I was rejected due to a lack of preparation, which made sense since I had just started on CME research the semester I applied. Otherwise, my research has solely been at my home institution.

slowdweller wrote:This is a tough choice only if staying a fourth year causes significant financial problems. While your profile may be good at the present moment (very good PGRE scores and GPA, graduate courses etc), what really gets you into the top places (if that's what you're aiming for) is excellent research and glowing recommendation letters. Think about what you could do in an extra year to improve your apps. You could take more graduate courses, particularly in the areas which are of interest to you. More importantly, you can get more research experience and build better relationships with your mentors. Staying an extra year will only improve your application. If finances are a problem, consider being a part-time student, taking only a couple of classes, while focusing on research.


While the idea of being a part-time student is plausible, a big chunk of the financial aid I get from government grants and loans will be unavailable as a part-time student. As I mentioned above, money is a huge issue since I'm paying out-of-state tuition.

bfollinprm wrote:More to the point, I don't think very many people applying straight from undergrad are really mature enough for grad school, so in general (of course, I don't know your specific situation) I'd worry that leaving school early would exacerbate that problem. If it's a money issue, I understand it, though. Maybe you could find a lab that'd take you on (for pay) for a year? Or get a job building/prototyping equipment, since that'll be really useful for a CME track.


Hmm, maturity? As in the ability to live independently and take care of oneself? Or the emotional development and stability from experiences? Sorry for asking, but could you please elaborate on what you mean? I'd like to further discuss this particular topic.

astroprof wrote:The fact that you were able to complete a standard 4-year BS degree in only 3 years will not matter in your application, and likely will not even be noticed by the admissions committee. The important aspects of your transcript are that you have completed the expected coursework and done well in those classes. The added bonus of a strong performance on the Physics-GRE provides a consistent picture of your strengths in academic coursework. However, as the other respondents have noted, getting into (and succeeding at) Graduate School is not only about the coursework, but is also about your ability to do research. From what you have posted, it sounds like you have worked on at least two different research projects. I would not be concerned that neither project has yet turned into publications. Despite what you read here (where the posts are dominated by super over achievers), many applicants have not published their undergraduate research prior to (or even during) graduate school. Thus, I strongly encourage you to graduate this spring as planned and start graduate school in fall 2015. There is no reason to delay starting on the path that will lead to your dissertation research project and future career.


I agree that a big part of graduate school is one's ability to efficiently and effectively do research. The professor in my graduate course couldn't have placed any more emphasis than he did during the beginning of the year, that the success of graduate studies hinges on outputting quality research, not maintaining a 4.0 GPA. I've come to realize this as well, which is why I'm doing my best to spend as much time as possible (without detracting from my undergrad courses) in the lab to further my progress on my project and hopefully produce great results. Unfortunately though, I'd still have to compete with those over-achievers for spots in the top-tier universities :(

TakeruK wrote:My opinion is the same as astroprof's. It won't matter that you finished early. I would not even try to emphasize it or mention it in any way.

Normally, I would advise against students cramming extra courses at the expense of e.g. research in order to graduate a year early. However, it seems like you have done everything that many strong applicants do in 4 years (multiple research projects, completed coursework, strong PGRE, graduate courses), so it's not like you will be at any disadvantage at all. In fact, I think you have a very competitive application profile. Therefore, why not apply this year?

As with everyone else interested in grad school, I would say you should have a backup plan if you don't get into the schools you want. Since you are in your junior year, one potential backup plan could be to remain a student for a 4th year and do more research, especially since it's sometimes harder to get research projects at universities if you are not currently a student somewhere.


Yeah, I most definitely have back-ups to the top choices I'm applying to. Not repeating the same mistake I did for undergrad and applying to four institutions again... I don't know if a fourth year will be an alternative though :/

tsymmetry wrote:I know two people at Harvard who did this. One was from a lower ranked university and the other from MIT. If you have to for monetary reasons then I would do it, but if you can stay an extra year it's always beneficial to have more research experience and advanced coursework. However it does seem you are competitive right now. I would apply, see if you get into top ranked schools (I think you have the ability to) and if you are happy with your acceptances graduate this year.


Ah, the example from the lower ranked university gives me hope, haha. Monetary problems are a huge issue unfortunately, so I'll be applying for grad school this year.

bfollinprm
Posts: 1197
Joined: Sat Nov 07, 2009 11:44 am

Re: 3-Year Physics B.S.: Benefit or Hindrance?

Postby bfollinprm » Sun Nov 09, 2014 11:52 am

Hmm, maturity? As in the ability to live independently and take care of oneself? Or the emotional development and stability from experiences? Sorry for asking, but could you please elaborate on what you mean? I'd like to further discuss this particular topic.


I pretty much meant this, so I retract my concern:

[Knowing] that the success of graduate studies hinges on outputting quality research, not maintaining a 4.0 GPA.


Too many people seem to focus on the coursework, while in my experience grad school has been more like the workplace than undergrad. Courses were only a significant part of my PhD for the first year, before I passed the written examinations--and even those, in retrospect, I took way too seriously.




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