Great Research, "ok" GPA, and grad school

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YodaT
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Great Research, "ok" GPA, and grad school

Postby YodaT » Mon May 10, 2010 3:08 am

So, I just finished my second year as a physics major and will be able to get a paper published with my advisor in a theoretical physics project, in General Relativity (GR) and gravity to be exact. I will also be attending an REU program at a top 10 physics school working with a big name guy on a GR project (I want to do a theoretical project with blackholes). You see I love research and the sense of "adventure" each project and published paper I read brings, but I'm tired of classes. My GPA is "ok", about a 3.4-3.5 currently. Mostly first two year courses have effected my GPA, but I've taken courses in classical mechanics (book used was Marion and Thornton), advanced calculus, and advanced vector calculus courses and went through those classes with flying colors. I'm really looking forward to E&M I, E&M II, and a more advanced classical mechanics II (I want to go into Goldstein's book!) this upcoming semester.

I know this sounds weird, but for some reason when I deal with more advanced physical concepts I can just "see" what's going on... I can read a chapter and just close my eyes and imagine what goes on and how the math all works out. I've taken this same approach when learning basic GR and I'm currently self-teaching differential geometry. I read Euclid's book on the Elements when I was 12-13 years old and loved it... and some would think I'm good at math, but I'm terrible. I loved geometry because I could imagine all that was going on, but for the love of me every math teacher jokes about my "logic". You see the problem I have is concentrating on trivial classwork (you know the block sliding down a hill, temperature of an asteroid, or speed of sound in the upper parts of the ionosphere kinda problems), and I hate these damn analogies first-year physics books make and when topics get interesting they say the topic is too advanced to be covered. Carroll's and Wald's book on GR are just so straightforward and breathtakingly elegant, same goes with Griffith's Electrodynamics and Goldstein's and Marion/Thornton's Classical Mechanics... my mind just clicks for them and little to all else... is that a problem or an advantage?

My main question is do you think an "ok" GPA, with great publication(s), make me a potential applicant for great grad schools where I can get my ideas heard? I'm also worried about TA-ing and teaching if I do end up getting a PhD... my mind is just so different to other students I've worked with. How do you get hired to do only research? Don't you need to be some genius to be paid to think?

It's good to note that I also have medical issues and have to take medication that really lowers my heart-rate and sometimes alters my thinking abilities, which has effected my GPA (I've gone through 2 surgeries in 3 years).

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grae313
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Re: Great Research, "ok" GPA, and grad school

Postby grae313 » Mon May 10, 2010 11:33 am

The problem is that many times in life, to be successful you have to get some things done that you don't find amazingly interesting and enjoyable, and you still have to do them well. Few people find the block sliding on a frictionless wedge amazingly interesting. Getting good grades in your remaining upper division physics classes shows that you are mature, responsible, consistent, and have a good work ethic. If you want to get into a top university where you have access (with exceptions) to the best professors and the best research, you need to have the all around package. Sure, your excellent research will help, but if you can buckle down and get the grades too, you'll have a much better chance. Remember, when you apply to graduate school you are competing against a great number of people who are just as smart or smarter than you, but who also worked hard to get good grades. 3.4-3.5 isn't bad, but it depends a lot on what school you're coming from. In general, you want to have top grades in your upper division physics classes.

If the coursework itself doesn't motivate you, find something else to get you through it. Personally, I made it a little competition to get the best grade in the class on every exam, and motivated myself by thinking of graduate school. If you get annoyed when textbooks simplify problems and leave out the difficult stuff, get more advanced text books. If you think you're hot ***, while you're taking the undergrad class, concurrently teach yourself from the grad texts. Learn E&M from Jackson, and get all the Landau and Lifshitz texts. But whatever you do, get those grades, because they show you know how to put your nose to the grindstone and get the job done. You can also push through your undergraduate courses as quickly as possible and then start taking graduate physics courses at your current institution.

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grae313
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Re: Great Research, "ok" GPA, and grad school

Postby grae313 » Mon May 10, 2010 11:41 am

grae313 wrote:The problem is that many times in life, to be successful you have to get some things done that you don't find amazingly interesting and enjoyable, and you still have to do them well. Few people find the block sliding on a frictionless wedge amazingly interesting. Getting good grades in your remaining upper division physics classes shows that you are mature, responsible, consistent, and have a good work ethic. If you want to get into a top university where you have access (with exceptions) to the best professors and the best research, you need to have the all around package. Sure, your excellent research will help, but if you can buckle down and get the grades too, you'll have a much better chance. Remember, when you apply to graduate school you are competing against a great number of people who are just as smart or smarter than you, but who also worked hard to get good grades. 3.4-3.5 isn't bad, but it depends a lot on what school you're coming from. In general, you want to have top grades in your upper division physics classes.

If the coursework itself doesn't motivate you, find something else to get you through it. Personally, I made it a little competition to get the best grade in the class on every exam, and motivated myself by thinking of graduate school. If you get annoyed when textbooks simplify problems and leave out the difficult stuff, get more advanced text books. If you think you're hot ***, while you're taking the undergrad class, concurrently teach yourself from the grad texts. Learn E&M from Jackson, and get all the Landau and Lifshitz texts. But whatever you do, get those grades, because they show you know how to put your nose to the grindstone and get the job done. You can also push through your undergraduate courses as quickly as possible and then start taking graduate physics courses at your current institution.


Also, you can go straight to an RA in graduate school if you find a professor who wants to hire you. I've got bad news for you, though. If you're going into theory, be prepared to be in constant competition with wickedly smart people for a very few number of spots with constantly limited and unsure funding. I guarantee you that if you are going into theory, you will teach at some point in your life. Most theory groups have enough money to support a few students and usually not consistently. For example, many of the theory students here teach throughout their degree because their adviser just doesn't have enough funding, or sometimes their adviser has enough money to support them one semester out of the year, and the other semester they teach, or they teach during the year and are supported by their adviser over the summer. Also, unless you are a supergenius, you're not getting into a theory group as a first-year. Theory groups in general won't accept you until you are done with many classes including QFT II and advanced GR and whatnot. So yeah, get yourself ready to teach. The exception to this is condensed matter theory and computation, but it sounds like you aren't interested in that.

mobytish
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Re: Great Research, "ok" GPA, and grad school

Postby mobytish » Mon May 10, 2010 1:13 pm

I wouldn't be too worried about the teaching thing. I mean, you're not really going to be able to avoid it unless you get an external fellowship your first/second year because most schools make TAing a requirement, but you don't have to be super at it and you're only doing lab or recitation sections anyway.

Of course, I have the opposite problem. Since one of my interests is being a professor, I want to TA, but I got a research fellowship for my first two years, so I'm not sure how to get the opportunity to TA.

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YodaT
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Re: Great Research, "ok" GPA, and grad school

Postby YodaT » Tue May 11, 2010 2:25 am

Yeah... I guess laziness in my classes does show, which might affect letters of recommendations from professors and my research groups might get wind of me slacking in classes. But, good thing is I have E&M I/II, Classical II, Tensor Calculus & Differential Geometry, Astrophysics, Thermodynamics & Statistical Mechanics, Quantum I, and Optics to enjoy this upcoming year :D . Now that I love! Plus, I still have Intro. Particle Physics, Atomic Physics, and Intro. GR (haha, that will be a breeze considering I'm already researching this field!) my final year. I have done independent study courses for my research, too... so, all A's in those plus my great grades in Classical I and research courses should make me competitive for some Top 30 schools. And, the Physics GRE... oh boy. I'm not a horrible student, I've had mainly A's and a few B's, but like I said medical stuff (heart surgery and what not) came up and ruined a couple semesters... so hopefully I can recover with a serious attitude. Thanks for the advice, where is your "school". You referred to it once... or twice. I see the thing says you're in Ithaca, NY. Are you at Cornell or something?

Another question: What do you think about getting minors? My school does not offer a math degree (weird I know) so I'm getting a minor in it, which is not a big deal, but I was also thinking about getting a minor in computer science (CS). I first used a computer (first one I've ever owned) 2 months prior to college, so I decided to take some programming classes and I loved them. I was great at it, too. I was wondering if I should get a minor in CS. It'll pull a chunk from my courses and I was wondering if it'd benefit me more by dropping this minor and going into more advanced physics courses (i.e., Quantum II, possibly intro QFT, and math courses geared towards GR like topology and manifolds). I was wanting to get a minor in CS in case I don't get into grad school... just so I'm worth something and have experience as a keyboard smasher for employment. What do you and anyone else out there think?

Another question: I could get the opportunity to TA for a lab this upcoming school year (my lab record is flawless). Good thing is I get paid and it looks good on a resume. Bad thing is that it'll pull a lot from research. Based on my low GPA, if I want to get into a top university I should try and get a second publication. I'm having the big GR guy this summer push me, so I can get some great notes and expand on an idea I've been developing for the past year. If I can get something out (if you ever done theory you know its a race to get your word out, 'cause somewhere some smarter guy is getting your idea published) in a year I'm sure it'll be awesome... just in time for grad school apps :wink: . Should I TA or keep to my bedroom/library/empty room and keep researching away? Is it realistic to get my own publication in one year's work? It's obviously realistic to TA and grade labs all year.

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grae313
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Re: Great Research, "ok" GPA, and grad school

Postby grae313 » Tue May 11, 2010 12:33 pm

Unless you plan to do computation-heavy work, I'd focus on taking as many advanced physics classes as you can rather then get the CS minor since you want to do GR theory. Also, I would recommend going for more publications and/or talks out of your research over TAing. Just my opinion, and yes, I'm at Cornell.

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Quantum Triviality
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Re: Great Research, "ok" GPA, and grad school

Postby Quantum Triviality » Wed May 19, 2010 11:28 pm

My main question is do you think an "ok" GPA, with great publication(s), make me a potential applicant for great grad schools where I can get my ideas heard?


Does it make you a potential applicant? Yes.
Want to be a great applicant? As was said before, get good grades. If undergrad classes are too boring, try grad.

I'm also worried about TA-ing and teaching if I do end up getting a PhD... my mind is just so different to other students I've worked with. How do you get hired to do only research? Don't you need to be some genius to be paid to think?


So far, I have yet to meet anyone who thinks so far out of the box that no one else thinks like them. You may just find out that while the majority of people don't think like you do, you may be the perfect teaching for a group that has never had a teacher reach them before.

It's good to note that I also have medical issues and have to take medication that really lowers my heart-rate and sometimes alters my thinking abilities, which has effected my GPA (I've gone through 2 surgeries in 3 years).


That's what the personal statement and letters of recommendation were made for.

Good luck! It sounds like you have a promising research career ahead.

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YodaT
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Re: Great Research, "ok" GPA, and grad school

Postby YodaT » Sun May 30, 2010 6:16 am

grae313 wrote: If you think you're hot ***, while you're taking the undergrad class, concurrently teach yourself from the grad texts. Learn E&M from Jackson, and get all the Landau and Lifshitz texts.


Thanks for the reference to the Landau and Lifshitz volumes. I got a copy of his mechanics book, and its amazing! I always loved classical mechanics and his writing style is amazing. I'll most likely read Jackson's E&M concurrently with my intro. E&M book this Fall semester (they use Griffiths). Yeah, I really couldn't get use to solving PDEs for my math course until I looked through a professor's copy of Jackson's book and saw some ways of solving some problems in axial-symmetric E&M fields and the uses of PDEs in upper-level physics.

Thanks for all of your advice. And, Quantum Triviality I'm sure there are plenty of people thinking just like me... its probably just hard to find them in certain regions or demographics. But, I've always had troubles with analogous remarks in physics, or ambiguous statements enacted upon by the suave lingo of many mathematicians, and I could handle nothing less than general mathematical statements I could apply anywhere and "toy" with in physics. To date I adore the Variational Principles. Thanks for that comment, I'm sure many students are looking for professors or instructors with that kind of mindset, I know I was until I found one of my favorite professors that always took the no bullsh** approach in physics and mathematics. Needless to say he was a mathematical physicist. Cocky (in a funny way), plenty of stories, and very entertaining.




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