ADD kid who wants to get into astrophysics grad school

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InquilineKea
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ADD kid who wants to get into astrophysics grad school

Postby InquilineKea » Sun Mar 21, 2010 9:18 pm

Hello,

Anyways, I'm a student at the University of Washington. So basically, I want to get into an astrophysics grad school, although I am also open to other grad schools with an interdisciplinary focus (as I have interdisciplinary interests). I have a number of questions that are stated below (which can be answered independently of context), although I have also provided context below my questions (which may help with answering the questions as they pertain to me, and also give me an assessment of how I could best overcome my obstacles and get into grad school).

So I'm a math major right now, although I'm only studying math for its broad usefulness and not for any desire to continue further in math.

- Would it be helpful for me to take graduate level courses in applied math? Especially in topics like numerical analysis? I don't intend to go into theory, and the amath computation level courses cover a lot that would be very helpful for data-intensive astronomy/physics research. What about graduate level courses in statistics?

- Might some study of biology help for programs with faculty members in astrobiology? (I'm really into astrobiology). What about atmospheric sciences? (which is relevant in the study of planetary atmospheres, which I'm also very much into). I know that one of the factors of admission is compatibility with potential advisers, and I believe this might help (if there are comparatively few applicants with experience in biology/atmospheric sciences).

- Right now I'm trying to decide between an astro/physics major and more graduate level statistics/applied math courses. Will it be bad if I get very close to an astro/physics major but end up not doing the major? I'll have done all the basic physics courses like E&M and Quantum, but not much more than that.

- How important is GPA for astro grad school? And what are the general acceptance rates for astro grad schools? I had fairly severe undiagnosed ADD for several years, which really annihilated my GPA for a while and caused me to get 0's (also desperation caused me to prematurely take Amath graduate level courses before I was ready for them). Also I entered school two years early. But I finally got diagnosed and put on medication, and am averaging a GPA of 3.6 for my last two years of undergrad (but I can only pull my overall GPA up to around 3.1), with a mix of around 30% grad level courses and 70% undergrad lvl courses. I'll take 5.5-6 years for undergrad, although I entered two years early so this cancels out (and people might be more forgiving of immaturity in early entrance students)

Incidentally I also have Asperger's Syndrome, but this probably shouldn't be mentioned anywhere as it is orthogonal to grad school chances. ADD is only mentionable since it was a factor in the past and now should not be as significant (due to medication). I also developed social anxiety that became pretty severe, which made me leave the astro department (for another department where no one knows the undergrads - aka math) for some time. I've mostly grown out of my social anxiety though (and I do not think it will be a significant factor postgraduation, like my ADD, since my social anxiety came out of severe immaturity in college).

Unfortunately though, the combined influence from my mental conditions makes it extremely difficult for me to do anything on top of academics, so I pretty much have no ECs. I used to have an amazing amount of passion that was legendary in 8th grade; in fact; I'm almost inclined to ask my 8th grade teacher for a supplemental recommendation (I know it's really really far off and cannot be used as a substitute for the 3 letters from current faculty)

Looking at the acceptance threads, there are some people with similar GPAs who actually do get in some astro programs, which is encouraging.

- How much does publication in the Astrophysical Journal count? (for something related to SDSS)? I'm one of many coauthors, but admittedly, I did not do that much work (my prof was just nice).

A lot of my situation is better described here: (Only difference is that I switched from Concerta to Adderall XR)
http://www.addforums.com/forums/showthread.php?t=73894

Also, I'm really good at self-studying (I self-studied 8 APs, enough to get AP National Scholar), and I expect that I can do the same for the Physics GRE

==

I know that in order to get in, I must convince them that I am able to take grad level courses and to do research at the same time, and also that I am able to do them at a level superior to that of other applicants. Furthermore, I must demonstrate that I would not drop out (as all grad programs seem to have high attrition rates). The ways to demonstrate these are through GPA, Physics GRE, personal statement, recommendations, research, and things other people may not have did (but which may be helpful). My only real strength (relative to others) is that I'll have a lot of grad level courses (which shows ability to take grad level courses), although almost all of my grad level courses are outside of astronomy (since the astro dept here doesn't allow undergrads to take grad level courses). I have passion for the area too, although I have passion for practically all areas of science (although I have more passion for astronomy and theoretical biology than I do for any other areas). I'm thinking that I may only have a real shot where there are fields with a heavy astrobiology influence (or heavy atmospheric science influence, as many of my grad level courses are in the atmospheric sciences). Unfortunately, it seems that higher ranked schools seem to have broader areas of focus and 2nd tier/3rd tier schools are more narrow (and so 2nd-tier/3rd tier schools rarely have astrobiology or anything interdisciplinary). This is also why I believe that places like caltech/MIT are actually best (relative to others) for things like theoretical neuroscience, since undergrads at "lower" institutions practically have no options, rather than for things like math/physics where undergrads can take grad level courses and do research. But I may only have a chance at 2nd-tier/3rd-tier due to my situation, unless I manage to do something exceptional in my gap year (or two).

Another possible source of strength is that I have more math/amath background than other students, and so if a department has numerous grad students who struggle with the math in astrophysics, I may have an advantage.

====

Hm though, after looking at things more, it seems that the University of Washington doesn't seem to be highly ranked in astro at all. Strength of UG does matter when it comes to recommendations/research, which are the only way a low-GPA person can get into grad school. I'm really deliberating between astronomy and something more cognitive neuroscience-ish (which I'm also heavily interested in).

=====

[May 2012 edit: The original poster here ultimately managed to score top-applicant fellowships at both UChicago and Brown (and almost got into Yale)]
Last edited by InquilineKea on Sun May 27, 2012 12:27 am, edited 8 times in total.

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grae313
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Re: ADD kid who wants to get into astrophysics grad school

Postby grae313 » Mon Mar 22, 2010 2:23 pm

Could you maybe summarize your post in a short paragraph? You have ADD, you should understand... ;)

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InquilineKea
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Re: ADD kid who wants to get into astrophysics grad school

Postby InquilineKea » Mon Mar 22, 2010 2:27 pm

okay haha, well, i have a number of questions that are on top (specific questions) and then a few paragraphs describing my current situation.

And then at the end, a paragraph describing what I think grad schools might look for. Basically I know that it's a very uphill climb, but I'd like to know what I can do to at least maximize my chances of getting in somewhere. I know that some people with similar GPAs here have gotten into astro grad schools. But my situation may not parallel theirs in certain ways, which may alternatively make it completely hopeless for me (which I'd like to know too, if true). I've had the nasty experience of applying to numerous programs and getting rejected by all of them, and it's not something I'd like to see again.
Last edited by InquilineKea on Sun May 27, 2012 12:20 am, edited 2 times in total.

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grae313
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Re: ADD kid who wants to get into astrophysics grad school

Postby grae313 » Mon Mar 22, 2010 7:43 pm

You should edit your original post and put your goal right at the top. At this point it sounds like you have very little coursework in physics or astronomy, and if this is indeed the case that is your biggest barrier to getting into graduate school. If you take more classes, make sure you cover the most important courses that a physics/astro major would take.

After reading your post and some from the forums you linked to, my honest opinion is that it sounds like you still have quite a bit of growing up to do. When I began college, I didn't want to waste time wading through the kid stuff, I didn't want to waste time listening to lecturers tell me what was already written in the textbook in plain English, and I didn't want to waste time studying when I could ace the test by just reading through the material the night before the exam. I eventually dropped out and battled depression for two years. You have challenges that I and most people never have to face, but be careful not to use them as excuses. School is a game of hoops, and if you want to be successful, you have to learn to jump through them. When I eventually came back to school and excelled, I did so because I made myself play the game. Even though I knew grades were meaningless, I made myself care about getting the best grade in the class every single time to keep it interesting. I was committed to doing well on paper as well as in actuality because I knew the only way I would ever get to a good grad school is if I played the game.

You need to realize this and focus your efforts, each and every day, on doing the trivial grunt work that gets you the prize at the end. Graduate schools are going to want to see that you have the necessary coursework to prepare you for their program. Your extra classes in math are great, as long as they supplement a solid core knowledge of the subject at hand. You say you have difficulties with classroom learning, well, kick ass in research and impress somebody. Research carries a ton of weight and this isn't always stated up front. As well, with a somewhat shaky profile in some areas, strong letters of recommendation can become much more influential. If you're as smart as you think you are, you need to start showing it and impress the hell out of three people so they will write you strong letters.

What caliber of school are you aiming for and when will you be graduating?

Your undergraduate institution will not be a barrier, but different things are expected from students from different schools. You need to make the most of the opportunities you have and show that you are the type of person that succeeds and excels at their endeavors to make it into a top program. However, compared to physics, astronomy programs seem to be much easier to get into, with lower expectations for gpa and pgre scores.

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InquilineKea
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Re: ADD kid who wants to get into astrophysics grad school

Postby InquilineKea » Mon Mar 22, 2010 8:08 pm

Thanks so much for the reply. I really appreciate it. I'll edit my post to include what you said.

With respect to coursework, I actually have electromagnetism and quantum mechanics, so I have most of the core courses that a physics/astro major would need. I'll also have taken a few astro courses (most of what my university offers), but my university does not offer very many of them.

Yeah, I must realize that about the excuses. My rationale for explaining excuses is that they can only be used if they are used for explanations for past failures, when they apply more to the past than the present, and when they can be used to prevent others from developing their own (less charitable) hypotheses for my past failures, such as low intelligence and/or a basic unwillingness to work hard. Thus, attention deficit disorder (treated with medication) can be a excuse, as with basic immaturity, as both of those things apply more to the past than to the present. Something like Asperger's, however, cannot be used as an excuse, since it doesn't become less severe with time.

I realize that about research as well. It seems that some types of research are harder to impress than other types of research though. My school (UWashington), for instance, has astronomy research that falls in two bodies: observation (SDSS for instance) and N-body simulations. I've done some research in both, but there wasn't much area for me to express any creativity. When it comes to theory, however, my university seems to fall short. This is an issue since it is often easier to impress with theory than with observation (with observation, it seems that one can work harder, yes, but it's hard to think of something creative). There are some professors who are more interdisciplinary though, and it's probably easier to do something impressive with those. But maybe any field can be impressive once a student develops his own project with only guidance from his mentor.

I'll graduate next year, but I intend to take a gap year or two to do research. I'm really trying to aim for schools of any calibre (I don't even care if it's third tier), but I'd like to get into a better program if I could (one thing is that top schools tend to have more interdisciplinary researchers, and many of my strengths lie in interdisciplinary-ness. This may, in fact, affect admission since grad committees try to select applicants whose interests are lined up with those of faculty)

Another thing I wonder is this: has anyone considered planetary sciences? How competitive is planetary sciences compared to astrophysics, in general?
Last edited by InquilineKea on Sun May 27, 2012 12:20 am, edited 2 times in total.

AO
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Re: ADD kid who wants to get into astrophysics grad school

Postby AO » Tue Mar 23, 2010 2:43 am

I think you still might be missing the point. I myself have a learning disability that resulted from a pretty severe head injury when I was 10. It made my school life incredibly difficult, to the point that I barely graduated high school and got in to some trouble that forced me to drop out of college. From the time I was injured until I was about 20 I used the excuse of my disability as a crutch and it allowed me to rationalize my own failure. I didn't have to prove anything to anybody because I believed my genius was not quantifiable by academic metrics.

This psychology is a dangerous combination of arrogance and self pity (I'm referring to myself).

Everybody who wants to succeed in physics at a graduate level MUST do a certain amount of grunt work to even be considered. This is true in any field. A lot of people think they can be the best at something without working their way up. Think of this from a supervisor's point of view. Do you think they want some kid who wants to be creative and just explore the cutting edge of the field they, the supervisor, spent their life studying and grinding away at? Or, would they prefer the kid who worked his/her way up and listened to his/her superiors even when it wasn't the most exciting topic?

My first research position coming back from dropping out was doing HEP-Astro research. The research I actually did was not particularly interesting, but I had the opportunity to work with some really brilliant people. In exchange for some pretty epic bash-scripting on my part, I was able to pick the brains of real, successful physicists. I kept this job for 2+ years even though day in and day out the work was tedious and the definition of uncreative. This job led to my current work in exoplanet research, not a topic I was all that interested in on a personal level but one that allowed me to spread my creative wings a little bit. My current boss allows me to do some creative work on the side because he knows I can script (I graduated to python) like a maniac and that I'm willing to work a ton of overtime, doing work he knows I don't enjoy, in order to meet his needs.

The point of doing research is not to impress people with your results, although that can help, but rather to show that you can work FOR somebody doing something you don't necessarily enjoy because you take pride in the quality of your own work. You want to be seen as an asset. No one wants to here what you think until you've shown you care about what's already been done.

There is more to physics than E&M and quantum, a lot more. And rest assured that most of it will show up on the physics gre.

My advice:

If physics is really what you want to do then take those other classes and try to enjoy them. Find any professor that will take you on as a researcher and do everything you can to impress them with your work ethic. NEVER complain about your work not being creative enough for you. Keep that position as long as you can and make sure you find something of value to learn from the people in your research group. Make sure you let them know how much you genuinely appreciate them (this implies that you must in fact genuinely appreciate them).

I can't say I fully understand what it would be like to be in your situation with two serious disabilities but it's clear you're at least bright enough. If social interactions aren't your forte then physics might be perfect for you. We are an awkward bunch and nobody appreciates those who might not be the most socially fluid individuals, more than us.

And after several paragraphs of meandering logic, I am done. I hope this helped.

-Josh

kroner
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Re: ADD kid who wants to get into astrophysics grad school

Postby kroner » Tue Mar 23, 2010 3:15 am

Just going by your profile there's no reason you can't get into grad school and maybe a pretty good one. University of Washington is a good school and it sounds like you have a solid background in terms of course work. The GPA isn't good, but it's not insurmountable considering it's only one piece of the application, and the fact that it's improved considerably reflects well. It shows schools that you've matured and have been able to address some of the problems you faced earlier, which is what they want to see. If you can get some good recs, that would also help ease any doubts that your GPA might raise. Obviously research and good GREs are important (and research should hopefully help with securing recs too).

I don't know how much schools really care about the whole ADD thing, but I don't think your profile is as disastrous as you might think. It seems workable to me.

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InquilineKea
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Re: ADD kid who wants to get into astrophysics grad school

Postby InquilineKea » Tue Mar 23, 2010 1:49 pm

Thanks so much for the replies!

AO: Your situation does sound remarkably like my situation, especially the combination of arrogance and self-pity. I really don't want to sound arrogant though. I'm quite willing to do grunt work (and I genuinely appreciate any opportunity to do research - I think there is something interesting to be learned from every type of research) - it's just that I fear that it may not be enough to overcome my GPA issues. Everyone has done research, and doing grunt work won't help distinguish me from the others (even though this is precisely what I need). Or might it carry that possibility?

That being said though, I often do have issues with miscommunication, and sometimes people might take my social anxiety as arrogance. I'm going to have to work on it, of course. Sometimes people might take my genuine comments as sarcasm, desperation, or a signal of something undesirable like neuroticism/instability. =/

There is more to physics than E&M and quantum, a lot more. And rest assured that most of it will show up on the physics gre.


Yeah, I know. I'm going to have to self-study those subjects (which I can do) since I can't take some of the other subjects due to issues with the university forcing me to graduate (and the rarity on which they are offered).

====

kroner: Thanks for reassuring me. Is University of Washington really a good school for astronomy? When I look at the forums here, it seems to be considered a "safety school". And there was this paper evaluating the comparative strengths of graduate programs, and UW wasn't even on there.

[Further update: this applicant managed to win a full fellowship at UChicago 2 years later. So yes - it IS possible to correct oneself and to get into top programs]
Last edited by InquilineKea on Sun May 27, 2012 12:21 am, edited 3 times in total.

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grae313
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Re: ADD kid who wants to get into astrophysics grad school

Postby grae313 » Tue Mar 23, 2010 8:14 pm

UW is top 20 in physics for graduate school. A very respectable program. I don't know anything about undergrad or astro though.

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YellowXDart
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Re: ADD kid who wants to get into astrophysics grad school

Postby YellowXDart » Wed Mar 24, 2010 5:09 pm

InquilineKea wrote:Sometimes people might take my genuine comments as sarcasm, desperation, or a signal of something undesirable like neuroticism/instability. =/


Honestly, I think a lot of us phsyics types come off this way (or I do at the very least).

One point that I'm not sure has been made yet (I only scanned the previous posts since they were so long), if you have been diagnosed with ADD by a doctor, you can get extra time on the PGRE. This is something I would highly suggest looking into, since the PGRE can be a pretty significant part of your app.

heidy12
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Re: ADD kid who wants to get into astrophysics grad school

Postby heidy12 » Fri Jan 14, 2011 8:00 am

hello,...
These are really nice sharing on your site.I completely understand everything.
Thanks for such a nice sharing :)

Astro-K
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Re: ADD kid who wants to get into astrophysics grad school

Postby Astro-K » Fri Jan 14, 2011 9:44 pm

@InquilineKea Yep, UW is one of the higher-end astro grad schools. Not one of the elite schools, but definitely top tier (top third, perhaps?).

SSM
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Re: ADD kid who wants to get into astrophysics grad school

Postby SSM » Sat Jan 15, 2011 9:21 pm

grae313 wrote: When I began college, I didn't want to waste time wading through the kid stuff, I didn't want to waste time listening to lecturers tell me what was already written in the textbook in plain English, and I didn't want to waste time studying when I could ace the test by just reading through the material the night before the exam. I eventually dropped out and battled depression for two years. You have challenges that I and most people never have to face, but be careful not to use them as excuses. School is a game of hoops, and if you want to be successful, you have to learn to jump through them. When I eventually came back to school and excelled, I did so because I made myself play the game. Even though I knew grades were meaningless, I made myself care about getting the best grade in the class every single time to keep it interesting. I was committed to doing well on paper as well as in actuality because I knew the only way I would ever get to a good grad school is if I played the game.

You need to realize this and focus your efforts, each and every day, on doing the trivial grunt work that gets you the prize at the end.


Funny, I went through the same thing. At our school we have a professor who teaches sophomore classical mechanics that turned me around. He gives unlimited time exams that are extremely difficult and teaches without a class rubric per se. He waits around all day helping people with ridiculously hard homework and uses a book that makes a point not to "go through the motions". This class was my biggest inspiration for doing well in college courses because it made me want to keep going in graduate school. I actually began to find the grunt work interesting and worth doing.

Anyway, I think you're right...most people in physics go through that. I think every scientist who is worth anything probably goes through this hoop jumping dilemma at one point or another.




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