Bad GPA, good general scores, bad subject score, give it to me straight

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Bad GPA, good general scores, bad subject score, give it to me straight

Post by brinekh » Mon Apr 27, 2020 5:55 am

I am double majoring in physics and mathematics at a middling UC school. I am a graduating senior with a general GPA of 3.174, my physics GPA is a 2.970, and I have 2 years of pretty good research with no publications. I am able to get one glowing letter of recommendation from the professor I research under, hopefully one good one from a professor whose class I did well in, and maybe another of unknown quality from someone I don't know.

My GRE scores are as follows:
V: 164 (94%)
Q: 166 (89%)
R: 5.0 (92%)
P: 660 (40%)

I was planning on going to grad school this coming year but after I got the PGRE score I freaked out and didn't apply because I decided I was going to retake it, then it got cancelled because of the plague. So now I'm taking a gap year doing god knows what. It looks like it will be something unrelated to STEM entirely, like teaching a sport.

I want to know if there is a chance I get into any of the top 40 with this resume. If not, does anyone have suggestions for the rankings/schools I should be aiming for? My professor keeps telling me to aim high and go for Berkeley but he got his PhD from MIT and had a 4.0 in undergraduate so I think he might be poisoned by experience.

P.S. not to make this post too broad, but if anyone has advice about how to make my gap year meaningful for a career in physics, because right now it feels like the tens of thousands of dollars and thousands of hours I put into getting my bachelors is going up in smoke.

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Re: Bad GPA, good general scores, bad subject score, give it to me straight

Post by AstroObs » Mon Apr 27, 2020 11:21 am

I think your PGRE score is a more optimistic aspect of your application because it is not crazy low and there are opportunities to improve it during this+next year. Jumping from 40% to a high score is not unheard of. It would be nice to at least get above 700 (ideally 800) for the odd school that might use arbitrary cutoffs.

The harder to improve aspects are your GPA and research. One strong research letter is good but will not make you stand out for the top 40. Research tends to be under looked by undergrads, but a PhD is a research degree and is really the reason they are hiring you, what they are training you to do. The most valuable thing you can do for your gap year (ideally alongside improving your PGRE) is more research, develop more relevant skills, and try to contribute to an original discovery that can be shared with the scientific community in some form. That way your research record extends beyond the words in one rec letter.

Since both your PGRE and research can be improved, I certainly would say you can get to the point of having a solid application for a good school. Your GPA will be a barrier, but there is not much you can do at this point. If your professor said shoot for Berkeley, I would indeed think that you have a super strong letter and it is worth giving it a shot!

Apply to a range of schools. Try for Berkeley, but don’t get too attached to the number 40. There are definite problems with rankings (eg, they are biased by department size), and a rank 30 vs 50 PhD means little difference in career outlook. I suggest you think about what areas of study are a good match for you (experience+interest) and see/ask your profs what schools are doing that. You can even write professors at target schools a few months before you apply to see if there taking on new students. At the end of the day, if you haven’t sampled ranking space well at the low, middle, or high ends, add a few more. No matter what the ranking, a PhD is never the best career move. The only guarantee is 4-6 years of research, and if that doesn’t sound like fun don’t apply.

Edit: If you want a “straight” answer, you are currently below the average matriculant to top 40 schools (check out posted profile threads), and it is very unlikely you’d get in to Berkeley. However, it is still worth applying and it is easy to see how research results+PGRE improvement could get you into a good school. While what I said above is accurate, the tone of Mizar’s response is probably more appropriate/helpful right now. I had misunderstood you intended to apply in a few months; if so you might face difficulty getting into any program regardless of ranking since there isn’t much time left for meaningful research results unless you already have a paper in the works. Nishikata made a good point of considering your own school/prof; if it is a UC that is as good as you could expect without improving research and PGRE.
Last edited by AstroObs on Wed Apr 29, 2020 1:22 pm, edited 2 times in total.

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Re: Bad GPA, good general scores, bad subject score, give it to me straight

Post by Nishikata » Tue Apr 28, 2020 1:17 pm

First. how about doing PhD in your current university? Looks like your professor is not bad.

Second, There is no reason for number 40, anyway. What are we talking here, a pop song chart?

Third, Many schools have moved on from pGRE requirement. Your gGRE is good so don't worry too much.
Your GPA is the hard problem. You better have good reasons for it.

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Re: Bad GPA, good general scores, bad subject score, give it to me straight

Post by Mizar » Tue Apr 28, 2020 9:29 pm

Here's my take on your situation, and I'm giving it to you straight...

Your GPA is going to hurt you the most and is something you're going to need to address in your application if you want a chance at getting into a "well-regarded" PhD program. I think you should stop focusing on school rankings; there really isn't that much difference in overall quality between a school ranked 40 and a school ranked 100. School ranking tracks more with size of program than quality of research, IMO, though I will say a top-20-or-so school is likely out of your reach. Still, you should follow your professor's advice and apply to at least one top-notch program if your professor is willing to write you an excellent letter. Perhaps he/she knows something we on this forum don't know.

Test scores: Good GRE scores--even perfect scores--won't make up for a very low GPA, which I'm afraid you have. Your general GRE scores are good but unfortunately won't help you and only become relevant (if ever) when you are strong in all other aspects of your application. Honestly, if I were you I wouldn't make improving my PGRE score my primary focus either, unless you think you can improve your score without a tremendous amount of effort. Even then, manage your expectations. There are plenty of PhD applicants with perfect PGRE scores and otherwise decent applications who still get rejections.

What I think you should do today is reach out to every person you can think of to secure some sort of research experience during your gap year. You want to replace that LoR of "unknown quality from someone I don't know" with an outstanding letter from someone who can speak to your potential as a researcher. Outstanding research experience is the sole factor that can make up for a poor GPA, in my opinion. I know it can be difficult to find post-bacc research, even more so during this pandemic. Talk to all your professors to see if they have any leads on where you might be able to work, and reach out to relevant industry in the area. If you can offer to work part-time without pay, that might open up some doors. Good luck.

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