Length of undergraduate career a factor?

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Length of undergraduate career a factor?

Post by sciboinkhobbes » Wed Feb 25, 2009 12:32 am

Hey everyone,

I happen to be at an interesting juncture in my education thus far. I am a third-year undergraduate student studying physics, mathematics, and astronomy at my (somewhat small) university, and the notion of attending graduate school is quickly approaching.

I'm having trouble, however, because I'm debating between graduating on time (May of 2010) or taking an extra semester or two. There appear to be pros and cons to both, and any advice would be greatly appreciated.

The scenario is as such: I'm quite young (19), and I would very much like to complete three majors, in Physics, Math, and Astronomy. It isn't quite as bad as it sounds, because the dual degree in Physics and Astronomy is nearly the same as a Physics degree with an Astronomy minor. I've also found that, through my college career thus far, I really really like math - and the amount of math I'd like to take can amount to a major. However, I would need to take an extra semester (or maybe an extra year, if I stretch it out a lot) to complete all three degrees, as opposed to only pursuing a dual degree and graduating on time.

The (possible) Pros:
-Would allow me to pursue significantly more research before grad school
-Would allow me to lighten my course load a little bit and stretch things out, leading to good grades
-Would allow me to have a more thorough understanding in each of the three fields before attending grad school

The (possible) Cons:
-Would look unnecessary, and taking so much time might reflect poorly on my grad school applications (biggest concern)
-Graduating in Dec. 2010 would give me that spring semester (Spring 2011) without much of anything to do

Really, I would like to finish all three majors, and being as young as I am, I don't mind the prospect of staying longer as an undergraduate. However, the thing I am extremely concerned about is jeopardizing my chances to get into a good graduate program.

I have a few graduate schools in mind, and so I've considered contacting their application committees directly for advice, but I thought I'd check here first and see what the general consensus might be. :)

I appreciate any and all feedback! Thanks in advance.

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Re: Length of undergraduate career a factor?

Post by nathan12343 » Wed Feb 25, 2009 12:51 am

Graduating with three majors will look good enough on your record that it makes sense to take another year. You're also very young, by the time you graduate you will be the same age as many peers applying to grad school at the same time. Take your time, study for the GRE, take grad classes if you want.

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Re: Length of undergraduate career a factor?

Post by stardust » Wed Feb 25, 2009 1:04 am

I don't know the answer to your question. But it would be terribly shallow for them
to hold it against you or assume if a person's takes longer they must be retarded or
something. I think in your case it only strengthens your application. If you plan to go
into theoretical work, I think having the math would be great to have. Plus, research problems
are highly interdisciplanary, that having all three majors is really the best way to tackle a
multitude of research problems. The only other thing might be if you weren't planning
to go into astronomy would the other physics specialities think you are less interested in
them. Again, they shouldn't be so shallow to think you can't learn anything outside your field.
I don't know if I would go into $50,000 of debt for the extra year, but if you were going to suck
more $$$ out of parents or fellowships, nows the best time to do it :), because later on they
will say 'get a yob.'

I lengthened my degree due to financial reasons but also because I had these great
semester long research internships at government labs where I felt 15 weeks during the
academic year was better than 10 weeks during the summer. So, I hope they do not hold
it against people. I don't know if its something we should discuss in the statement of

So, as long as other people lengthened their degrees longer than you did, you are okay :).
(Kind of like on the highway, if other people are speeding worse than you, then you don't
have to worry about a ticket even if you are speeding :) - actually that turns out not to
be true because they always catch the one in the back)

Go for it!

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Re: Length of undergraduate career a factor?

Post by noojens » Wed Feb 25, 2009 1:42 am

How much research experience do you have?

I ask because this and the PGRE are for more important factors in the admissions process than length of degree or number of majors.

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Re: Length of undergraduate career a factor?

Post by WhatCanYouDoFermi? » Wed Feb 25, 2009 2:06 am

I think factors like your 'cons' come secondary, or maybe even further down, to the all important 'pros' on your list. Basically, if you can use that time to do significant research or score exceptionally well on the standardized tests, then those other things go out the window.

Personally I took 5 years for only one major (and a minor) then took an additional year off, and I've had pretty good luck so far in the admissions process, with a couple of top tens and counting...

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Re: Length of undergraduate career a factor?

Post by surjective » Wed Feb 25, 2009 12:32 pm

I don't think anyone cares how long your undergrad was (5 years vs. 4 won't matter). I did a 5-year undergrad, had not stellar PGRE score (<900), and got into lots of top schools (Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, Princeton, etc.).

So, I don't know about all the schools, but at least the ones I listed don't care.

Also, having done more stuff (courses, research) in undergrad is a plus - gives you a fuller application.

So, decide for yourself what's best, and don't worry about the extra year. It almost certainly won't hurt your application.

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Re: Length of undergraduate career a factor?

Post by bryanwitha_y » Wed Feb 25, 2009 12:46 pm

The original poster's question has been answered, so the following point is just an academic argument, at best.

I'm not going to say that it's a major factor in the decision of admission, but I will relate to you some advice my advisor gave to me early on in my graduate career.

I was deciding on whether or not to pursue a double major in physics and computer science and a math minor (like that adds much) if it meant going on an extra year. He gave me the obligatory "if that's really what you want to do, go for it" deal, but then said that if my ultimate goal is to get into a good graduate school, that it would be better to make compromises in the interest of getting out in 4 years. He explained that grad schools are looking for someone who can get in, get stuff done, and get the heck out, and that number of years serves as a good indicator for such a thing.

Of course, if you do a triple major and get it done in 5 years, I'd still look at that and say "they know how to get stuff done," so I agree with the above that you should be in the clear under that circumstance.

Just my $0.03 (in anticipation of accelerating inflation)

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Re: Length of undergraduate career a factor?

Post by Helio » Wed Feb 25, 2009 2:08 pm

bryanwitha_y wrote: Just my $0.03 (in anticipation of accelerating inflation)
i never knew that accelerated inflation meant that the prices are going down, which they have :lol: :lol:

do research in your time off... or see if you can take grad classes somewhere close to your home

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Re: Length of undergraduate career a factor?

Post by grae313 » Wed Feb 25, 2009 5:35 pm

I agree with what others have said, don't worry about the extra time, if the three majors are really what you want. But as has been mentioned, research experience is more important than a third major. So spend that extra semester taking grad classes and doing as much research as you can possibly squeeze into your life, all year round including the summers, then graduate in the fall instead and you'll be in great shape.

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Re: Length of undergraduate career a factor?

Post by sciboinkhobbes » Thu Feb 26, 2009 1:48 am

Thank you so much, everyone, for your responses! I appreciate it so much :)

This seems to correspond well with the information I've been getting from some academic advisors and some peers, so I think I'll go for it to do the extra research, focus on grades, and have a good shot at the GRE. My father, who was in academia 30-some years ago, said much the same thing as bryanwitha_y's advisor, that it looked much better to be able to graduate on time, or even early. But as most people said, I feel that the three majors, fairly good grades, more research, and good scores would outweigh that. Another quick question: Is it advisable to take the GRE more than once, or study like crazy for one chance to take it, and try to excel then?

A few of my professors in the physics department have looked at me like I was slightly crazy to get the math major too... but with my possible interest in mathematical and/or theoretical physics, I think that extra math would be in my best interest. Taking some grad classes that super-senior year sounds quite appealing as well :D Also, I haven't done research yet, but I'm waiting on 4 REU applications for this summer, and anticipate doing space grant research this coming year.

Thanks again for your advice, I will continue pondering... And any more suggestions/comments are very welcome!

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Re: Length of undergraduate career a factor?

Post by grae313 » Thu Feb 26, 2009 12:18 pm

sciboinkhobbes wrote:Thanks again for your advice, I will continue pondering... And any more suggestions/comments are very welcome!
The REUs are good, but to give yourself the best chance, you really want to jam pack your life with research. Stellar research experience really makes an application stand out. You should aim to do research not juts 40 hours a week during the summer or more, but also 10 to 20 hours a week during the school year and keep your grades up at the same time. This is my opinion of course and some may disagree. Be an overachiever: do more than everyone else and do it better.

As for retaking the GRE, it's been discussed and I think the general consensus is to take your first shot like it is your only shot. Taking the GRE is expensive and a pain, so study like you want to take it once. If you really do worse than you expected, then it's good to leave yourself enough time to take it again, but it's not advisable to PLAN on taking it again from the onset.

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