Three questions about applying to Master's programs + "what are my chances"?

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Three questions about applying to Master's programs + "what are my chances"?

Post by carbonatedwater » Mon Oct 10, 2016 4:00 pm

Hi everyone,

I'm thinking about applying to master's programs for fall 2017 admission and had a couple questions. Figured it'd be better to make one thread than three. Apologies for length, and thank you in advance for your help.

Undergrad Institution: public, top 20 in physics
Major(s): double major in physics and an unrelated field
GPA in Major: 3.0 // 3.8 final two quarters
Overall GPA: 3.0 // 3.75 final two quarters
Length of Degree: six years
Position in Class: average
Type of Student: non-URM woman, domestic

GRE Scores:
general: not yet taken, estimating near-perfect scores based on practice test results
subject: not yet taken, estimating 900 (pm 20) based on practice test results

Research Experience: barely any. I've done quite a bit of independent research and have an in-progress project that will lead to a first-author publication, but this has all been completely outside of the field of physics. I'm now doing monkey work (that's still interesting, but not physics-related and doesn't involve any original research) in a lab that is only nominally a physics lab. By the time I apply, I'll only have six months in this lab.

Any Miscellaneous Accomplishments that Might Help: Putnam score of 21, having not taken any math courses for the prior two years (and before taking any upper division math)

Special Bonus Points + Any Other Info That Shows Up On Your App and Might Matter: received my BA before turning 18

Okay so I know my profile is terrible. My GPA for my second last quarter of classes was 3.9 and my final quarter GPA was 3.6, but this is clearly not enough to offset years of poor grades (B average) in core courses. The only classes I got As or A-s in were quantum, particle, and GR. I did a lot of self study this year to fill in my curriculum gaps and am taking the pGRE this month. From practice exam results, I expect a high score.

I didn't take a lot of upper div math classes in undergrad, but the ones I took I did well in (all A's) and were some of the most enjoyable learning experiences I've had in undergrad (along with particle, GR, and preparing for the Putnam). Partly because of this, I hope to explore mathematical/theoretical physics research in a master's program and eventually transition to mathematical physics. I figure I have one of two ways to do this. Either I take another gap year and take math classes as a non-matriculated student, do well on the mGRE, and apply to math master's programs, or I apply to physics master's programs with my current profile, do theoretical research in the program, and use that to apply to theoretical physics PhD programs that have strong collaboration with their math departments. I'm thinking about doing both - applying to physics programs this December, then continuing on with my main plan unless I get into a masters' programs, in which case I will go with the second plan.

I have extenuating circumstances that might help me argue that my transcript isn't indicative of my potential in a graduate program. I got my BA before I turned 18 and struggled with intense mental health issues throughout university due to personal/familial reasons. Those reasons have since been resolved and so should not hold me back now. It also took me several years to learn the sort of discipline/time management/self-motivation to do well in classes, and I'm hoping that my GPA during my last two quarters + (expected) pGRE score will help show that I've improved as a student enough to make a program want to give me a chance for a year or two, where I can either demonstrate that I'm capable of succeeding in an academic/research environment or realize that it's not for me. I have some questions about my chances of being able to successfully do this + how to improve them.

1. Are masters programs (specifically, top 30-50 masters programs) necessarily less selective than their PhD counterparts? Does anyone have anecdotal data about applications/admissions to physics masters' programs that you could share with me?

2. Is there anything I can do now to maximize my chances of getting accepted to a top 50 school? Would it be useful to try to join a different lab now where I can do non-monkey work even if it means I will only have between 3-5 months in said lab before applying? I feel like my lack of meaningful research experience is probably the weakest part of my application, even against my GPA, and the lab I am currently in does not do any physics-related research, although it is technically a physics lab.

3. Due to financial and recommender constraints, I can only probably apply to 4-7 schools. I'm having a hard time figuring out where I stand relative to other applicants and subsequently in deciding on "match" schools. I'm not going to apply to any safeties since I have a backup plan if I do get rejected from everywhere, but I'd obviously like to end up in the best place I can. Would a master's program ranked 35-50 function be a "match" for me, or should I lower my expectations?

I know this is a lot to ask (and read!) and I appreciate anyone's help or feedback or criticism.

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Re: Three questions about applying to Master's programs + "what are my chances"?

Post by astroprof » Tue Oct 11, 2016 11:06 am

First, it sounds like you have well developed plans that are matched to your interests. In your situation, starting as a Masters student is probably a good choice, as it will allow you to demonstrate your capabilities and your developing maturity. That said, however, the majority of Physics graduate schools admit directly to the PhD program (Masters degrees are often awarded along the way), and almost always the funding (tuition and stipend) is reserved for PhD students. There are a handful of Masters-only programs, but they would not be considered within the top 30-50 graduate programs, simply because they do not grant a PhD. However, if you attend one of those programs, they are likely to provide some funding, and they are well versed in helping their students get into higher ranked programs for their PhD. In addition to the Masters-only schools, you may also want to look at schools that are participating in the APS Bridge program ( Based on your description, you are not eligible for the bridge program yourself, but these departments may be more likely to recognize your potential and have structures in place that can help you succeed.

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Re: Three questions about applying to Master's programs + "what are my chances"?

Post by muonneutrino » Tue Oct 11, 2016 9:30 pm

I believe Canada has some decent Masters programs that are largely funded (at the University of British Columbia, the cost is about $5000 per year for international students). However, my understanding of their system is that you cannot apply directly for a PhD but rather must get a Masters first. Due to this, I am not sure if they are any less selective than PhD programs.

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Re: Three questions about applying to Master's programs + "what are my chances"?

Post by bfollinprm » Thu Oct 13, 2016 3:48 am

I think you have a decent shot at most schools outside of the top 10, honestly, at least depending on your recommendations. If they're strong, I'd apply to schools strong in fundamental theory and mathematical physics ranked 15-50. You sound like a good fit for UC Davis' quantum math and physics group (, and I know we have pretty progressive treatment of applications. If you can explain the increase from B's to A's in your personal statement--even if it's just through maturing--the combination of your good score on the PGRE and your evident drive for self-study should get you in lots of places.

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