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quarkquarkquark's avatar

How can I improve my chances at grad school?

Asked by quarkquarkquark (1690 points ) November 24th, 2011

I’m interested in a math or physics MSc program that’s geared towards liberal arts students. I don’t have a serious background in either, although I am a math minor. I will graduate with a GPA somewhere in the 3.3–3.6 range, I am confident that I will get a perfect or close-to-perfect GRE score, and I want to go to at least a fairly good school. It’s too late now for me to apply for next year, so I have time to take classes or whatever (I’m graduating next semester from a very good private college). So, what can I do to improve my chances?

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10 Answers

Aethelflaed's avatar

Figure out who you want to talk to in the department (they should have bios on the department page), email that person, and tell them that you’re really interested in their program, but despite your good grades, you’re worried that your liberal arts background will put you at a disadvantage. Ask them what you can do to help improve your chances of being accepted into their program – is there perhaps a few classes you should be taking in the meantime? Any other suggestions they might have?

quarkquarkquark's avatar

Wait, those are good grades? I posted the question because I consider 3.3–3.6 to be at the low end for grad school—especially hard science programs.

Aethelflaed's avatar

@quarkquarkquark Oh, yeah, you’re right. Sorry, didn’t read thoroughly enough.

dappled_leaves's avatar

Out of curiosity, are you in Canada or the US? Do you know what sort of project you plan to work on? What you should do is figure out what supervisor you want to work with, then contact them personally. If the supervisor wants you, it won’t matter if your GPA is a little low. Knowing what you want to do for your graduate thesis (at least in what area) will also help you decide what courses will prepare you for the work that lies ahead.

Your GPA is mainly important for scholarships; showing that you are interested in building your academic career is more likely to make you attractive to a supervisor or admissions committee.

SavoirFaire's avatar

What do you mean by a “MSc that’s geared towards liberal arts students”? Graduate programs are geared towards one group of people only: serious students of the subject. These aren’t vanity degrees. You don’t need an undergraduate degree in mathematics or physics to get into a Master’s program, but you do need to demonstrate that you have the requisite skills to practice your chosen discipline at the level required of first-year graduate students. Absent that, you will either not get in (if they suss you out in advance) or be asked to leave (if they suss you out after you arrive).

quarkquarkquark's avatar

@dappled_leaves, I’m not that far along in my thinking. I don’t have a serious undergraduate education in either physics or math, so either way my idea will be relatively unsophisticated compared to what other prospective students might be offering up. My interest in physics is in relativity, and I think I could make an okay case for something in mathematical logic- set theory stuff, maybe. But still, unsophisticated.

@SavoirFaire—I have no illusions about what a graduate degree exists for. However, I do recall reading somewhere that there are MSc programs that are oriented towards students who don’t have a serious background in the subject at hand. Maybe this is wrong. I’m not looking, either way, to just get in. I’m asking for advice as to how I can improve my chances in any way over the next couple of years. I am, for example, willing to take any number of continuing-ed physics and math classes. But how should I approach these? Should I try to take them at a good school? Does that matter? I really don’t know where to start.

SavoirFaire's avatar

@quarkquarkquark If there are MSc programs oriented towards students without a serious background in the subject, they only exist to make money. Such programs are not worth joining.

Assuming your future GRE scores are really as good as you expect, you don’t have to worry quite so much about your grades. You might consider putting of graduation and taking an extra year of math and physics classes. If that is not an option, the continuing education classes would also work. Where you take them isn’t terribly important so long as the school is decent.

Regardless, do not apply to graduate school without some idea of what you want to work on while you’re there and what you want to do once you are finished. If you do not have any idea for a project or a career path, you aren’t ready.

quarkquarkquark's avatar

Well, I’m not ready in any sense of the word (hence the question). So that doesn’t put me off. I don’t have enough of a grounding to know what I want to study specifically, but do you not think it’s enough to focus on relativistic physics? I know I think about as much as a layman can about these things, and I know I want to do theoretical, not experimental physics, and that I want to focus on relativity. I think we’re approaching what’s potentially a really exciting time for relativity, especially now that the neutrino results have (seemingly) been replicated.

dappled_leaves's avatar

@quarkquarkquark Ok, you’ve decided on relativistic physics. Go find a researcher who actually does that, and whose work you like, and talk to them. Ask them if they have any graduate positions available, and what your next steps should be. It needn’t be the person you eventually work with. Even just the process of finding such a person will probably be instructive for you, and might tell you a little more about what kind of work you want to do.

SavoirFaire's avatar

I completely agree with @dappled_leaves. Since you are currently at a very good private college, speak to someone there if you can. In addition to asking about your next steps, though, ask about the graduate school experience. Talking with someone who has already had some success in your chosen field is invaluable. Get as much information about life during grad school and life after grad school as you can. I don’t know how well I would have handled my first year if I had not been prepared for it by a mentor at my undergraduate institution.

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