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martini1179's avatar

Going to grad school several years after getting a bachelor's degree, during which time I graduated with an unremarkable GPA?

Asked by martini1179 (35points) July 29th, 2009

I’m 29 years old and exploring my career options. Grad school is one of those options, and I’m possibly considering getting a Ph.D (with the more-remote possibility of going into academia). I graduated with an English degree several years ago, with an average, unremarkable GPA, which I estimate to be around a 2.8–2.9. I also did not bother getting any letters of recommendation from any of my professors.

I blame that score on a lack of motivation, guidance and focus, as I had almost gotten the degree “by default,” since I had only a moderate interest in literature/interpretation/creative writing and couldn’t find anything that better held my interest.

So now I’m entertaining the idea of getting a Ph.D and entering academia. I’m not sure which discipline I’d like to go into, but I know that it will be in the social sciences—perhaps political science, perhaps sociology or psychology.

Like I said, I’m still in the planning stages, and any advice should be valid regardless of the field of study. So, how can I go about getting into grad school? Surely there must be other people out there who graduated with a bachelor’s a while back and didn’t grad school to be in the cards. (If there are any state-specific laws/requirements that I need to be aware of, I graduated and live in Florida).

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15 Answers

girlofscience's avatar

To be honest, your stats aren’t strong enough to get you into a decent Ph.D. program in the social sciences. Grad school admissions are extremely competitive, and someone with less than a 3.0 GPA, who doesn’t even have a background in the field, is not going to be considered a strong candidate.

Your best bet for even getting your application to be looked at by admissions committees is to kill your GREs. Like, 1450 or above. In an otherwise weak application, a good score could indicate that you’re capable of something great, and the committee may start to look at your application in a different light.

Even so, you’re not going to get into grad school simply because you have a good GRE score. You really need some kind of research experience and better defined research goals. Not only do you need to pick one specific field (political science OR sociology OR psychology), but you need to pick the subfield within that field and then the specific topic in which you are interested. At least, ideally. An application is automatically stronger when the applicant has clearly defined research goals and shows a sincere passion for a specific topic.

Anyway, like I said, you are going to need to gain some experience in some way before you apply to Ph.D. programs. This could be by working as a research assistant or by completing a masters program. While a masters degree is not necessary for acceptance to Ph.D. programs, it can be helpful for those without research experience. Masters programs are not as competitive as Ph.D. programs (though still competitive), so as long as you spin your personal statement correctly, you’d likely have a bit more of a chance. Then you’d have to spend two years getting your masters and thereby accumulating research experience, which would make you a much stronger candidate for Ph.D. programs. The only problem here is that Masters programs cost money and typically do not provide a stipend, so you’d have to go into debt for tuition and living expenses, unless you have a gigantic savings account. Going right into a Ph.D program is advantageous because tuition is waived and a living stipend is provided.

Regarding letters of rec, you can simply get them from wherever you choose to gain experience (job as a research assistant / masters program). Also, it doesn’t matter that you didn’t get letters of rec from your professors while you were in college… They wouldn’t have written them without a specific goal in mind. It is always ok to write to old professors and ask them for letters, when you have something to which you’re applying.

Hopefully this helps and good luck. Feel free to write back with more questions.

martini1179's avatar

For anyone reading this, I am NOT implying that I wish to head directly into a Ph.D program. I can and would probably better stand a chance of getting a masters first.

Girlofscience, thanks for your long, informative post, the first part of which nearly crushed my hopes under a heavy dose of reality, only to be salvaged by the second half. A few questions come to mind:

1) “Going right into a Ph.D program is advantageous because tuition is waived and a living stipend is provided.” Can you expand a little more on the tuition waiver and stipend? Surely this can’t be true for ALL Ph.D programs and students? I used to know someone in grad school for International Relations and after talking to him I was under the impression that tuition waivers were rare and stipends even moreso. This discussion took place a few years ago, so the details have eluded me.

2) I was under the impression that you needed letters of recommendation simply to be accepted into a grad school masters program, but what you’re saying implies that this is not necessary?

Thanks in advance.

erniefernandez's avatar

Your undergraduate GPA will not affect your Ph. D. application significantly. However, it will affect your Masters program, which you need first. Do well at your Masters and you’ll have a shot at a good Ph. D.

My first and most serious recommendation would be that you find something you feel passionate about and pursue that. You will fail and wallow in your own mediocrity at the doorstep of academia if you don’t really give a crap about your field.

Saying “I want a Ph. D.” is backwards. Choose a field, get passionate, learn to love it, and the degrees will follow.

And yes, you do need letters of recommendation. Just go back and ask your old Professors, if possible, or if it’s been too long, see if they’ll take letters from any other sources.

martini1179's avatar

Thanks for the reply, Ernie.

To clarify, I don’t simply “want a Ph.D.” I could see myself in academia in one of a few fields in which I’m interested. I’m just beginning my reevaluation of my life and doing some preliminary research as to what I might want to POSSIBLY do with my life. And if, during my trek I decide not to pursue an academic career, I can always do other things with my doctorate.

girlofscience's avatar

@martini1179: To answer your questions:
1) I am a grad student in a cognitive neuroscience / psychology Ph.D. program. Tuition waivers and stipends are universal in this field. No one pays tuition to work on their Ph.D., especially since class requirements are extremely minimal and the last several years are purely research. Additionally, stipends are always provided. I pay no tuition whatsoever, and I receive a stipend of slightly more than $30,000 per year. My stipend is unusually high (I attend a private, prestigious university), but stipends in this field are always provided and range from $18,000/year to $31,000 per year. For all students, regardless of their economic situation. All Ph.D. programs at my university provide stipends (though much lower for the humanities and other fields… Philosophy, for instance, receives only $12,000 per year), and tuition is never charged. I cannot say for sure about other fields at other universities, but I would guess that political science and sociology Ph.D. programs would not charge tuition and would provide stipends (although likely smaller than those in the hard sciences) almost universally. I do not know anything about business-related fields like International Relations.
2) You do need letters of rec to be accepted into Masters programs. I am sorry if what I said was misleading. I was just trying to indicate that you didn’t do anything wrong by not having asked your undergrad professors for letters while you were there. Letters of rec aren’t something that you request until you need them. Professors rarely write them to simply have on reserve. So you will need to contact the professors with whom you had the closest relationships from your undergraduate career and request letters from them in order to apply to a masters program. Since it was several years ago, they may not remember very much about you, so be sure to remind them of who you are when you contact them. You will also need to provide a lot of information about how you did in their classes, what your current research interests are, and what you have done since graduation. You may not need letters of rec for all research assistant positions, if you decided that you wanted to try that route instead of the masters degree. I was just trying to say that the letters you submit (in a few years from now) to Ph.D. programs could come from your professors at either the masters program or the research assistant position.

@erniefernandez: You are incorrect in saying that a masters is always needed before attending a Ph.D. program. This is a common misconception. I entered a Ph.D. program immediately after receiving my bachelor’s degree because I had accumulated sufficient research experience as an undergraduate. Masters programs can be useful in gaining this experience if the student did not do enough research as an undergraduate or if his/her desired career only requires a masters and the student does not plan to go on for a Ph.D.

cwilbur's avatar

@martini1179: Before you decide you want to go into academia, do some research on what the job market is like and what the working conditions are like. The working conditions tend to be so hellish that the only way you are likely to survive is if you have a deep and abiding love for your subject area—and if you’re thinking, right now, “maybe political science, maybe sociology, maybe psychology, I’m not sure!” then you really don’t have enough of a passion for it to see you through the hellish parts.

The only way you’ll survive a PhD in the soft sciences or humanities is if you simply cannot imagine your life without it. And then you get to worry about adjunct and junior faculty positions to pay the bills….

nikipedia's avatar

As @girlofscience explained, since your GPA is not strong, you need to have everything else working in your favor. The truth is, everyone has weaknesses in their application. My GPA was somewhere around a 3.1 or 3.2 and I still managed to get into a couple respectable programs because I had great GRE scores, great research experience, and fantastic letters of recommendation. Especially since you are few years out of college, your GPA probably matters less to admissions committees, assuming you have something special to offer that fresh, happy 22-year-olds with sparkly 4.0s can’t.

The thing is, academia is basically a racket. Some school exists that will admit you right now and let you pay for your PhD. Don’t go to it. If you have to pay for your PhD, it’s not worth getting and you will never get a job in academia. Never. I am not exaggerating.

My advice is to think long and hard before committing yourself to grad school. I’ve heard people say about both music and writing, “Don’t make a career out of it if you’re capable of doing anything else.” That sums up what I think about grad school. If you are not obsessively in love with the thing you choose to study, if you don’t think about constantly, if you don’t read about it for fun, if it doesn’t make your heart beat faster, if you can’t imagine your life without it, then you should not go to grad school. Not because you’re not capable, but because you will be fucking miserable.

And while you are slogging through your coursework and forcing yourself to get your research done, your classmates who are obsessed with your field will be staying up late fantasizing about new ways to isolate pericyte cells or writing code until the sun comes up because they can’t wait to see what their data look like.

This next bit isn’t exactly topical, but I want to quote it anyway because it really puts things in perspective. Most people think of science as a best case scenario in academia—it has the best funding and you have pretty good odds of eventually having a Real Job. Now, consider this:

Why does anyone think science is a good job?
The average trajectory for a successful scientist is the following:

1. age 18–22: paying high tuition fees at an undergraduate college
2. age 22–30: graduate school, possibly with a bit of work, living on a stipend of $1800 per month
3. age 30–35: working as a post-doc for $30,000 to $35,000 per year
4. age 36–43: professor at a good, but not great, university for $65,000 per year
5. age 44: with (if lucky) young children at home, fired by the university (“denied tenure” is the more polite term for the folks that universities discard), begins searching for a job in a market where employers primarily wish to hire folks in their early 30s

Sorry for writing you a tome. SUMMARY: You can probably get into a shitty grad school. Don’t go. Grad school might not be worth it anyway. Unless you are idiotically, inexplicably in love.

erniefernandez's avatar

@martini1179 Well news to me about not needing a Masters. Good to know. I’ve never met someone like you, personally, but I’ll take your word for it.

wundayatta's avatar

Being accepted into a PhD track program doesn’t mean you don’t get your Masters first. It’s just that that’s merely a step in the program. You don’t have to complete a program whose terminal degree is a Masters before applying to a PhD program. You can enter a program whose terminal degree is a PhD without having already earned a Masters.

@nikipedia Those salaries look pretty low to me. In general, academics in the hard sciences make a heck of a lot more than academics in the social sciences or liberal arts. The salaries you are quoting look like liberal arts salaries. The only folks who might make as much as hard scientists (or more) are those from business schools. People who have worked with me have gone straight into tenure track positions with starting salaries between 80k and 100k (90k salary plus 10k for research).

@martini1179 Plenty of people who just floated through college have gotten serious and been accepted into PhD programs. All you can do is apply. Sure, work experience in your desired field helps, as does great GRE scores, but in the end, you’re going to be accepted based on what the committee thinks about your motivation and ability to succeed. They may require that you take certain courses before entering the program, in some cases, or that you take extra courses while in the program.

There are various milestones on your way, and if you don’t pass them, you flunk out of the program. First, you shouldn’t get any grades less than a B+, and preferably all A’s. Second, you’ll have to pass your comprehensive exams (oral or written). Then you’ve got to get your research proposal accepted, and finally you’ve got to defend your dissertation. Usually, if they let you get to a dissertation defense, that means they think you’ve got the stuff to get your doctorate.

Where you get your degree can help determine what kind of position you get. However, if you get a lot of good publications even if you are at a less prestigious school, that can help you a lot in getting a good job. Of course, at less prestigious schools, the researchers are probably not as talented, and thus may not be able to help you as much.

In any case, be prepared to make a really good case for yourself if you want to overcome your lackadaisical approach to college.

girlofscience's avatar

@daloon: Many programs whose terminal degree is the Ph.D. do not require that you get a masters along the way. I will never have a masters degree. Just a B.S. and a Ph.D.

wundayatta's avatar

@girlofscience Interesting. They don’t consider you to have a masters after you pass your comps?

girlofscience's avatar

@daloon: Nope. If for some reason you’re going to fail out of the program halfway through, they let you do something to get a masters. And if you really wanted a masters for some reason, while completing the program, you could do that something extra to get it. But it’s separate and beyond the work involving in passing quals. Hardly anyone does it because what’s the point? And very few people come into this program already having a masters. People either come straight from undergrad or after having worked as a research assistant for two years.

answerjill's avatar

Before deciding to go into a PhD program, several years after completing my BA, here are some things that I found helpful:
1. Taking classes at a local university at night while I was working full-time (to help me see what is out there)
2. emailing and talking with people who work in my intended field
3. doing a master’s degree before applying to phd programs

Zuma's avatar

In my last couple of years in Grad School I was the student’s representative on the Admission’s Committee, which also made financial aid award decisions for continuing students. Everything girlofscience says in her first post is pretty much so.

Each department is different, but they are all patronage systems. That is to say, if you have a patron who can pull strings for you, pretty much everything else is negotiable—and this is true at every step of your graduate career. Your primary patron is usually your dissertation advisor, with other members of your committee playing similar but supporting roles.

So, you should be looking for someone who intellectually excites you, who you can get really stoked about working with you on some subject that really excites the both of you (preferably something that will make one or both of you famous). You will know this person when you see them; it will be like True Love. But, it may take a bit of courtship to get this person to notice you. @answerjill‘s advice is one way to accomplish this. Take classes and cultivate people through e-mail or any way you can.

The person you are looking for should be someone with sufficient stature in his field that he will have enough influence in the department to get his way when he tells the Admissions Committee you’re the one he wants to bring on this year. You want someone with a few grad students, but not dozens of research slaves all competing for his attention. You may want to interview and cultivate one of his students, since that is both a good entree and an insight how you will be being treated years down the road.

Your GPA is a problem, but you may have an additional problem as well: Where did you get your BA? If it was in a first tier University, like UCLA, Stanford, or an Ivy League school, a poor GPA it is much more easily overlooked than if you went to a second or third-tier school like, say, like Fresno State. You may really know your stuff, but if you went to a second-tier school, its a mark against you if you apply to a prestige university—and you want to go to a prestige university if you have any hope of landing a tenure-track position in academia. If you get a Master’s degree from a second-tier school, you’re pretty much done in terms of further academic advancement in that field; so be aware of that trap.

Basically, you want to wipe the slate clean on your undergraduate record. One way is to have a high GPA when you do your Masters. There may be some schools that waive the Master’s if you are some kind of super-genius or math prodigy, but in the department I was, it didn’t matter if you already had a Masters, you had to do it over if there was even the slightest doubt that the one you had was less rigorous.

Have you thought about a law degree? They are a 3-year doctorate and would wipe your academic slate clean. You could get one at a non-prestige storefront law school; it shouldn’t matter. Then you apply to a sociology, history or political science program telling them that you’ve decided that this is what you really want to do. Doing well in statistics courses, or showing a very high math aptitude also greatly increase your attractiveness to social science programs. Law and statistics will both serve you very well in life anyway, if you have the aptitude for them. (I hate to suggest this, but there are courses you can take that will substantially improve your test scores.) The higher your test scores, the more free money as opposed to loans you will get in your financial aid package.

GeorgeGee's avatar

You can certainly try to get into a PhD program starting with your unremarkable Bachelor’s. You’ll have a better chance if you’ve done some remarkable things or have some great ideas to impress the admissions folks with. Remember that you’re the customer, and they don’t have a program without students, so that’s one factor in your favor.
Now, a bigger question for you is WHY? Do you think getting the PhD will make your life substantially better? Higher income? Don’t count on it. Determination to be successful will do more for you than another piece of expensive wallpaper. Many PhD students feel used as they endlessly work like slaves teaching courses and doing professors’ grunt work, and don’t enjoy the arbitrary control their advisor has over their lives. It often takes 10 years to complete a PhD and the job prospects are not great these days because of the economy. The reality on campuses today is that fewer students means less need for faculty, and older professors are tending to hold onto their positions longer because their 403B/“CREF” accounts are a mess.

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