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Grad school app sunk by half-time undergrad experience?
April 8, 2012 1:01 PM   Subscribe

My girlfriend has been going through undergrad half-time. Adviser keeps telling her that grad schools will not look upon this favorably. True?

My girlfriend matriculated the same year as me, 2002. After 3 majors in three years, she settled on chemistry (none of her other majors were hard sciences). She had always liked that subject best in high school but had been discouraged by family from taking difficult courses in college. There's a whole history of her immediate family being convinced she's stupid and treating her as such. But after meeting a charismatic professor who encouraged and challenged her, she fell in love with chemistry and committed to it as a major. However, due to clinical depression, family issues and the rigor of the hard-science courses she had never experienced before, she all but failed out of school and took a hiatus.

After a couple of years off working boring jobs she's started university again, and is now finishing her second year back. The whole time she's been back, she's been attending half-time. This has allowed her to do much better grades-wise--she's getting above a 3.0 for the first time in her life. During all but the first semester she's also been doing research; last summer she worked full time in a lab and for the last three semesters she's worked in that same lab about 5 hours a week for class credit. She expects to publish a paper this summer.

She tends to struggle with material and spends hours in office hours and study sessions every week. Her half-time classes take up about the same amount of time as a full load for other people. Her research is suppose to be for only 5 hours a week, but she usually does between that and 10 hours, so that doesn't take her up to full time by itself. She does not have a job outside of her research responsibilities, she's living off of loans.

Her class adviser is a bit of a general ass, so when he told her that grad schools would really question why she's been going half-time, she entirely disregarded his concern. He's a guy who went to Yale, for reference. Anyone familiar with the application process to hard-science PhD programs think her past will be a show-stopper? That same charismatic professor who got her into Chemistry said that she shouldn't worry about it, and she is counting on a stellar letter of recommendation from him and a solid one from her current Primary Investigator.

I'm concerned admissions committees would question her ability to adapt to the workload of graduate school if she needs to take her undergraduate experience half-time. Obviously everyone's experience is individual and there's quite a lot more to consider than her habitual half-time status when considering her chances of getting into grad school. But will the half-time status, in and of itself, sink her application to the decent state universities she's starting to eye?
posted by wires to Education (17 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
Probably a better way to phrase this question is, what are ways to mitigate the damage (if there is any) of going half-time on applications? Should we have her fib and say that she was taking care of an ill relative while attending school? Say she was working her way through school? Or just say as little as possible about it, maybe just citing "family reasons" if she's questioned, and refusing to go into details?
posted by wires at 1:08 PM on April 8, 2012


There's about a thousand reasons someone may have completed undergrad part-time or at least outside of the typical 4-year program. I would be very surprised if the application or interviewers asked about it. If she really feels like she needs to justify herself "family reasons" or "health reasons" are perfect catch-alls that are not lies.
posted by thewestinggame at 1:14 PM on April 8, 2012


Listen to the friendly professor. He's right, she shouldn't worry much about it.

she is counting on a stellar letter of recommendation from him and a solid one from her current Primary Investigator.

This is much more valuable than a traditional student schedule.

During all but the first semester she's also been doing research; last summer she worked full time in a lab and for the last three semesters she's worked in that same lab about 5 hours a week for class credit. She expects to publish a paper this summer.

Very, very few of the people I knew my first year of grad school had this amount of research under their belt. She's in excellent position on that front.

It sounds like she has a good work ethic and a corresponding research history, which is good. She should think about who she would like to work for in grad school and ask her current PI to introduce her (via email at least), and see if he would be interested in having her as a student. The easiest way to be accepted into a department is a faculty member who wants her to be there.
posted by bessel functions seem unnecessarily complicated at 1:17 PM on April 8, 2012 [5 favorites]


This sounds like pretty effective mitigation to me:
During all but the first semester she's also been doing research; last summer she worked full time in a lab and for the last three semesters she's worked in that same lab about 5 hours a week for class credit. She expects to publish a paper this summer.
If questioned, or maybe even preemptively, I think she should address the half-time issue in an interview or maybe even in her personal statement. With the right spin, I think it could be made to seem like she's a very self-directed person who made the decision to take her time and get the most out of her undergraduate experience rather than simply rush through it.

Citing "family reasons" and clamming up shouldn't, in a perfect world, hurt her chances, but my gut feeling is that it comes across as sketchy and evasive, even if it's really none of the admissions person's business. I'd avoid that, and tackle the issue head-on with some positive spin. Don't leave the admissions officer / interviewer with unanswered questions; give them a cohesive, flattering narrative.

Disclaimer: I don't do graduate admissions but I now do hiring of people at the same point in their careers. This is the same general advice I'd give to someone who was seeking a job.
posted by Kadin2048 at 1:18 PM on April 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


I was pre-med for most of my undergrad, before deciding to switch majors. Most of my undergrad classmates were NOT in the enviable position of publishing a scientific paper. That in itself means your gf is showing dedication and working hard.
posted by joyeuxamelie at 1:23 PM on April 8, 2012


If she really feels like she needs to justify herself "family reasons" or "health reasons" are perfect catch-alls that are not lies.

Working full-time to minimise student debt is a much better explanation if one is needed.
posted by DarlingBri at 1:26 PM on April 8, 2012 [11 favorites]


This is not answering your actual question, but: has she been tested for learning disabilities? If she does have a learning disability, the school will be able to provide help/teach her skills that might make it easier for her to study and learn her course material. I have a cousin who was given a bit of a tough time by her immediate family for not getting good grades in high school in spite of working very hard. She was diagnosed with learning disabilities in college and finished college very successfully. Your girlfriend may feel more confident in her studies now and in the future if she gets help in understanding her learning style better.
posted by imalaowai at 1:39 PM on April 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


More depends on her academic record than the time spent getting it.

Most admissions committees will look more favourably on a person with a 4.0 average in the last two years of an undergrad degree, even though the first two years may have been a 2.0 average. It shows that the individual found their passion in their last two years of their undergrad degree.

And the reverse is true — a 4.0 in the first two years, but a 2.0 in the last two years? Probably not as favourable, though recommendation letters and other non-academic achievements may balance that record.

And both of the above examples have a 3.0 CGPA.
posted by wenat at 1:51 PM on April 8, 2012


There are lots of things that could hurt and help ones chances at getting into grad school. Some of the plusses are her research in the lab and that she's more mature and dedicated. How are her grades? If she's going half-time but getting high grades, that demonstrates she's successful academically. If she's going half-time and getting poor grades, those grades speak highly and would hurt her chances a lot. Grad school is competitive, so you could take a lot of factors and say any individual one would hurt someone's chances of getting in -- but because there are so many factors, they have to look at the whole package.

Also, it's important to have a good advisor who helps you. Is there a way she could change advisors, possibly to the professor who got her so excited in the first place?
posted by DoubleLune at 1:55 PM on April 8, 2012


Agreed with everyone else that going half-time shouldn't hurt her chances of grad school, particularly if she has a paper under her belt and glowing letters of reference.

That said, if she seriously needs twice as long to do this level of work, I encourage you and her to have a good think about whether she'll be able to handle grad school: the work is harder, it is way more competitive, and she won't be able to do it half time. I'm not saying she won't be able to handle grad school, particularly if her work with her PI requires non-trivial intellectual contributions from her. But this is worth thinking about now rather than finding herself drowning in her first year because of the increased workload pressures.
posted by forza at 3:15 PM on April 8, 2012 [13 favorites]


Probably a better way to phrase this question is, what are ways to mitigate the damage (if there is any) of going half-time on applications?

The most important mitigations are a track record in research and a stellar letter from the professor. That is far more important to a graduate committee.

That said, chemistry is the hardest Ph.D. program in the sciences, bar none, IMHO.
posted by deanc at 3:19 PM on April 8, 2012


I run graduate admissions in a STEM field in a big state school. It would not be a problem for me if someone had taken a slow path through their undergraduate career. It might be a problem for me, essentially for the reasons laid out by forza, if her letters said something like "she struggles with material and it's a full-time job for her to carry a half-time academic load." But if that were what her professor were going to write, he wouldn't be encouraging her to go to grad school. He, and only he, knows what he's going to say in his letter, so he, and only he, knows what schools are appropriate for her to apply to, and she should follow his advice.
posted by escabeche at 3:20 PM on April 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


Think about this:

That said, if she seriously needs twice as long to do this level of work, I encourage you and her to have a good think about whether she'll be able to handle grad school: the work is harder, it is way more competitive, and she won't be able to do it half time. I'm not saying she won't be able to handle grad school, particularly if her work with her PI requires non-trivial intellectual contributions from her. But this is worth thinking about now rather than finding herself drowning in her first year because of the increased workload pressures.

It's not a reason not to go to grad school, but it is very important when deciding which school she would like to attend. A research heavy school where coursework takes a back seat might be exactly what she needs. A school which needs two years of coursework before she gets into serious research projects might be less appealing.
posted by NoDef at 5:40 PM on April 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Grad schools will question it because there are many reasons why people enroll half time: poor grades, lack of work ethic, personal problems, learning disabilities, inability to pay for full-time enrollment, etc. All of those things will make it difficult for someone to do well in graduate school. Given the investment most grad schools make in their students, in terms of money as well as time, they don't want to let anyone in who can't hack it.

All she needs to do is demonstrate that she enrolled half time for a good reason, and that she will be able to dedicate herself to grad school full time.
posted by twblalock at 6:37 PM on April 8, 2012


"I would be very surprised if the application or interviewers asked about it."

Oh, an admissions committee is definitely going to ask. It's not a deal-breaker by any means, but I'd just be completely honest with her reasons.

Or, what twblalock said.
posted by bardic at 2:40 AM on April 9, 2012


From what I've seen (in CS, not chem), I'd imagine it to be a problem. There are a lot of very good people who apply and anything which makes a candidate unusual without being an obvious plus tends to lead to a 'there are lots of good people -- why admit this one which may be a problem?' Of course, the research and good recommendations are big pluses and may overcome any issues she may face. And for top-tier grad schools, research is really the only thing that matters so if she is able to demonstrate a solid research track-record, backed by good recommendations, the class thing may not be a big issue. For middle-tier schools, I imagine the competition is less fierce.

However, it'll definitely be a consideration. If chem is anything like what I'm familiar with, the primary concern of the admissions committee will be her dedication and ability to produce interesting, original research and any indication that she wasn't going full-speed-ahead on her undergrad will raise questions as to her prospects.
posted by bsdfish at 3:47 AM on April 9, 2012


It really will depend on the school she is applying to, both in terms of how the program is structured and how well she "fits" there. Some schools will have more strict standards than others as well, especially regarding who gets funding and how. Further, admissions committees might question both her ability to adapt to the workload of the actual coursework, but also her ability to juggle TAships at the same time. Finally, grad school is much more self-directed than undergrad. Someone above advised sussing out a potential advisor and I think that's an excellent idea; the fact that she's struggling now, though, is problematic. Lying about why she's going half-time may help her get in but it will not help her stay in if she's really unable to keep up.

Grad school applications are incredibly competitive, regardless, and there can be any number of things that can sink a candidate in the water.
posted by sm1tten at 8:34 AM on April 9, 2012


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