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Do I have a shot at grad school?
April 25, 2012 1:19 PM   Subscribe

Do I have a shot at grad school?

Hello all,

I am thinking about going for a PhD in Genetics or Microbial Physiology and want to get a feel as to whether or not I really have a chance at gaining admission into a program. Not really concerned with tier, rankings etc, just want to be going to a decent school where I can further my education.

College: Virginia Tech
Major: Biology with a concentration in Microbiology/Immunology
Minor: Chem
Cumulative GPA: 2.81
In Major GPA: 3.09
GRE: V 720, Q 700

Primary factor in the low GPA was the fact that I was in an active band during my sophomore/junior years and traveled for practice or gigs almost every weekend. Grades sucked during that time period. I would have regretted not doing it, but I also regret it's impact on my GPA. Is this something that I would want to include in my SOP?

Since graduation I have worked for the past two years as a pharmaceutical manufacturing company - for one year as a Microbiologist and then was promoted to the FDA Compliance branch. I will also be obtaining my NRCM certification (National Registry of Certified Microbiologists) for pharma/medical device this year - would this help my application?

I will be able to get strong recommendations from my previous lab supervisor and my current supervisor, but unfortunately I do not have any real academic references or undergraduate research to call on.

I will probably also be applying to several Master's programs as a backup. I am just trying to get a general feel for what my chances are, and any advice on steps I should take before applying or how I should approach schools, etc would be greatly appreciated.

Thanks for the help!
posted by pmccain to Education (12 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know your field, but my first impression is "no", at least not at a place where you'll get good funding and a good PI. A surefire way to improve your chances (and make GPA recede into the past a bit) is to go back into academic research and get a full-time RA position. If you're in a good lab, that will get you publications, which will get you into grad school.

Did you take Kaplan before the GRE? The quant scores may be an issue as well.

What do you want to do as a career? Get further in industry or go into academic research? If it's the former, the Ph.D. may be a waste of (a lot of) your time. The MS may serve you better.
posted by supercres at 1:30 PM on April 25, 2012

In the sciences, your undergrad GPA isn't an absolute barrier. The trick is to have a specific PI "sponsor" you into the program and if you don't meet program/department requirements, they can usually be waived.

Having industry experience may help, depending on the PI. Do you know exactly why you want to go to grad school and do you know what you want to do afterwards?

Cold call (email) PI's who's research is interesting to you. Say that you read their (recent) paper(s) and found them interesting (what was interesting about them?). Tell them a little bit about yourself, what you've been doing, why you want to go to grad school and what you want to do afterwards. Ask them if they are in the position to accept a new grad student into their lab and that you'd be very happy to speak more with them about joining the lab, or at least visit or perhaps join as an temporary/short term RA.

You do know what you're (potentially) getting yourself into, right? Good people don't let other people go to grad school unless they're certain that's what they want and know what the conditions are going to be.

It's possible that you're more employable now than in 6-7 years when you have a PhD after your name.

A MSc, however, is about 3 years and will probably give you a pay bump without decreasing your employability.
posted by porpoise at 1:53 PM on April 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

The low GPA and GRE are certainly an issue, but to let you in on a little not-so-secret, what really matters a lot for PhD admissions is letters of recommendation. A faculty member who is a trusted colleague says "This student is great and will be great with you." Is your lab supervisor an academic? If not, that is not going to be all that helpful for a PhD program.

What can you do?

- Work on getting your GREs up.
- Take some community college classes - relevant ones - and get 4.0s in them to prove that you're a serious student.
- Get into an MA program, possibly one that you have to pay for yourself. You can probably get in with your current letters of rec if you can bump up your GPA in community college courses.

As it stands, I don't think that it is worth your while applying for PhD programs.
posted by k8t at 1:55 PM on April 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yes, I think you can get into a Ph.D. program, though they may want you to get an M.S. first. An American citizen with bench experience is like gold to PIs in the biological sciences.
posted by deanc at 2:17 PM on April 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

You can entirely remove the problem of your GPA by taking classes before you go back. I am not in sciences, and I am doing an MS rather than a PhD, but I'm in a quantitative field and had a 2.7 GPA in undergrad (in an unrelated field!). My school has a 3.0 minimum requirement that was not at all a problem when I applied, because I'd taken so many classes post-undergrad and gotten good grades.

What you should do is, as others have said, contact the school or schools that interest you and ask about exactly this issue. It won't hurt you to do this, and you can get some very specific recommendations about how to improve your chances of admission. The person you want to speak to is going to be the admissions person in the department where you want to be--their title might vary. You can just call the main number for the department if you aren't sure, and they'll be able to help.
posted by hought20 at 2:42 PM on April 25, 2012

I don't agree with the suggestion that you spend time and/or money getting those GRE scores up. Scores at or above 700 (on the 200-800 scale) are perfectly OK for getting into good graduate programs. I have had students with lower scores than that gain admission to top tier programs. But they had other things going for them including extensive undergraduate research and professional conference presentations. I think you could get into a decent mid-range school for an MS degree. Then use that as your jumping off point for a high end PhD program.
posted by Seymour Zamboni at 3:25 PM on April 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

GRE scores above 700 are good and wont hold you back.
posted by twblalock at 3:30 PM on April 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Those GRE scores seem good to me, too. You need academic lab experience, publications, and academic letters of reference. Your undergrad GPA is more of an issue, as it suggests that you don't work hard or aren't serious. I assume you are thinking of PhD as funded, full-time student? In addition to talking to individual professors who do research you are interested in, you should also talk to some grad students. They may dissuade you. Also, furthering your education is not a particularly concrete reason to give up a full time job. Having a goal of furthering your education is fine, but it suggests MS/MA in the evening, a class or two per semester. What's the end game, here, after grad school?
posted by everythings_interrelated at 3:35 PM on April 25, 2012

What's your GPA for the last two years? It might help -- my school just passed a revision to the admission requirements to allow admission based on higher grades in the last two years, to account for people who found their passion after stumbling in their early years of university.
posted by wenat at 7:57 PM on April 25, 2012

Play up your work experience big time and I bet you'll be fine. Grad students with actual experience finishing things all the way to the finish on time are exceedingly rare. Not to mention students with experience actually working 8+ hours per day.

If you are able to point to a really specific area of study and say "I want to do that and here's why and here's what I already know about it (which is why i want to be in your lab) and here's what I'm going to do with my degree once I finish" then you'll be streets ahead of other applicants in terms of being perceived as an asset to the lab.
posted by fshgrl at 12:45 AM on April 26, 2012

Wow, thank you everyone for the helpful answers so far. As to why I want to do it, I am after the education. Truthfully you might be right porpoise, I have a good salary and plenty of career options lined up if I stick with the pharma quality engineering - possibly more employable now than after a program. But after two years of doing it, the quality engineering just doesn't challenge or interest me. I could keep climbing the ladder and in 10 years I would be making the same decisions at a bigger company with slightly more responsibility and supervisory experience. I just get the feeling that I should be doing something more meaningful with my life. I would probably stay away from academia after graduation, to me it seems like a lot of research is done purely for the sake of research (eg spending my life classifying a specific prokaryote that lives at the bottom of the ocean). I would most likely go back into the industry - there is so much fascinating work being done with biopharmaceuticals and genetic engineering.

My GPA for the last 60 credit hours is 3.12, which might help me out a slight degree.

To those of you who suggested MSc, that might not be such a bad route either, and I guess it would give me the chance to verify that I liked/could handle grad school. I hate the idea of taking on debt for it though - I think Plan B for me is to apply to work full time in the labs as a lab tech or something in the lab of the program I am interested in and work on a Master's part time, from what I understand classes are free for a lot of university employees.

As a side question, when contacting PI's, should I give them my whole life story, as in here is my GPA here is why, or just let them know that I am interested in their program and tell them why and save the low GPA discussion for the application/SOP?

Sorry for writing a book here - and again thank you everyone for taking the time to read and help out!
posted by pmccain at 5:35 AM on April 26, 2012

As a side question, when contacting PI's, should I give them my whole life story, as in here is my GPA here is why, or just let them know that I am interested in their program and tell them why and save the low GPA discussion for the application/SOP?

The latter. The admissions committee is interested in your GPA. The professors are more concerned about your research interests and background and experience.
posted by deanc at 10:31 AM on April 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

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