Graduate School: Can I ? Should I? Where?
April 17, 2011 9:23 AM   Subscribe

Graduate School: Can I ? Should I? Where?

I graduated college in 2004 with a BA in chemistry and an almost-BS in geology (missed a couple courses, which means it's a minor on my transcript.) I've been working as a chemistry lab tech in industry since then, which was never my plan. I have always wanted to get an advanced degree and go the research/academia route. Most likely in the geosciences or environmental science. The couple years I took off from school somehow turned into 7, and now I'm 30 and realize I'm not on the path I want to be on.

The background: My undergraduate grades are less than stellar. (2.9-ish. ) The last 2 years were the hardest for me. My parents were going through a divorce, two friends were fighting cancer, I was dating a jerk, and I had no support system. I ended up severely depressed (in retrospect, probably more depressed than anyone knew or I was willing to admit) and heavily medicated. There were a lot of days I just couldn't get out of bed to go to class or to lab. I took the GRE in December of 2009, and got a 650 verbal/650 quant/4.0 writing, and feel I might be able to improve those numbers if I took it again. I took one graduate course (non-degree) in Advanced Petrology a few years ago and got an A. (I couldn't afford to pay for any more classes out of pocket.)

The current situation: I'm married now to a supportive husband who is willing (nay, *keen*)to move with me to wherever I can get into school. We are currently in the Midwest, and there aren't a lot of options nearby. We would really like to head west, into Colorado, New Mexico, or Arizona. Wherever we end up there will have to be work for him there (Mechanical Engineer). This would most likely be in a couple of years--starting school in fall of 2013 probably.

The big question: how to I make myself look good to a potential grad program despite my GPA? Pay for one of those courses to get a higher score on the GRE? Take some undergrad classes at a community college or nearby state school and get good grades? Do I take more than one class at a time to prove I can handle it? Do I contact professors I'm interested in working with first? Do I try to explain the reasons my grades are low? ( My GPA and the depression causing it have so far been my Big Dark Secret. I know not everybody thinks depression is real and am scared of being judged.) Do I plan on just going anywhere that will take me for a Master's and then hope I can go somewhere better for a PhD? Any recommendations for specific schools or programs to look into?

posted by anonymous to Education (9 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
If you can improve your scores on the GRE, that combined with your lab work should be attractive to a number of reputable schools. I would definitely look at masters' programs first, too.
posted by Jon_Evil at 9:52 AM on April 17, 2011

Are you absolutely sure grad school is right for you? Is there a demand for post-docs in your field? If you decided you didn't want to stay in academia after your degree, would your degree qualify you for a non-academic job? Ignoring the GPA thing, are *you* sure that you'll be able to handle the workload? For the next 6 years?

I don't mean to be discouraging, but these are questions that everyone needs to ask themselves before going to grad school. Lots of students (myself and lots of my friends included) end up with Masters degrees in fields that they're not too keen about because they didn't think things through beforehand.

The people who excel in grad school are the people who know why they're there, and are willing to put in the hours it will take to excel.

My recommendation would be to try to get a lab tech job for a professor working in the field you want to go in to before you sign up for grad school. It'll give you a good idea about the type of work you'd be doing for your degree, and will help with your grad application.

Also, I definitely recommend taking a couple extra courses before you apply. Get some A's to show potential supervisor that you've matured and can handle the work now better than you could in undergrad. That and good recommendations from your current job should cancel out your GPA.
posted by auto-correct at 10:10 AM on April 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

One of the things people don't seem to appreciate about the GRE is that the verbal and quantitative scores are really not comparable; the same numerical score on each one means something vastly different in each case. In your case, 650 verbal is actually pretty good (about 90th percentile), and for a graduate program in the sciences would serve you just fine. However, 650 quantitative will set off the sirens and alarm bells on the admissions committees. Your score puts you in the 60th percentile of all students who take the tests, and a good graduate program is going to have serious qualms about admitting someone who doesn't know the basic math (high-school-level, really) that's on the GRE backwards & forwards.

I hope this doesn't come across as insulting, but I want to impress upon you just how important quantitative reasoning is if you're going to go on to grad school in the sciences. If you think you can do better than you did, then absolutely re-take the test, and chalk up the lower score to having a bad day.
posted by Johnny Assay at 10:38 AM on April 17, 2011

There is a fair demand for chem grad students: I know in Canada demand far exceeds supply- Officially you need a B or B+ equivalent at most schools, but I have heard stories of people with C+s getting in with a good interview. The jobs you can get outside of academia depends hugely on what field of chemistry, as you probably know: Analogical or organic chem and there are lots and lots of jobs, and jobs exist in most other feilds from what I understand. From what I hear there is also a shortage of spectroscopists, so yeah, it isn't like most other freilds were you are trapped in academia. As for schools in the south US, I have no idea. I know a lot more about Canadian schools for obvious reasons. Know if you wanted to move up here then I can give you advice, but it might be a touch of a culture and environmental shock going from south US to most of Canada.

Disclaimer: I'm rather biased as I am an upper level (4th year, kinda) chem major looking into grad school positions.
posted by Canageek at 10:58 AM on April 17, 2011

Go read a swath of Piled Higher and Deeper. I'm in grad school, and Cham manages to capture a lot of the terror and the wonder in this world. There are up-sides (relative freedom to work on interesting problems! conference travel! cool people!) and downsides (drama! angst! funding! evaluation based on publication records!). How that works for you really depends on what you want. I would strongly advise against starting grad school without having a fairly good idea of what you want to get out of it, and the things it will cost you to get there.
posted by Alterscape at 12:24 PM on April 17, 2011

I'm in grad school and I think you have a reasonable argument for grad school. I would suggest you turn this on its head and help him look for jobs and research the colleges there at the same time, together. That would be atmospheric enjoyment for the both of you.
posted by parmanparman at 1:24 PM on April 17, 2011

My standard advice to those considering doctoral programs is simple. Be certain you want this degree more than anything thing else. If not, the effort and time investment will not be worth it.
posted by txmon at 3:53 PM on April 17, 2011

I agrree with txmon. Take some time and think about what subject area interests you most. Don't go to grad school just to go to grad school. (not saying this is what you're doing)

My Master's degree was two of the most enjoyable years of my life, but I've also never worked harder (including in my professional career since). What I took away from that was you should only do it if all the work will be rewarding and fulfilling for you.
posted by dry white toast at 5:38 PM on April 17, 2011

who is willing (nay, *keen*)to move with me to wherever I can get into school.

But what's the end game here? Do you want to get your PhD and be a professor? Is your husband willing to move wherever will let you do that, even if it's a town in some state neither of you previously wanted to live in? The fact that you're wanting to move to some pretty "fun" places for grad school, and dismiss the entire Midwest as having nothing in your field rings alarm bells to me. I'd like to hear what your potential field is and what you know about the top programs in it. And if you're looking at grad school as the opportunity to move somewhere fun, what will you do if you're lucky enough to get a job offer after grad school and it's somewhere boring? Somewhere your husband will have to take a less-than-ideal job? If you want to move to Colorado, do it. But don't spend money and time on grad school unless you understand how it's actually going to limit your choices of what you can do next in a lot of ways.
posted by MsMolly at 8:46 AM on April 18, 2011

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