What is considered a "good" GPA for grad school?
September 2, 2011 6:07 PM   Subscribe

What is considered a "good" GPA for admission into graduate school? Extended beanplating and academic fretting inside.

I'm a 28 year old senior undergrad, finishing my B.S. Environmental Science, focus in Ecology and GIS, minoring in Soil Science. I'm starting to think about graduate school, but I'm having trouble figuring out how competitive I would be and what my options are. I think I have a pretty good GPA (currently 3.84 cumulative with a 3.9 in my major, though it will decrease a bit after this term) but I find that I experience excessive anxiety about my grades, to the point that the anxiety hurts my work and makes me feel paralyzed and burnt out. I definitely have some impostor's syndrome going on, such that earning A's doesn't give me even a fleeting sense of joy anymore - just relief that I didn't screw it up this time (yet). I need your help to figure out how to reset my standards for myself at a more realistic level. A strategy of just doing my best isn't working, because I'm too relentlessly critical of myself for every little misstep. I feel like having an established "lower bound" for my expectations would really help me feel more secure in my performance.

Background: I had a pretty rough summer term because I took on way too much. I had been feeling a bit underchallenged, so I decided to challenge myself and took 13 credits of classes on top of a full-time paid research internship. This was a big mistake. Don't get me wrong, I loved the internship, had a very successful poster session, and the research I worked on looks like it might even make it into a publication! But the downside is that I was busy as hell, and I will probably end up getting a C and a B+ in two of those summer classes I tacked on. The C is in a general-requirements class unrelated to my major, the B+ is in the last term of a general chemistry for majors sequence. On the plus side, I learned a very valuable lesson that I should challenge myself by doing harder things, not just more things.

However, I find myself catastrophizing these bad grades because I had just barely started to get used to the idea of being competitive for upper-tier graduate programs. For example, I had recently been daydreaming about the Bren School's conservation planning program, but this summer has shaken me and made me worry that I've just Completely Destroyed my Whole Future by allowing my burnout and impossibly high standards affect my work and now the daydream isn't any fun anymore. I recognize that this is irrational and counterproductive.

Obviously I will buckle down and do better next term, but right now I would love some help re-establishing my "norms" about grades so that I can ultimately be more successful. So I ask you: what range of GPAs is considered "sufficient" for grad school in science, given some undergraduate research experience, decent writing skills, and good recommendations? Bonus question: does that change if I wanted to go straight into a Ph.D program instead of doing a Masters first?
posted by dialetheia to Education (13 answers total)
what range of GPAs is considered "sufficient" for grad school in science, given some undergraduate research experience, decent writing skills, and good recommendations?

This question is totally to your situation, because you are under such strain of anxiety that you're not going to interpret the answers rationally when someone tries to explain what your GPA "qualifies" you for.

Do you have research experience, good recommendations, and a tangible interest in what you want to do research on? Find a few top programs with professors in your field that you're interested in working with and apply to those. Talk to those professors you have "research experience" with, and they'll be able to give you more authoritative answers.

But the short answer to your question is: these days, everyone who can graduate with a B.S. in the sciences can generally find a Ph.D. program willing to accept them and those who have the motivation will finish their degree. The question is always about program and advisor quality.

does that change if I wanted to go straight into a Ph.D program instead of doing a Masters first?

Also irrelevant. Do you want to get a PhD, or are at least considering it? Apply to the PhD program, and if you don't like it, drop out with a terminal Master's and leave.
posted by deanc at 6:23 PM on September 2, 2011

Hi there! I'm a PhD student in ecology. Your undergrad GPA is about the same as mine was when I graduated, and I got into grad school! (This was directly from undergrad to PhD, since you asked about doing the master's first.) My crappy grade in second-semester organic chemistry didn't hurt me, and I doubt my grades in non-majors classes mattered one whit. GPA isn't the most important thing for grad school admissions in any case, but your GPA is just peachy. Research experience and good recommendations are far more important, and you have those! Don't sweat it.

I definitely hear you on the impostor syndrome anxiety - that was me too. (And if we're being honest, it still is.) MeMail me anytime if you want to talk about ecology and grad school and whatnot.
posted by pemberkins at 6:25 PM on September 2, 2011

There's no one answer to this question. An A- average or above in those courses that would be applicable to your potential program would make you competitive, but a lower GPA than that isn't going to rule you out. What's really going to matter is good recommendations and research experience (that publication can't hurt, either.) Those things will, in general, matter a *lot* more than your GPA will.

Honestly, if you want to get a better idea of where you stand, talk to an academic mentor — either an academic advisor at your home institution, or your supervisor for the internship, or both. If your internship supervisor is in private industry, he/she might not have as much experience with the grad school track, but it can't hurt to ask. Send them an e-mail saying something like, "I'm thinking about whether I should apply for grad school, and I wanted to talk with you about what the experience is like and whether you think I would be a strong candidate. Can we arrange a time to meet?" It can't hurt to bring a copy of your transcript along as well. During this meeting you can also ask about whether it would be better to apply for a Master's program before the Ph.D., and you can also (if their assessment of your chances seems positive) ask whether they'd be willing to write positive letters of recommendation for you.

Good luck! It's a stressful process, to be sure, but if you really love the field and want to spend a good chunk of your 20s studying it, then it can be immensely rewarding.
posted by Johnny Assay at 6:25 PM on September 2, 2011

PhD programs look for "match" and recommendations from trusted colleagues over GPA/GRE. IMHO, GPA/GRE are merely filters/weeders.

From what you've written here, I don't think that you're going to have trouble getting into PhD programs.

However, if you want to increase your chances, talk to your research advisors about the programs that you're interested in. Figure out how you can get to a conference and potentially present. Try to get on a publication.

Start emailing faculty that are cool to you NOW and start a dialog about your common research interests.

You have nothing to worry about. Really.

And try to do a PhD program, not an MA. Better funding.
posted by k8t at 6:28 PM on September 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

A 3.84 will not give you any problems with graduate school. Most schools will consider anyone with a 3.5 or above depending on major. If you have good GRE scores combined with a 3.84 you should be able to get in pretty much anywhere.
posted by twblalock at 6:32 PM on September 2, 2011

You're GPA will get you into a PhD program somewhere (you might even have lots of options), and a Master's program probably just about anywhere.

Stop worrying about your grades and get some research done.
posted by mr_roboto at 7:39 PM on September 2, 2011

ESA grad school primer lists minimum GPA as 3.0. It's from 1999 but I doubt grad school admissions have changed much in that time.
posted by everyday_naturalist at 7:44 PM on September 2, 2011

GPA does not always matter as much as people think(even when the university says that they have a 3.0 cutoff...trust me on this one). In some cases I am sure it is a big factor- med or law school, for example - but I think a lot of programs look at other things that can balance out a not-so-great gpa.

Either way I think yours is fine.
posted by fromageball at 7:45 PM on September 2, 2011

Well I had about a 3.3 and I'm still at a top grad school (MA and a completely different field, but still...) - I can't imagine a 3.84 being considered a bad GPA anywhere, especially if the one C wasn't related to your field. Don't be so hard on yourself!
posted by naoko at 8:35 PM on September 2, 2011

I should add that my work experience between undergrad and college (and the recommendations I got from those jobs) were presumably the thing that got me in - sounds like you are really on top of that angle with the research and publication stuff you've got going on now. Also, sympathies on the impostor syndrome thing - this is very normal for students and grad school in particular. I've found therapy (check out your student health center if you're interested?) and anti-anxiety meds helpful - not saying you necessarily need either of these things, but it's always an option.
posted by naoko at 8:43 PM on September 2, 2011

3.84 is great, esp with a 3.9 in your major.
posted by jb at 12:00 AM on September 3, 2011

between undergrad and college

D'oh, I meant "between undergrad and grad school."
posted by naoko at 2:32 PM on September 3, 2011

Also, for what it's worth, the Bren School's minimum undergrad GPA for entering the PhD program is 3.0, and the average undergrad GPA of admitted students is 3.5.
posted by naoko at 2:38 PM on September 3, 2011

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