Academic rehab
September 16, 2007 10:23 AM   Subscribe

I badly bungled my Political Science undergrad program, graduating with a GPA in the low 3's and a non-honours degree. I want to go to grad school in the same field. What are my options? (I'm in Canada).

I've always been passionate about politics and world issues. However I spent my first years at university with severe depression, and being in a mental hell and not wanting to live tends to make it hard to get to class or focus on readings. In my final year I had gotten help and was getting A's, but it was too late to save my GPA.

I graduated from Concordia, and I've been told it is impossible to go back and "upgrade" my degree to an honours. What should I do? Will I have to repeat an undergraduate degree? Study abroad? Is there any way to be accepted into a graduate program by displaying competence in the field?

I'd like to stress that I'm not looking for an easy shortcut. I'm willing to put a great deal of work into this. I've always been very passionate about politics, but I've never lived up to my academic potential and I'd like to have a second chance to prove to myself that I can excel.
posted by pcameron to Education (20 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
The problem is that competence for graduate school is judged strictly by your undergraduate performance and standardized test scores, and therefore, your undergraduate record does not display competence. A passion for the subject is simply not enough. A lot of mediocrities are passionate about various things.

I would also question whether, given your history of mental illness, you would be able to endure the extreme pressures of graduate school. I have been in a well-regarded liberal arts graduate program, and I found it to be significantly more stressful than the (also highly-ranked) law school that I attended. The reading lists in graduate school are enormous, there's never enough time to read all the things you're supposed to read, there's intense pressure to shine in seminar discussions, intense pressure to produce papers that demonstrate your ability to succeed professionally in the field, and on top of that, there's intense rivalry among graduate students.

With your history of mental illness, plus the mediocre record from undergrad, are you sure graduate school is for you? There are other ways to put your passion for politics to work --- ways that are not so apt to undermine your self-worth and reignite emotional problems.
posted by jayder at 10:41 AM on September 16, 2007

Having a GPA in the low 3's (this is a 4 point scale I assume) will not keep you out of graduate school. I did something similar to you and ended up with a lower GPA for my undergrad and I have successfully entered two graduate schools (In fact I start UCLA in about a week). The admissions committee will look at your grades, your test scores (which admittedly for me were a big boost), organizations you belong to, work experience in the field, etc. Identify the schools you are interested in, and the profs at these schools (those that study what you are interested in). Get familiar with them and e-mail them. Tell them that you are interested and that you would like to apply.

You may have difficulty at first getting fellowships or scholarships. However, keep applying for them, make sure that your first quarter/semester is stellar and you may luck out. Good luck with the applications!
posted by anansi at 10:44 AM on September 16, 2007

Think about a terminal masters. Preferably in political science rather than policy or public administration. This gives you an opportunity to demonstrate that you can succeed doing graduate level coursework, and will also let you get a taste for what academic work is really like.

Admissions committees will be very understanding of a weak undergraduate record if you follow it up by kicking ass in a masters program, even at an institution that's not very highly regarded. It's a good sign of commitment. If you do that, and say what you've said here in an application, you'll be taken seriously.
posted by shadow vector at 10:50 AM on September 16, 2007

Response by poster: I should also note I'm turning 25 next week. Does this open up any possibilities in terms of mature student status?
posted by pcameron at 11:12 AM on September 16, 2007

I screwed up in undergrad even worse than you did and graduated (barely) with a 2.6 and multiple Fs on my transcript. My crappy grades were due to having to work multiple jobs in order to put myself through school. I also had some overwhelming familial dysfunction and issues with depression that did not help. Basically, I was a first generation college student with 100% no family support, but somehow graduated.

Years later, with some maturity under my belt, I decided I wanted to go to grad school. I started taking a few classes in the department and started attending as many department activities as I could (guest speakers, student presentations, workshops). I worked my ass off and the faculty noticed. I spent a year doing this and at the end of the first year, I applied to get into the program. When I applied for grad school, I had glowing letters of support from multiple faculty members. I got into the program and received full financial support from the school. I graduate at the end of the year with a 4.0 grade point average, numerous published academic articles and hopeful job prospects.

So no, crappy undergrad grades will not necessarily keep you out of grad school. You will have to step up and prove that you can do the work.
posted by pluckysparrow at 11:33 AM on September 16, 2007 [6 favorites]

Can you do an honours after degree in something related like, say, history? or sociology? This might be one way to raise your GPA. That being said, I think that stellar performance in a terminal MA is probably your best bet - you'll be able to show that you're motivated, can achieve academically, and (if you play your cards right) should be able to get some good recommendations.
posted by lumiere at 11:54 AM on September 16, 2007

Don't waste your time taking undergraduate courses, or going back for a second undergraduate degree, etc. Take graduate level courses at a top rate program to show that you can excel at graduate work. If you don't do well, then you know you aren't cut out for it. If you do well, then you know that you have it in you. Also amp up your CV with related activities and programs. Again, you need to make sure that this is the right road for you. By doing both of those things, you are making sure that this is the right path for you, and also show grad schools that you are right for them. Last, make sure that your GRE scores are top notch. In your graduate application, in the section where the school asks you to explain any negatives in your record, explain the underwhelming grades during your first 2 years of college. That's easily explained away if you have the top grades from grad work and related experiences.
Plenty of people flounder their first few years, and are better for it.
Good luck.
posted by jujube at 12:31 PM on September 16, 2007 [1 favorite]

Answering the damn question:

Unless Canadian admissions practices are very different from US (and you're applying to Canadian programs), a 3.low won't kill you *IF* you have good test scores. So practice for the GRE.

If you're confident in yourself and can't get into a good program immediately, you might consider pulling a terminal MA at the best place you can get in and transferring afterwards.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 1:00 PM on September 16, 2007

Not answering the damn question:

I've always been passionate about politics and world issues.

This isn't a great reason to go to graduate school in political science. You're probably not going to spend your time talking passionately about world issues, and the odds of doing so decreases as programs get better. You're more likely to spend your time discussing how to deal with problems of selection bias in interview-based qualitative research, or how to deal with heteroskedasticity.

This isn't to say that these issues don't come up, but there are a lot of people who drop out of psci programs early on because it's just not what they expected.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 1:06 PM on September 16, 2007 [2 favorites]

Don't listen to anybody who tells you not to consider grad school because of "mental health issues" especially if you've been treated or are undergoing treatment. Lots of people with mental health issues and depression do brilliantly in graduate programs that are tough and they make it through just great. Take classes in poli sci at the graduate level, go for a terminal master's and do whatever the heck you want. Life's short. Live it up. Pursue what you love and just try to minimize the costs associated with making mistakes.
posted by onepapertiger at 1:16 PM on September 16, 2007 [1 favorite]

Oh, also, listen to Jayder's concluding points. He is right on on about the pressure of doctoral programs. I had a brilliant friend leave one to go to law school because it just felt too academic and useless.
posted by onepapertiger at 1:21 PM on September 16, 2007

I'd just like to point out that the original poster is in Canada, where applicantions to most graduate programs do not include the GRE. pcameron could have an awesome GRE score but it won't make a difference to the admissions department, since they probably won't look at it.

pcameron - In terms of what *is* required for admission, every school is slightly different. I recommend looking through the admission requirements for schools you are interested in, and contacting their graduate admissions staff to see if there is any additional supporting information you could provide to strengthen your case.
posted by sanitycheck at 1:57 PM on September 16, 2007

on top of that, there's intense rivalry among graduate students.

In the US this would only be true of deeply broken departments.

I'd just like to point out that the original poster is in Canada, where applicantions to most graduate programs do not include the GRE.

Well, that's a pisser. Still, unless pcameron really wants to do Canadian politics and Canadian politics only, there's no reason he can't apply to programs in the US or, say, UK. If anything, odds of funding are probably better in a big midwestern US school.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 3:10 PM on September 16, 2007

Graduate school in political science is quite different in the Canadian and European systems than it is in the States. ROU has good advice regarding the US system; much of your admission will depend upon test scores and well placed letters of recommendation, so you're still a viable applicant here. Get yourself an awesome letter from one of those faculty members who met you on your way back up to being an A student and have them vouch for you. In Europe, a PhD means working much more independently and in an unstructured program. If you don't think you can get in to a worthwhile program in Canada, they're both worth a look.

My experience FWIW suggests that terminal masters programs (in international affairs in particular) are expensive cash cows that departments abuse in order to support their real grad students in the PhD programs. A terminal MA will get you a mid-level job at the UN or something similar, but will also be expensive. Getting a PhD should be free. You will not live like a king while you're in school, but you will also not accumulate big loans.

If Europe and the States don't peak your interest, and you're interested in international affairs, why not take some time to gain some language expertise?
posted by B-squared at 3:45 PM on September 16, 2007

I'm not sure what political science admissions (re: GPA) tend to be like generally, but if they are anything like in my field, many programs will take your latter 1-2 year's (or upper year course) marks more into account than the earlier years, perhaps even exclusively. That is, those A's you mention getting in your last year (particularly if they are in 3rd/4th year courses in your field) may carry more weight than you think.

Also, even if you can't upgrade to an honours degree, is it possible to spend an extra year doing a second, cognate major (e.g., philosophy, economics), excel at that, and then try for grad school? If you had a minor in a cognate field, or even a few courses, this may be a viable option.
posted by astrochimp at 4:06 PM on September 16, 2007

I'm assuming you mean you did a three-year degree and not a four-year honours degree. In Western Canada, people are much less likely to do honours degrees. We don't have the three-year degrees. Even so, Quebec has CEGEP, so you must end up with just as much education as people in, say, BC. We don't need honours degrees to get into grad school here, so I don't think that will be a big issue.

If you're really concerned about your marks, go back for a semester and ace some courses. Then you can point to your recent experience. A lot of schools will pay more attention to the upper-level GPA than the cumulative GPA.

Although I now have an MBA, I toyed with a couple of other masters programs before doing the MBA. I had only a regular degree and I even had schools offer to admit me into PhD programs.

So, shop yourself around. Talk to some schools. They will usually hook you up with prospective advisors. If the advisor decides they want you, I don't think it's as hard to get in. If the advisors want you to brush up on something, they'll tell you.
posted by acoutu at 6:14 PM on September 16, 2007

Some Canadian schools will require GREs (find out about the programmes you'd be interested if they require it or not). Pick the programme you're interested in. My recommendation would be an Applied or an Interdisciplinary programme which deals with the kinds of Political issues you're interested in. One example (only one), is the MA in International Development Studies at Saint Mary's or Dal (in Halifax). These applied programs are more likely to accept different tracks of students and performance than make a cut off based on a set score. This is particularly applicable if you have a range of other experiences which might be looked on favourably.

What I have previously recommended to students in your situation (with a fair amount of success, and yes, this is in Canada), is to talk to the graduate advisor of the programme where you would like to go. Talk about how to apply for and to receive a conditional acceptance, based on successful completion of a few extra courses (typically senior key courses in the program). Then you take these courses, figure out the culture of the school, the way they approach the discipline, get kick-ass grades, and then get into the regular program (and do better for it because you don't waste precious grad level courses whose GPA matter trying to figure out how the program works etc.).

If the grad advisor won't help you figure this out, you can of course, do this on your own. Get the grad advisor to help you pick which course(s) to take, and then they will be impressed not only with the quality of your work, and your initiative. Or they won't and you could leverage these courses to get into a different programme.
posted by kch at 6:56 PM on September 16, 2007

Hey pcameron, good for you for deciding to continue on with your education. Don't let people persuade you, yes its expensive and not always totally practical, but it is an invaluable learning experience for yourself.

Anyway, having studied Poli Sci as an undergraduate, I am just starting grad school at U of T - so I think I am a good candidate to share some advice which is:

- Get passionate about a research topic. This is what got me into grad school. I wrote a clear and concise research proposal for a topic that which hadn't been published in. This shows the committee that you are a self motivated student with a clear goal in mind who, if admitted, will reflect well on the institution by producing a great work of scholarship as your Masters Thesis.

- Pick a mentor. Look at some profs whose work you like. Then write them a letter, expressing your appreciation of their work, your own interest in that area, a little on your topic of research, and your interest in attending. Get a correspondence going. If this works, your mentor/prof will green light your application.

Good luck! Any other questions, my email is in my profile.
posted by boubelium at 10:11 PM on September 16, 2007

yes its expensive and not always totally practical, but it is an invaluable learning experience for yourself.

This isn't true of graduate political science programs, which are very definitely not about any sort of personal enrichment. There are only two good reasons to be in a graduate program in political science graduate program. First, because you want to be an academic. Second, because for whatever reason it happens to be a useful qualification for a career you're already in.

Get passionate about a research topic. This is what got me into grad school.

Unless you've been directly and specifically told this by members of the admissions committee, you don't know this. And, hey, maybe you were told. But students often have pretty off-the-mark ideas about why they were admitted, what committees are looking for in comps answers, why this person was hired and so forth.

And again, there's no particular reason to restrict yourself to Canadian programs unless you want to specialize in Canadian politics. And even then, there are programs in the US (if not UK) that have good people doing Canadian politics, if not exclusively -- UT Dallas (and people at SMU, which doesn't have a grad program), Duke, and Illinois come to mind. Nothing wrong with Canadian programs, but the Canadian academy is an awfully small world to restrict yourself to; it's like saying you'd only go to grad school in California.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:40 AM on September 17, 2007

Get passionate about a research topic. This is what got me into grad school.

Unless you've been directly and specifically told this by members of the admissions committee, you don't know this. And, hey, maybe you were told. But students often have pretty off-the-mark ideas about why they were admitted, what committees are looking for in comps answers, why this person was hired and so forth.

True ROU_Xenophobe, I can't know this for certain. But when applying to a competitive program I feel it is something that can really set someone apart. It also goes along with the bit I wrote about writing a prof and getting him/her into your research topic. If they think it is interesting, you are a shoe-in.

But, do listen to ROU_Xenophobe and consider US schools. There are all sorts of pluses and minuses there, but it is something you should certainly look into.
posted by boubelium at 11:20 AM on September 17, 2007 [1 favorite]

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