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Is this the best I can do? PhD Top 15.. Not my dream school


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I applied to top universities (8 in total) and only got in to one school, UPenn, ranked around 15 in CS. I graduated from a top 10 engineering school with a double engineering major but very low GPA (~3.05) and received my master's from a top 20 CS school. I have no research experience but two to three years of industry experience in a reputable large engineering company. I also have my own funding for my PhD (side question: Does this make a difference when it comes to admissions?)

When I applied to the schools I just wanted to get in to any school on my list but now I am having second thoughts.. I keep thinking since I had gotten in to UPenn, what would happen if I reapply next year? Is this the best I can do? What if my application fell through the cracks and professors at my top choices (MIT/Harvard) did not really read much in to it?

Did anyone go through this? Should I just accept what I have so far and go for it or keep pursuing my dream of getting in to my top choices?

Thanks

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Next year might be too soon. Given that you applied to 8 universities and got in 1, I'd say that it's unlikely your app fell through the cracks. You want to send a better app in the next time around. If you can get research experience and collect more recs preferably from well known people in your area, then that will improve your app.

I remember a person who posted on the GradCafe results who had applied and got rejected at most places in 2011 and got accepted to most (including most of the Big 4) in 2012 (I think they were in Gaming or something related). So it's definitely possible.

As for self-funding in PhDs, it definitely makes a difference if it's some sort of fellowship. I'm not sure how much though.

Edited by jjsakurai
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It's a very risky decision. It appears that only one prof was interested in your app among all the places you applied to. What if he picks someone else (after you decline) and doesn't have an opening next year. At the same time, there is a chance that you may improve your app. But you can not change your UG GPA, and top places need a reason to reject.

imo, stick with upenn and it's a top school.If it was some 30-40th rank school, then you could have considered dropping it. Btw, I know a person who was rejected by big 4 and was accepted by all of them after two years. But there was a massive change in his profile.

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By the tone of your post it doesn't sound like you're all that excited about doing your PhD there. I feel that the PhD is such a commitment on so many different levels that you might end up being miserable if you're not happy about it to begin with. You need to weigh the risk of not getting into any schools in future years versus the chance of getting into a top 5-10 school. If you feel that you'll accumulate substantial work that will help your profile for grad school in the area you want to work before you next decide to apply, it may be worth the risk.

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I forgot to mention that I applied for Fall 2011 and was rejected by the same schools including my top choices. So it seems like the only way I would increase my chances and have a shot at my top choices is to get more research in my area. I love the research at UPenn but I am getting the feeling of not being in content with a school that is my 3rd/4th choice. Are there any out there who had to settle for a 3rd or 4th choice that can share how they feel now about their decision?

Also what about job prospects between say Harvard/MIT vs UPenn?

Thanks again

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I am still an undergraduate but I would like to go to a top university (maybe not top 3, but top 10 for sure) and if neither school accepts me I am planing to do research somewhere (even move to an other country for a year or two, but I think that there are many oportunities in US) and maybe publish a paper, if I can an re apply next year.

Also think that maybe your LORs and SOP were not the best so next time maybe you can change something.

I am telling you to reapply next year but try to "upgrade" your profile.

I want to ask something to. Is it possible after graduating to work as a Research Assistant (or something similar) in a university? If this is possible, then you can try this.

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UPenn is a great school.... Don't be greedy. Given your low GPA, you're lucky that Penn wants you. It's very unlikely that with a 3.05 GPA, you can get into a Top 10 schools, unless you have other stellar research experience (which you said that you don't have). You know that the average GPA for the top 5 or 10 schools are around 3.7, right?

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UPenn is a great school.... Don't be greedy. Given your low GPA, you're lucky that Penn wants you. It's very unlikely that with a 3.05 GPA, you can get into a Top 10 schools, unless you have other stellar research experience (which you said that you don't have). You know that the average GPA for the top 5 or 10 schools are around 3.7, right?

Exactly.

Given that you applied earlier, I'll strongly suggest that you join UPenn. They may not even pick you next year. As far as jobs are concerned for a phd, it depends more on the individual (how many papers and how good are they) than the place, especially when aiming for the non-academic positions.

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UPenn is a great school.... Don't be greedy. Given your low GPA, you're lucky that Penn wants you. It's very unlikely that with a 3.05 GPA, you can get into a Top 10 schools, unless you have other stellar research experience (which you said that you don't have). You know that the average GPA for the top 5 or 10 schools are around 3.7, right?

Agreed. Also, UPenn has very good placement for its grad students. I know of at least a few professors at top schools that came out of UPenn.

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Based on my admissions experience, no research experience will kill your chances at top schools. They can overlook a bad GPA if there was lots of (stellar) research experience to back it up. However, the sheer number of applicants makes it hard to stand out without any research experience and a bad GPA. Now, theoretically, waiting a year and getting some research experience might sound good but will you be able to find someone to work with, do publishable work and publish that work within a year? Even then there is no guarantee...

As far as bringing your own funding is concerned, I don't think the big universities would really care about that. They bring in more than enough funding through grants and industry sponsors to be able to fund every PhD student they take in with RAships. This was certainly the case at UIUC and Berkeley.

A Ph.D from UPenn is nothing to frown upon. Sure, it may not be your dream school but in the end your Ph.D is defined by what you do not where you do it. If you can take the rejection from your dream school and turn it into motivation for a great thesis, then - who knows - you may just end up at your dream school doing a postdoc.

Don't give up a sure thing just because its not the best of the pack.

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UPenn is a great school.... Don't be greedy. Given your low GPA, you're lucky that Penn wants you. It's very unlikely that with a 3.05 GPA, you can get into a Top 10 schools, unless you have other stellar research experience (which you said that you don't have). You know that the average GPA for the top 5 or 10 schools are around 3.7, right?

To everyone in this topic, I thought the conventional wisdom about PhD admissions was that your GPA doesn't matter unless it's abysmal (which a 3.05 certainly is not). GPA is a near useless indicator of how good a researcher someone will be -- perseverance in and attention to coursework can actually be counterproductive with respect to getting research done, and once you get to grad school, the professors will tell you this explicitly. The reason the average GPA for the top 5 or 10 schools is so high is more likely to be a coincidence -- people that get in are people who are good at research, and these are usually the type that work hard enough and are smart enough to easily do well in classes. Your GPA was probably not the factor in your low rate of acceptance -- and I don't mean that as an insult to the rest of your application: it's entirely possible that many of the schools you applied to just had few or no spots in your desired area of research.

As for the school, UPenn is pretty good to begin with (the rankings are dumb anyway, and UPenn is high enough and well known enough to be a "good school" as much as any top 10 school). But also, what area do you intend to work in? If you aim to do natural language processing or programming languages research, UPenn goes from being a good school roughly on par with any top 10 school to a great school which would be desired over many of the top 10 schools.

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To everyone in this topic, I thought the conventional wisdom about PhD admissions was that your GPA doesn't matter unless it's abysmal (which a 3.05 certainly is not). GPA is a near useless indicator of how good a researcher someone will be -- perseverance in and attention to coursework can actually be counterproductive with respect to getting research done, and once you get to grad school, the professors will tell you this explicitly. The reason the average GPA for the top 5 or 10 schools is so high is more likely to be a coincidence -- people that get in are people who are good at research, and these are usually the type that work hard enough and are smart enough to easily do well in classes. Your GPA was probably not the factor in your low rate of acceptance -- and I don't mean that as an insult to the rest of your application: it's entirely possible that many of the schools you applied to just had few or no spots in your desired area of research.

GPA does matter. While no one will care if your GPA is say 3.8+, if it's less than say 3.6, people do start to notice. It depends a lot on the person(s) reading your app, but 3.05 is certainly very low for a top PhD program and can sink your app even if you've other mitigating factors (like excellent recs and research) unless you've a good excuse for the 3.05 (like illness) or if your bad grades are mostly in areas unrelated to your field of study.

Also while too much attention to coursework can be detrimental to research, GPA does correlate well with how well you understood the material in a course. And understanding course material in the area you're working in is very important for doing research in that area.

That said, I've seen people with GPAs as low as 3.3 get accepted to top programs based on the quality of their recs and research.

Edited by jjsakurai
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To everyone in this topic, I thought the conventional wisdom about PhD admissions was that your GPA doesn't matter unless it's abysmal (which a 3.05 certainly is not). GPA is a near useless indicator of how good a researcher someone will be -- perseverance in and attention to coursework can actually be counterproductive

This is true, but there are many applicants who have both stellar GPAs and research experience. I am talking about the top universities where there is no shortage of well-qualified applicants. In order to be competitive there you need to be good at everything...

I say this through my experience and through conversations with Profs. at UIUC and Berkeley. By the way, a 3.05 is fairly low. Berkeley's minimum requirement is 3.0 - so being close to this means you need to make up for it with research experience.

If you want a good shot at these schools - don't take GPA too lightly. That said DJLamar's advice stands if you're worried about optimizing your GPA (ex. you have a 3.7+ GPA and you're trying to decide between research and improving GPA).

Every CS PhD applicant should read this 'paper' written by a CS Prof at CMU: http://www.cs.cmu.ed...dschooltalk.pdf

Edited by anacron
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Why are people applying to schools they have no interest in? I get that it was a "safety" school (from the tone of the OP), but even your safeties should be schools you wouldn't mind attending.

The fact that this is your second go around, it seems unlikely that a graduate committee is going to change its mind on the third time; I highly doubt "lack of research experience" is what is holding back your application.

As the saying goes "A bird in the hand is worth two in the trashcan. . ."

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I agree with most of everyone else. Although it is somewhat surprising to me that someone with an MS from a top-20 school AND their own funding get's accepted into only one school, your overall application must have just been okay and didn't impress anyone. A professor from UC Berekely told me that someone with an MS and no research experience is much much worse than someone with a BS with no research experience. At the MS level you've had a year or two to prove your research skills. I think overall it was a lack of research skills, lack of GPA, and possibly a lack of LOR that just made your application decent. I believe a Professor from UPENN saw that you were given funding and decided to take a chance on you. Honestly, if you've applied twice and only get accepted once, I wouldn't take that risk again.

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I want to make a few things clear, first of all UPenn is not a backup nor my "safety" school. UPenn is a great school otherwise it would not have ended up on my list. I am very excited about the oppurtinity to pursue my PhD at UPenn. I really like the research there and the point of this thread is to explore whether I am getting a bit too greedy or whether I actually have a chance at my top choices. From the amazing advice and responses I received I would guess that reapplying without significantly improving my application (i.e. investing a year or more in to profound research at some institution) would not actually get me in to my top choices as I have been rejected twice.

With that said, I am definitely going for UPenn. Are there any others who did not get in to their dream schools and still doing great at their current university?

Thanks again for the amazing advice and insight. Also thank you all for being open minded about a question that is emotionally, rather than, rationally driven.

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With that said, I am definitely going for UPenn. Are there any others who did not get in to their dream schools and still doing great at their current university?

I'd ignore the rankings. Better to do your best with the hand you're dealt with.

Edited by Pauli
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  • 2 weeks later...

U Penn is a great school, I'd take the offer in a heart beat. My undergraduate GPA is 3.27, and I would like to have a look at your Statement of Purpose because I am jealous as hell :)

Congratulations for getting somewhere.

Trust me.. professors get their PhD at Cornell, and join USC as professors, and vice versa. My collegue graduated from Cornell and tells me about his friends: Dr. Bhaskar Krishnamachari did his PhD in Cornell, now works in USC as an associate professor. Stephen Wicker finished his PhD in USC, now a professor in Cornell.

When you're done with a PhD from U Penn, you could be working in schools that are ranked higher or lower than where you graduated from... It's what you do, and who you work with really, not just a name of the school.

I'd take the offer, and be extremely happy with it. I have tried to get anywhere back in 2010 and did not succeed to secure a single admit!!

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