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I'm highly interested in going to grad school in electromagnetics (eventually a Ph.D.) but for various reasons, most of which are my fault, and some aren't, I graduated with a horrible GPA. In short, my transcript sucks.

My initial attempt to get around this was that if that I do extra-curricular research that is impressive/relevant enough, it will at some point outweigh the GPA and let someone consider working with me.

I volunteered at a professor's lab for a year (not interested in his field, but it was the best opportunity I found). I studied on my own for an average of 4hrs/day on online grad course material for about 2 years and can say that I now have a somewhat solid understanding of the field, comfortable reading and understanding published papers, wrote my FDTD solver, as well as other self-study projects that are directly relevant to the field. Left my full time software job after 2 years to fully devote myself to this cause because I didn't want to waste more time.

After almost 3 years from graduation, I started contacting potential supervisors but never heard back positively (aside from a professor stating that her work is Chemistry and not EE based and stating that my background is "super interesting" which might be just a compliment.)

My question is, will this approach get me anywhere? I'm confident that my background in the field will consistently get better the more I keep doing this, but what if it is a dead-end as far as graduate admissions are concerned?

EDIT (with GRE information):

My GRE scores are slightly above average, 158 quant. and 156 verbal.

I did pretty awesome at my job, in fact I was called the "brightest person in the company" by my supervisor, and the "smartest person in the team" by a VP. That team including two fellow classmates that graduated with distinction.

However, I quit because I felt I was wasting my life doing something I didn't like. I tried getting a job exactly my field of interest (electromagnetics/optics) but I wasn't successful.

The push for grad school is because I believe my horrible grades are not a reflection of my ability, and are at least partly due to mistakes that I have learned from. The other part is rampant cheating and serious unprofessionalism on part of some of the professors, but I don't like stressing that part as I believe owning my mistakes is far better than blaming others.

I truly find myself in doing research work, contributing to the field I like, and I'm willing to do whatever it takes to get there.

  • 1. Why such a push for grad school--why is it even a target? Do you have a job? Can you put your efforts, interests into your career? Some people are mediocre students but great in the work world. 2. How were your GRE scores? If high, than at least you might be able to claim aptitude. – guest Feb 7 at 16:49
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  • This scientist's blog has a worthwhile perspective on why "good students" aren't always the best people for a lab. – Elizabeth Henning Feb 7 at 22:16
  • The push for grad school is because I believe my horrible grades are not a reflection of my ability — That’s a terrible reason to go to grad school. — I truly find myself in doing research work — Much much better. – JeffE Mar 9 at 18:49
  • I was in a similar situation - my undergrad GPA was low but I wanted to pursue a PhD. I enrolled in a professional master's program in my field (CS) and got involved in research. I did this by first taking an individual study with a professor I was interested in working with, and proving my value. The next semester I received a research assistantship with this lab. I made sure to maintain an excellent GPA in my master's coursework and first authored a conference paper. Now I've received two admits to very respectable CS PhD programs. Moral of the story: there is always another path – Collin Mar 9 at 20:11
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Grad school with a 2.62

You may need to accept grad school is not in your future. At least not in your near future. Exactly why do you want to go to grad school? Have you considered starting a company working in a field you're passionate about?

If you really want to go to grad school, here is what I'd do.

1) Stay at your current company and get raises and promotions. Be sure to stay in touch with everyone who praised your work.

2) Make sure you have a very concrete reason why your GPA will be a lot higher. Having a few good semesters won't cancel out years of bad grades.

3) Get your company to pay for it

4) Make sure your GREs are AWESOME!

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Poor grades aren't just an indicator of lack of ability. It also means a lack of preparation. I would worry that you'd be in over your head in grad-school courses, because you didn't learn the fundamentals as an undergrad. You have picked quite a difficult area too.

The good news is, in your area of interest there is plenty need for experimentalists who operate the hardware and build things, even if they didn't learn a thing in Calc III or whatever. So you really should be able to find such jobs in a research lab. If you haven't found one you need to keep looking. Though if you are restricting yourself to a certain location, plus insisting on a research job in specific area, your chances of getting it are nearly zero no matter who you are and what your grades were. That's just how the job market works. You need to be flexible somewhere and keep at it. Applying to hundreds of places is quite common.

A job as research assistant or similar in a research lab will set you up nicely for a grad school application, with research experience to talk about as well as a recommendation.

Another tip is you can often take classes through an open university program at your local public university. Rack up some good grades there.

By the way, in my opinion working on projects independently is generally a pretty bad way to learn a subject. The tendency will always be to follow a path of least resistance to getting things working. You start out trying to do "A" but veer into doing "A-prime", seemingly the same thing (to a novice), but actually much easier because you already know a lot more of what you need. And you never will get past the deep divide that blocked you from "A" without being dragged kicking-and-screaming through it by the inflexibility of a real class.

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