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I am a senior math/physics major at a T20 American private university who aspires to pursue a PhD in physics. I became involved in undergraduate research position with a non-tenured faculty member (a teaching professor) whose class I had taken during the summer after my first year. The research did not occur in a formal lab environment, and was largely based on the whims of the professor. While I did accomplish a lot during the time I spent with the professor, presenting at multiple conferences, I struggled to balance my research commitments with an intense course schedule, causing my progress to stall during the academic year. The professor repeatedly complained about the pace of my research during the school year, and eventually dropped me from the project during the spring of my junior year. Although some blame for my slow research progress came from bad personal habits, I think the lack of a formal lab environment and the COVID pandemic (which made most of my interactions with the professor virtual) were major factors which limited my success.

Fortunately, I have learned from my prior research experience, and I am currently working in a related branch of computational physics under the tutelage of a tenure-track professor in a formal lab setting. I am much more productive at the lab, and I am on track to have a publication (along with strong recommendation letter from my PI) by the fall of next year. Given my experience with my previous mentor, I lack publications and three strong recommendation letters, and I feel like my application would be significantly bolstered by delaying it by a year. Is this advisable? Are applicants who graduated judged more severely than senior undergraduates who apply to grad school? If I choose to apply this year, will this impact my admission prospects if I choose to apply to the very same schools next year? If I do choose to delay my application, what opportunities should I seek in the year between my graduation and my matriculation into grad school?

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  • I think you will be fine...
    – Jon Custer
    Nov 3, 2023 at 12:27

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My recommendation is that you don't delay but apply in this cycle.

The one thing you say you lack is strong recommendation letters. That situation isn't likely to improve with a delay, but (usual case) worsen. Unless you enter a MS program I doubt there is much you can do to improve your situation and not all of those are research based, and are usually two year programs in any case.

I don't think that the subject of undergrad research will be a factor, but the actual fact of it is a strong plus, regardless of topic, since the experience in the process itself isn't shared by most candidates.

Moreover, you say you have some conference presentations. Include those in any CV and they should support you strongly. In CS it would be even more the case, but even in math/physics it is a strong plus indicator.

Talk to some professors, however, about those letters. Even the former supervisor might be more supportive than you assume. People understand, at the moment that COVID caused a lot of disruption. And, at a top institution it is also known that your courses were challenging. If you can get good letters and write your CV properly, including research experience and "work in progress" you should be fine. Just don't apply to institutions that are too similar. Applying to only MIT and similar is not a good strategy.

You gain nothing by assuming the worst case scenario.

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