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When I was 23, I quit my computer science undergraduate studies at USC with only one semester worth of units left and a low (less than 3.0) GPA due to personal reasons. I just turned 30 and have rekindled a desire to pursue research in computational neuroscience. Is there any realistic hope of eventually getting into a PhD program and pursuing a career in academia, or is it too much of a long shot given my personal circumstances and the job market?

Basically, what I want to know is, if I were to finish my BS, kick ass in a master's program (applied mathematics), and have great GRE scores, would that overcome my abysmal undergraduate record and gap in years away from school?

The biggest obstacle in my view is getting into a terminal master's program with my undergraduate record. If I were to get into a 1-year terminal master's program in mathematics at a sub-par university and do great, would I have a chance at a higher ranked university for my PhD?

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The odds of a career in academia are long in general, and certainly your situation is going to make the odds even longer.

That said, people tend to only look at your most recent degree. It seems pretty likely that if you got into a masters program and did very well there, you'd have a good shot at getting into a solid Ph.D. program. But you'd actually have to do very well in the masters program (probably "best in several years" level). Furthermore, even once you get into a solid Ph.D. program the odds are against your getting a job in academia.

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    ...even once you get into a solid Ph.D. program the odds are against your getting a job in academia — This is true, but not because of your undergraduate grades. It's true for everyone. – JeffE Jul 12 '12 at 12:38
  • Yes, it is the most recent, and the most advanced, coursework that you've done that matters. Especially if this current work really shines, people can comprehend that you (and many others, often very capable) weren't very conformist or even focused when younger. Don't even spend time talking about that, but, rather, if given an opportunity, show what you can do now. – paul garrett Jul 20 '12 at 19:12
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I flunked out twice as a undergrad engineering student at a major mid-western university. The second time it was a "go away and don't bother to reapply" situation.

I was determined to be a graduate engineer, my dream since age 10. I went to work as an adult technician at the university to save a few $$. Six months later I started night school as an "adult special", determined to learn everything I had missed during the first two years. For the next year, I basically did every example and every problem over in a special set of notebooks I kept, using the open tutoring office in the old department whenever I had a question. I bought or checked out similar math textbooks to get extra problems to work where I was not perfectly confidant of my ability.

I never got less that an A or A+ (95+) in any class, repeating all the classes that I had received C's or worse in, and met informally with each member of the admissions committee to let them know of my progress. They were encouraging but non-committal. I then re-petitioned for admission to a bachelors upper division degree program and requested that my night school grades by substituted for failing ones. I was readmitted on probation but with the old grades.

I continued on that same track for my junior year - all high A's, all homework triple checked before submission, lots of all-nights, no parties, few weekends.

At the end of that year I was taken off of academic probation. A few months later the department head and the chair of the graduate admissions committee/vice department head separately approached me with an invite visit their labs and discuss their research. I had previously made the acquaintance of some of their other grad students to get an idea of what was happening. Both visits resulted in offers of an RA in a PhD program. So no teaching, just $$ support for my Masters research (optical physics/lasers).

After the Masters thesis I was recruited by a local startup - I made a choice not to go the academic route for a number of reasons. the chance to be in on the ground floor in a new technology, money, a new wife, and a desire to start a family among them.

I was lucky to get a third chance. Good luck to you.

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My expectation would be yes. Of course, you will have to explain in your application letter that your undergraduate grades do not really represent you any more, etc.

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