If wanting to end up in a specific graduate program at one university, but having had failures along early paths, like college dropouts, mediocre to good GPA and GRE, having become an adult/unconventional student, how can one still end up in the specific program of dreams? Would it help to collect experiences in neighbouring fields if the direct, focused approach fails? When should one just give up the dream of getting into a specific program, or even the whole field of studies?

Let's take scientific, non-engineering astronomy as example. If wanting to be admitted to a Master's and/or PhD program at a specific R1 level university, how would it be seen if having a thorough vocational industry education in optics manufacturing, an internship in electronics, astronomy as a hobby with serious nightly observing programs and submitted results, a half finished college degree in physics and a full degree in geology? Does a patchwork such as in this example have any advantage if having the bad luck of not having been able to succeed in first college attempts and thus being 10 to 15 years older than a typical college student?

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    The answer probably depends on if the specific R1 is top 10 or top 100.
    – StrongBad
    Commented Apr 18, 2016 at 12:58
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    This is highly dependent on circumstances. Is your most recent degree recent, or have you been out of academia for years? Do you have the necessary prerequisite coursework for your field of study, and if so, how long ago did you take it? Are there professors who can give you a strong letter of recommendation now, or do you have no current relationships with any potential recommenders? These, and similar details, matter much more for graduate admissions than age (as per the other questions in the age tag) or early failures.
    – ff524
    Commented Apr 20, 2016 at 4:25

2 Answers 2


When I started my PhD (R1 school in engineering), I shared my office with an older gentleman who was 12 years older than me, had an average GPA, been a structural engineer for 10-15 years or so, married with kids and extensive industry experience. He applied for 3 years in a row to the same university and only that university because he lived in that town and did not want to relocate (his kids were at school, his wife had a job too) and every time he would get rejected. At his fourth trail, he was accepted. He said that he was going to keep applying as much as needed! As far as I know, nothing has changed in his application from the third to the fourth year. The professor who agreed to support him has just got a project and needed somebody with technical experience (it was construction/material related).

I would say that getting to know the right people does not hurt! Maybe visit the department, introduce yourself and have short meeting with some professors. I noticed that many professors hold much respect for established industry people who want to go back to school. Although some feel it maybe a little risky as well. But, you never know if you do not ask or try. I do not think it is impossible, but maybe you would need to do some extra work to convince/explain your story/timing for such a decision.

I can also think of a scenario were if you work at a company that has an R&D department, maybe a collaboration between the company and school can open up a spot for you in a program. In this scenario, the company can provide the school with a proposal, pay fees and (raw) materials and the school can allocate the lab, equipment and an advisor to supervise you. You can work on such a project and get a degree at the end of the day. However, I'm not sure if this applicable to your case or if this something that happens often.


More to the point than acceptability of your patchwork and unconventional background is how do you propose to address missing course requirements e.g., two semesters of quantum, thermal physics, etc (that you presumably did not take in the course of your geology program)? How would prepare you for the entrance exams upon acceptance, given that you haven't never had some of the subjects you will be tested on? Most important of all, what kind of research do you want to do and what special skills do you have to do it? What are you bringing to the equation?

  • It was just an example. But we could have taken biochemisty as well. I thought that it might be of an advantage if having some degree plus some additional knowledge of some other studies, eventhough this might be not finished. I thought that having this knowledge might give an advantage over other regular students despite being considerably older. Am I wrong? Or how is reality?
    – Lucas
    Commented Apr 19, 2016 at 21:59

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