I initially got rejected by the two schools I applied to (horrible pGRE scores, lackluster GRE scores, and only did research at my undergraduate institute), but then I got an NSF fellowship, and was almost immediately accepted by both schools.

I feel a little hurt by the whole acceptance process. I feel like I was essentially told: "you are not good enough to pursue space physics in our program, but because you have money we will let you in".

Question: In this situation, is it normal to feel like you essentially bought your way into graduate school? Or that people will always look at you as not good enough?

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    Yeah, it's just a sour way to start a 5-6 year academic career in my opinion. But I think I will take Drecate's advice, to the best of my ability( I'm only human, it'll take some time for me to be confident in myself.) Commented Jun 28, 2016 at 1:27
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    @User001 As someone whose taught every semester of their graduate life, trust me they got a benefit.
    – PVAL
    Commented Jun 28, 2016 at 3:04
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    How did you manage to get an NSF fellowship given your "horrible pGRE scores, lack luster GRE scores, and only did research at (your) undergraduate institute"?
    – Did
    Commented Jun 28, 2016 at 8:47
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    @JeffE, to be honest, I am a first generation student (my family is originally from ethiopia) so there was a lot of pressure from both my family and my school to go to graduate school. I (very naively) thought, I have a better chance applying to the field I've done research in than any other field and I was desperate to get in somewhere, so as not to let those people down (and meet everyone's expectations). The only reason I even applied for the NSF was because all my professors told me to (kind of pressured me to), I never thought I was actually going to get it though. Commented Jun 28, 2016 at 11:54
  • @Did, I have absolutely no idea how I got an NSF fellowship, although, I also won the Barry Goldwater scholarship, and one of the professors I did research under (and that wrote me a recommendation letter) has a pretty big name in the field I applied to in the application, so maybe those helped me. Commented Jun 28, 2016 at 11:57

6 Answers 6


From what I've heard the NSF fellowship is not an easy one to get, and having one seems to carry some sort of prestige. Sure, the program may have accepted you on the ground that they don't have to pay you, but the fact that you have an NSF fellowship may have changed the admission committee's perception of your ability, which could be what tipped the balance in your favour. No matter what, there is no point in dwelling on the past. What matters is how you perform in the program now, not how you got in. Don't be the college freshman who keeps talking about his high school athletic achievement; truth be told, nobody cares.

As for your lack of passion for the subject, I want to point out that passion usually does not precede mastery of a subject. Rather, people usually develop passion after they become good at something. So I don't really think lacking passion at this point is a deal breaker. I'm sure astrophysics is large enough for you to find something that you are good at and can develop a passion for. Of course, if you can't see yourself doing research, teaching, or anything science-related in the future, you might want to rethink about your decision to go to graduate school in the first place.

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    +1 for "people usually develop passion after they become good at something". I found this to be true myself. As long as you have a basic level of love and interest for science, you will get to like your subject more, the deeper you get into it.
    – Ian
    Commented Jun 28, 2016 at 12:46

First, congratulations on doubting yourself. That you doubt yourself will make you a better researcher. You will check your findings and take more care in your work. A little self-doubt is important in the world of research. Alas, it is a weakness in the world of promoting your research, so there is certainly a balance.

Second, congratulations on the NSF Award! That is very prestigious! Consider that the NSF Panel which reviewed these awards had more information about you and more time to consider each specific application than members of the admissions committee. They literally made a more informed decision. And that decision did then influence the admissions committee to update its own decision.

And yes funding matters. You did not buy your way into graduate school. You earned your way into graduate school. Getting a NSF Award is the hard way.

Yet while funding does matter, no one will take a "free" student they are not interested in. Every PhD student is a significant commitment in terms of time if nothing else. Graduating doctoral students is the core of what we do, and why many of us are professors. They would not have admitted you if they did not expect to want to work with you. You made it possible for the school to afford to admit you.

In every admissions committee I have ever worked on any serious application is read by at least one committee member. That committee member then makes a recommendation for further review, so some applications are reviewed by only one faculty member. In my experience nearly completed doctoral application is see by at least one faculty member. Unreviewed cut-offs for test scores alone may actually occur, but I have not seen it. It is, at most, quite rare. So it is likely you were reviewed by multiple faculty members, put on an alternate list, and then everyone else they asked did accept. Then when your funding came through, acceptance was possible.

You will find your passion. Did you know that the current lead of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, John Holdren, started in astrophysics? He was a lead in the Paris Climate Accords. And stop calling it "space physics". Sec. of Defense Ashton Carter, who just appointed the first openly gay Sec of the Army, started as a physicist. Physics is your five year plan.

If you look at my cv I started as a Math/EE in a nuclear plant, went into computer generated holography, wrote my dissertation on the then-imaginary idea of Internet commerce, worked at Sandia Labs in CS, moved to Kennedy School of Gov, then moved to an Info/School. I probably have at least one career left. You will find your passion.

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    "who just appointed the first openly gay Sec of the Army" What does that have to do with the subject at hand? Does it somehow seem unbelievable that a physics major would do that? Commented Jun 29, 2016 at 17:13

There are plenty of people who would feel like that, especially when they are young and insecure. I'm not a psychologist, but I think it's some kind of manifestation of the imposter syndrome. When I got admitted into graduate school, I was coming after 2 years of inactivity and I was sure I'd get kicked out in one semester. At the end of that semester, I had passed my qualifying exam. Then, I was sure no one would hire me after graduation. In the end, I got 5 postdoc offers, one from each place I had applied to.

The fact is, your admission committee had little to go on by just looking at your GRE scores, and it is possible they had other candidates with better scores and research experience. But, as a faculty, I'd view your NSF fellowship as a better predictor of your future performance in the graduate program, especially if your undergraduate research contributed to obtaining it. Besides, I know personally people with poor GRE scores that are full professors at US universities now. I think a good GRE score predicts better how you would do in your graduate classes, than in research. But, however nice is to get high scores on the exams, no one will ask you about them after graduation.

As you will get more confident with what you can do as a researcher, you'll probably stop asking yourself the question if you are "good enough". You'll just focus on doing quality research work, and leave those doubts to your referees.

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    When I started my PhD in economics, a conversation with nearly anyone in my cohort would go "Man... this is crazy. I feel like any minute now they're going to realize I got in by mistake and kick me out, so I had better be perfect at everything so no one notices me!" followed by "... you feel that way too?! Wow, thought it was just me."
    – Jeff
    Commented Jun 29, 2016 at 17:49

"It's not about you, it's about them."

This is a good thing to remember whenever you feel like this. The vast majority of the time, what people do and say doesn't have much to do with you personally, and is instead just a result of them doing the best they can with the knowledge and abilities they have.

In this case, think about it from the acceptance committee's point of view. They have a presumably large stack of applicants, and only a few openings. "Openings" in graduate school are created when a professor is fairly confident that they can secure funding for a student for at least 5 or 6 years. It's kind of a catch-22 in that you need the students to do work to get the funding, but you need the funding to get the students. So there is always an element of risk where you think you will be able to provide support and that you will be able to find students to work on your project, but you aren't completely sure.

When application season starts, the department tries to predict how many funded positions there will be, given the number of awarded or likely-to-be-awarded grants, teaching assistant positions, and fellowships provided by the school. They then try to select a number of students to accept that is a little larger than that (because not everyone who is accepted will end up joining), but not too large.

Given these constraints, you can see how important it is to correctly guess which of your applicants will have the skills needed to succeed in the program and also have interest in one or more of the available funded (or likely to be funded) projects. How do you do this, given only GRE scores, transcripts, reference letters, a CV, and a statement of interest?

When you need to quickly cut down a large stack of applicants to a much smaller number, the easiest way is to filter based on some pre-established criteria. GRE and GPA are probably not the best measure of potential success as a researcher, but they are a proxy measure for the basic skills you need as well as an indicator of an ability to do what you are supposed to do when you are supposed to do it. For those reasons, they are often used as a first-pass filter to reject applicants. Most professors I have talked to know that in doing this, they are potentially rejecting people who would have made very capable researchers, but this is a game of odds - you are trying to predict how likely a person is to succeed without knowing much about them. A pool of students with high GPA and GRE scores is more likely to contain a higher number of successful researchers than a pool with low scores.

There is no way of knowing (unless they tell you) whether you were rejected because of this filter or not. Usually a department will tell you up front what the range of GPA and GRE scores that they accept is, so that applicants don't waste their time. Since you got in with an NSF fellowship, let's assume you were at least past the minimum.

Now the committee has a smaller but still too-large pool of applicants that they are betting has a higher chance of success. The next step is to go through and find the best candidates. One way to predict future research success is if you have a record of previous success - that's why undergraduate research experience is so valuable for a graduate school application. You said you have that - so as long as you had a good letter of recommendation from your PI, that probably helped you. Letters of recommendation carry a lot of weight at this point, because they are the only way that the committee can get a sense of what it is like to work with you. A lot of very capable people don't have great letters of recommendation because they didn't interact much with their professors. Even if you did extremely well in a given class, if the professor doesn't know you very well, they can't say much besides "this student made good grades."

The last thing they look at is your statement of interest. Remember - they are trying to match interested and capable students to funded positions. If your statement of interest doesn't communicate a strong match to one or more of the areas that have openings, then they might not want to risk accepting you over someone else who is interested.

Notice that in all of these scenarios, at no point were people making a judgement about how "good" you are as a researcher - they were instead making a bet about whether or not you would be more likely to succeed in their research program compared to other candidates. For whatever reason, they decided that based on the information they had, the other candidates had a higher chance of success.

Remember that the two constraints which made estimating these odds so important were a limited number of funded research positions and the fact that not every student is interested in every project. Once you secured NSF funding, you changed three very important things:

1) You created a new funded position

2) You proved that you were interested in working on that project

3) You got the equivalent of a strong letter of reference from the NSF

Once you add these things to your application, you are practically eliminating risk for the department. As long as there is a professor who has the capacity to advise you and an interest in the project, you would be very likely to get into any school.

Thinking about it this way, hopefully it is clear that it was not that they thought you weren't good enough before, but now that you are bringing in money you are. It is more likely that you were too risky a bet, and now you are not. In that sense, it wasn't that you were not good enough, but that your application was not convincing enough. Those are two very different things, and I believe that most professors understand that. The application and the NSF fellowship are just two different types of keys letting you into the same door. Once you are through the door, you will be judged by how well you do in your classes and (more so) by your research work.


I can speak to this, as I served on the graduate admissions committee of one of the top three ranked astrophysics programs in the United States. Here are some things to note.

The admissions process does not separate qualified from unqualified candidates. Typically, about 20-30 candidates are excellent candidates, another 30-40 are marginal, and another 40-50 are unqualified. Of the 20-30 that are excellent candidates, 8-12 are offered admission, and financial, programmatic, and other considerations play major roles in who is offered a slot, with randomness being rampant. The fact that that you were granted admission means that you were placed in this first group.

You seem to be obsessed with your low test scores. Admissions committees are not. There is no correlation between physics GRE scores and graduate school success. None. External and informal internal investigations show this. There is a very weak correlation between general GRE scores and graduate school success, which is mainly carried by the verbal score. This verbal score correlation is not present for foreign students like yourself, for obvious reasons.

Finally, some of our most heavily recruited students fizzle out. Some of the ones who get in off the waiting list win the most prestigious postdoctoral fellowships in the country. Treat it as a clean slate. No one really cares about how you got in once you're in.


Too long for a comment:

Don't feel bad -- full stop. Stop thinking about how academia is an emotional roller-coaster or it will drive you crazy. I am also an NSF recipient, I know I earned it through hardwork, and multiple people have told me/implyed that I only got the award because I am an indigenous-mestizo, brown, and/or poor. The idea that "you are only good enough if you have money" is an often encountered feeling/obstacle in academia, so get used to it, and teach yourself to overcome whatever feelings of inadequacy you may have with respect to it; I would actually suggest seeking psychological counseling at your new university if you feel very perturbed by the situation. The acceptance of people based on their economic-resources/merit in an inherently biased world is assuredly a questionable practice (academia is full of them), and we all know that, but there is nothing you can do about it except work hard and get the money/credentials/grants you need to do the research you are interested in. If you have the money now, however you got it, put it towards achieving your goal of a graduate degree. Whatever happened in the past, you are at a great advantage now, don't waste that opportunity fretting about how academia can be mechanistic, inhumane, and unforgiving; that's just the way this game goes.

Feel free to reach out to me: [email protected]

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