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I want to get into specifically top schools (in materials science and engineering) because I want to have a decent shot at being a professor.

I am aware that quite a few people have successfully done an MS and went on to top PhD programs, but my concern is that because the MS GPA is so inflated, it won't help me in my case. I already have a first author publication soon to be submitted, so my research experiences have been covered well, and my uGPA of 3.1 is my only weakness. Remember, I am trying to get into top schools, where they get so many applications that they are seeking any reason to throw them out.

Because undergrad GPAs are less inflated, I was thinking that doing a whole another undergrad might be more helpful in letting me demonstrate an improvement academically. In addition, some schools require specifically an undergrad GPA limit, apparently without regards to whether the applicant has an MS degree or not. But at the same time, since I would be repeating the same thing, they might not see it as that much of an improvement.

What do you think?

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    A second undergrad degree would be a colossal waste of time. Go do a masters degree, get stellar grades, more research experience, and strong letters of recommendation while you're there, and you'll be fine.
    – ff524
    Jul 20 '16 at 6:13
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    I was thinking that an MS wasn't such a bad idea, and it would have been what I would have decided to do without hesitation, but the classes are curved higher, and apparently not taken very seriously. From your 2nd link, a reply by JeffE: "In particular, at many universities, classes taken by terminal master's students are easier than the corresponding classes taken by undergraduates".
    – J. Doe
    Jul 20 '16 at 6:18
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    You're not going to get into a top PhD program because of amazing masters grades. You'll get into a top PhD program because the additional research you do and glowing letters of recommendation you get during the masters will show that your undergrad grades are irrelevant to your ability to do high quality research. (And also show that by the way, in case you were worried, the grades won't be a problem because you've turned that situation around.)
    – ff524
    Jul 20 '16 at 6:28
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    Research is important, but it's quite well known that GPA is used as a cutoff, so that is why I am concerned. Do you think that the inflated MS GPA won't be much of a problem?
    – J. Doe
    Jul 20 '16 at 14:45
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As others have said, getting a second undergrad degree is a waste of time. Don't bother.

The unfortunate truth is that your undergrad GPA may keep you out of top PhD programs even if you have a Master's degree with a perfect GPA and multiple journal publications.

Top engineering graduate programs receive hundreds or even thousands of applicants every year. Despite what others may tell you, they're not looking for an excuse to reject applicants because it keeps their US News rating high. They're looking for excuses to reject because there are far too many applications to judge each one on its merits, and far too many highly qualified applicants to admit them all, and the committee members are faculty who have many other demands on their time and who want sleep occasionally. In some departments, applications are filtered by GPA even before the first human committee member reads them.

By far the best way over that hurdle is to cultivate a champion -- a faculty member who is active and visible in their research community, who will write you glowing letters describing your strong potential for independent research (in personal, technical, and credible detail), and who will call up their colleagues in other departments to tell them to watch for your application. The goal here is to interest someone in your target department enough to rescue your application from knee-jerk rejection and evaluate it on its own merits.

And then your application needs to shine on its own merits. It must provide compelling evidence of your strong potential for independent research. Yes, your graduate GPA is a (small) part of this, but you need to sell yourself primarily as a future researcher, if not a current researcher, not just someone who excels at classes. Moreover, this evidence needs to be stronger than for other applicants with higher undergraduate GPAs. Do not assume that one first-author publication is enough.

All that said... Focusing on research and finding a champion will improve your chances of being admitted to a top program, but they will not guarantee anything. In particular, even with a strong research record and vocal champions, you may still be rejected because of your undergrad GPA. Admissions is best considered a random process; the most you (or anyone) can do is improve your odds.

Incidentally, the same advice goes for your longer-term goal of getting a faculty position. Yes, having a degree from a non-top-10 department makes it harder to get an academic position, but you can work against that disadvantage by developing a killer research portfolio and multiple champions (not just your advisor). Conversely, a PhD from a top-10 department will not guarantee you success on the faculty job market; you also need a killer research portfolio and multiple champions (not just your advisor). Start developing that now.

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    The idea of a champion is key. Everyone knows someone who punched far above what their resume might have suggested. This works even better if they have active connections at schools you are targeting.
    – Roger Fan
    Jul 21 '16 at 19:52
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First, let me state that I am currently in a PhD program in a top school in the US. My undergrad GPA was from an engineering program in the top engineering school in my home country. It was 3.65. Compared to others who applied to my PhD program my GPA was probably below average. (Engineering is hard, yo!, and my school graded on a strict curve that permitted only 20% of the class to get A's)

I agree with others who have said that doing another undergraduate degree would be a waste of time. Having said that, you may want to do a post-bac or something similar if you don't want to go the masters route. This will at least allow you to get some more undergrad grades to bring your GPA up and cross the cutoff threshold. I also think that this would be a waste of time though, assuming you have at least the minimum GPA to get past the first review.

The issue with GPA is that many top schools use undergrad GPA to make themselves seem highly selective, and this is a stat that they are judged on in US News and World Report (That's my perception having talked with my program director in my PhD program). They like to have students with high undergrad GPAs, but not every student needs to have a stellar undergrad GPA.

The downside of doing the post-bac is that if you don't get into the program you want, all you have are some extra undergrad classes and a new student loan, and no "network".

Here's my suggestion.

  1. talk with the program directors for the PhD programs you're interested in and ask them what they suggest. They may say that your undergrad GPA is super important, or they may say focus on the GRE and letters of recommendation and your research. They may also tell you if they think your GPA would completely preclude you from consideration.

  2. Assuming the undergrad GPA isn't going to kill your application immediately, consider doing a masters at one of your preferred PhD universities. make sure you crush the GRE, since that's a relevant entry criteria for most schools. This will do a couple of things.

First, it will give you another set of grades, at the university to which you're applying. These grades will mean something and provide easy context for the admissions committee. e.g. if you do classes at Harvard and apply to Harvard, they should know what your Harvard grades mean. If you do classes at USC and apply to Harvard, Harvard may not know what your USC grades mean. e.g. is an A at USC the same as one at Harvard?

Second, it will allow you to become acquainted with professors at your preferred school. This could be the thing that gets you in. If you have someone on the admissions committee who would vouch for you and agrees to be your adviser, you have a much stronger shot of getting in no matter what the rest of your application looks like. If the faculty know you, they are more likely to admit you assuming you're a good student among your peers!

Lastly, if all else fails, when you graduate the masters, you'll have a masters from a good school, and even if you don't get accepted to that school for your PhD, your masters at a good school with good grades will signal to other schools that you are a competitive applicant (again, this presumes your undergrad GPA doesn't torpedo your app before the admissions committee even looks at it.

All this being said, it's still a bit of a crapshoot. I'm in a PhD program at a good school. I teach a class that many of the masters students who want to go on to the PhD program take. The class is regarded as the hardest quantitative class in the school. It's a requirement for the PhD students. Several of the masters students who have done exceptionally well in this class who have applied to the PhD program have been rejected in their PhD application (but ended up at other great schools). Others have been accepted. I'm not sure how much of an influence this class has, but I haven't seen anyone who has done badly in the class get accepted. At the school you apply to, there will probably be one or two classes like this. Typically they are classes you'd have to take in the PhD program if you're accepted anyway. Make sure you take those and do well. This reduces the uncertainty both for you and the faculty about your ability to succeed in the PhD program should you be accepted.

Good luck!

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    Thank you for your response. Are there any actual post-bac programs for engineering though? I have a hard time finding them, as opposed to MS programs or just retaking undergrad courses as a non-degree seeking student. And the fact that undergrad GPA, not Masters GPA, is being used to calculate rankings seems like another reason to do something that is closer to undergrad.
    – J. Doe
    Jul 21 '16 at 10:23
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    my GPA was probably below average — I wouldn't take that bet.
    – JeffE
    Jul 21 '16 at 18:42
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    and no "network". — If you're going through any degree program without creating a network, you're doing it wrong.
    – JeffE
    Jul 21 '16 at 18:44
  • +1 for If you have someone on the admissions committee who would vouch for you and agrees to be your adviser, you have a much stronger shot of getting in no matter what the rest of your application looks like. — This is by far the most important point.
    – JeffE
    Jul 21 '16 at 18:59
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Moreover, it has been indicated by many that yes a solid gpa in a masters degree program and an excellent explanation describing why your undergraduate gpa is low might help in certain circumstances. Research experience is a big plus as well. Not all is dead!

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I have an answer for you, but you and other people might not like it.

In my opinion, you would look exceedingly foolish and naïve to re-do your undergraduate program or do another undergraduate program.

Understand, I'm almost 50 years old. Nobody is going to give a damn about your 3.1 GPA if you excel at your master level work. If you get a 3.9 or higher in your master level work, that will look very good. But if you create a phenomenal master paper on top of that, you'll be good-to-go. Don't worry about "the top school". Instead, worry about whether or not it's accredited.

Long ago, one of my professors told me that students are way too worried about their GPAs. This professor was highly respected in the structural engineering field and had written his own textbook on structural analysis.

In my opinion, if you re-do your undergraduate program or complete another undergraduate degree, I'd say you're not exhibiting mature, adult judgment. It would look very amateurish and inexperienced in life.

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    worry about whether or not it's accredited — "Accredited" is a pretty low bar, especially for someone aiming for an academic position.
    – JeffE
    Jul 22 '16 at 15:36

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