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I had a rough first year. Now what?

Aku123Aku123 Registered User Posts: 15 New Member
I think I'm off to a poor start to my undergraduate career.

Some context: my major is Materials Science and Nanoengineering at the University of California, San Diego. I'm on the BS/MS track for 2020, meaning I will get my BS and MS at the same time. My GPA for my first year is a 3.2, which I think is quite bad in regards to my prospects of getting into a good PhD programme. My research advisor even told me that I need a 3.5 to have any hope at all of getting into a top tier PhD programme for my area of discipline. I need to know how I can make myself as competitive as possible for top PhD programmes in materials science.

In regards to clubs and activities, I'm involved in four places. I do research in the bioengineering department, where I focus on fabricating biosensors to read genetic errors (I currently have my own project, which is set to be completed by this November, at the rate I'm progressing). I'm the lead researcher in a joint project by AIChE (American Institute of Chemical Engineers) and NETS (Nano Engineering and Technology Society), for piezoelectric energy generation and storage (this project is my brainchild). And lastly, I am a central member of the UCSD Wushu Team, which I do for physical and mental health (it's done wonders for both my anxiety and depression, as I've been needing to go to counselling less and less frequently).

I will take my first upper division classes this September, where I've that they are both harder to learn the course material and yet easier than lower divs to get good grades (B+ and up). I've gotten to know most of my professors via AIChE and NETS. I tend to stay in touch with every professor I talk to, either personally, or via email/LinkedIn.

Have I put myself in a bad situation? Am I overreacting? Where do I go from here to optimise myself for a strong PhD programme? I need all the advice I can get.

Replies to: I had a rough first year. Now what?

  • SlynnxSlynnx Registered User Posts: 11 New Member
    You certainly have time to improve your credentials. Research experience is important, and it's great that you're already so involved and building relationships with your professors (which will hopefully lead to strong letters of recommendation later on). Wushu won't matter for grad applications, but your physical and mental health are important, so if it's helping you then stick with it.

    Have you identified why your grades were not as high as you may have expected? It could be poor study habits, issues with test anxiety, laziness, etc. It is not uncommon for students to struggle as they adapt to their first year of college, then turn their grades around. That is why many programs are more interested in the last 2 years or so of an applicant's history; plus your grades in English 101 don't matter as much as advanced courses in your respective field. But keep in mind that the more courses you take, the harder it is to budge your GPA, so you'll want to start making progress this coming year. Use your professors' office hours to discuss material you're not understanding, join or form study groups to stay motivated, find a tutor, or whatever else is necessary to keep you on the right path.

    GPA, GRE, and other standardized tests are usually nothing more than gatekeeper criteria for PhD admissions; once you hit the cutoff scores, your research experience, research fit for the department, and letters of recommendation matter more. Depending on the field and particular program, personal statements and/or writing samples can be very important as well as personal interviews, if the department conducts them. Sometimes GPA and test scores are used for funding decisions once admission is granted.
  • Aku123Aku123 Registered User Posts: 15 New Member
    I was definitely surprised with how different the dynamic was from high school to university. The coursework is much more rigorous and the tests are a lot more intense. I'm not a fantastic test taker, and I think the culture shock didn't help. Text anxiety is definitely a huge player, as is my poor test taking skill, but I believe the real killer is that I study hard. I don't know how to study smart. A common trend was that I had a solid grade (A-, or A), and then the final hit me hard, and I sank to a B or B-.
  • SlynnxSlynnx Registered User Posts: 11 New Member
    A lot of freshman have those same feelings. It's good that you've identified some opportunities; now you can make a plan for improvement. There are all sorts of resources available online for effective note-taking, study tips, managing test anxiety, etc.
  • xraymancsxraymancs College Rep Posts: 4,215 Senior Member
    By all means get involved in clubs and extra curricular activities but the only thing that really matters for a Ph.D. program is your research experience. You have plenty of time to raise your GPA. A 3.2 is not a horrible base to start on just as long as you keep improving steadily.
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