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Having difficulties deciding tier of PhD program to apply

MrTims4783MrTims4783 7 replies2 threads New Member
I also posted this to the chance me forum, but I think that's for undergraduate schools.

Hello guys. I am a junior chemical engineering major, am not applying for PhD until Fall 2021 however as I am doing a 5 year BS/MS. Having difficulties deciding what tier I would apply to.

At the time of applying I will have two posters, 3 years in the same lab, one research internship, plus part of my MS thesis, and maybe a pub if everything goes perfectly. Not sure yet about GRE but I assume it will be okay.

The main issue is my GPA, I will have a 3.7 cumulative and engineering at the time of application but that is after 3 retakes and 2 pass/fail (for COVID semester). Is this enough to prevent me from applying to high tier schools. I was thinking University of Colorado?

Thanks for any help.
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Replies to: Having difficulties deciding tier of PhD program to apply

  • BeaudreauBeaudreau 1156 replies39 threads Senior Member
    Chemical Engineering is a tough major and a 3.7 GPA should be fine. The COVID semester should not be an issue. You also have solid research experience. The GRE is less important, but you should do well. One thing that's nice about the GRE; unlike the SAT/ACT you can take it multiple times and only report your best score. I'm assuming that you will get solid recommendation letters.

    I am basing my opinion on my son's recent experience. He graduated in 2018 with a 3.76 in Aerospace Engineering and with similar research experience. He is finishing up his second year as a PhD student at Michigan, a top-tier AE program.

    If your goal is a PhD, I wonder why you are taking a fifth year of college. You don't need a masters degree to get into a STEM PhD. Your PHD program should be fully funded. Why not get started right away and save yourself a year of tuition and room and board? Go ahead and apply this fall for fall 2021 admission. Worst case, you don't get into one of your top choices and you apply again next year.
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  • PurpleTitanPurpleTitan 13628 replies32 threads Senior Member
    And ask your profs (maybe grad student TA's) what they think. The profs should know better than anyone.
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  • MrTims4783MrTims4783 7 replies2 threads New Member
    Hello Beau, I hope you son enjoys his PhD experience, Michigan is a great school. I have decided to take that gap year to work on my credentials and make sure that GPA is where I want it to be (unfortunately I have gotten Bs in several core courses as well as my other issues). Thank you for your response, have a great week.
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  • MrTims4783MrTims4783 7 replies2 threads New Member
    Hello Purple, I am good friends with the graduate advisors at my campus and will be doing a video conference with them to ask, thank you for your response!
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  • xraymancsxraymancs 4724 replies19 threads Super Moderator
    I would also question why you have a 5th year to get a Masters when you really want a Ph.D. In Chemical Engineering, you should be a good candidate for admission with a Bachelors degree and the experience that you have in research. I would suggest that you take the GRE as soon as possible and see how well you do. If you can graduate in 2021 having taken some graduate courses as an undergraduate, you should be a strong applicant.
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  • MrTims4783MrTims4783 7 replies2 threads New Member
    Hi xraymancs, thank you for the kind words. The reason I am so worried is because I had been looking at admissions results for engineering PhD programs and they usually range from 10 to 25% admitted, which is very low. So I was not sure I would get in with my current stats so I wanted to do my Master's to make sure.
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  • boneh3adboneh3ad Forum Champion Engineering 7508 replies134 threads Forum Champion
    You're fine. You'll get into a lot of great programs. Just do yourself a favor and stop fretting over "tiers" because they're meaningless in this context. A PhD is about research, and the best engineering PhD program are the ones that are best aligned with your research interests, not the ones some magazine says are too tier.
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  • MWolfMWolf 2580 replies14 threads Senior Member
    You are competitive for most PhD programs. The question which you need to ask yourself is: what would I do with my PhD?

    If you are looking for an industry job, choose universities which feed into industry. Look through LinkedIn at industry engineers with PhDs and see where they did these PhDs.

    If you are looking for an academic job, you need to decide where you would like to work in academia, If you want to be a faculty member at a research university, you will do better if your PhD is from a "higher-tier" program. However, if you want to teach at a comprehensive/regional university or college, a PhD from a "lower-tier" university will be fine.

    However, the most important factor in deciding where you wish to do your PhD is whether there are faculty members who are engaged in research which interests you.

    I don't know much about specific topics in chemical engineering, but in my field (ecology), a person who wants to do their PhD in landscape ecology would not have anything to do at, say, Princeton, since none of their faculty do research in that area.
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  • boneh3adboneh3ad Forum Champion Engineering 7508 replies134 threads Forum Champion
    MWolf wrote:
    If you are looking for an industry job, choose universities which feed into industry. Look through LinkedIn at industry engineers with PhDs and see where they did these PhDs.

    This is honestly irrelevant. For the most part, PhD recruiting, whether industry or government, is so targeted that it is still more important to go get the research experience that is best suited for the student. PhD recruiting is as much or more about networking with researchers at conferences through your research or advisor as it is about which school you came from. PhDs rarely just submit an application somewhere into the black hole of an online careers website.
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  • MrTims4783MrTims4783 7 replies2 threads New Member
    Do you guys think that I should still be ok with my transcript (2 P/F, 3 retakes when I didn't like my first grades?) I also got a lot of Bs in core classes which is why I am taking the senior year to show I can get As in upper level (will also bring up my GPA to a higher 3.7, sitting at a 3.6 something right now).
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  • MWolfMWolf 2580 replies14 threads Senior Member
    edited May 15
    boneh3ad wrote: »
    MWolf wrote:
    If you are looking for an industry job, choose universities which feed into industry. Look through LinkedIn at industry engineers with PhDs and see where they did these PhDs.

    This is honestly irrelevant. For the most part, PhD recruiting, whether industry or government, is so targeted that it is still more important to go get the research experience that is best suited for the student. PhD recruiting is as much or more about networking with researchers at conferences through your research or advisor as it is about which school you came from. PhDs rarely just submit an application somewhere into the black hole of an online careers website.


    You are mistaken.

    Most employers have connections with specific universities, and tend to recruit more heavily from those universities. Knowing which PhD programs have connections with which industry partners is valuable for that reason.

    I know exactly how the people who did their PhDs in my wife's lab found their jobs, and it was mostly based on the connection that she, and her department, had, as well as the reputation that these connections provided.

    Moreover, to get "the research experience that is best suited for the student" requires internships, and internships are obtained through the same network of connections that a PhD program has.

    So finding out where, say, the machine-learning PhDs who work at Facebook or Google have done their PhDs gives an indication from which universities these types of companies hire their PhD-level machine-learning researchers.

    Therefore a person who is interested in doing machine learning research in industry would have a better chance at employment, if they do their PhDs at one of those universities.

    So where people in specific industries and companies have done their PhDs is quite relevant.
    edited May 15
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  • xraymancsxraymancs 4724 replies19 threads Super Moderator
    @MrTims4783 - The most important thing about a Ph.D. program is who your advisor is. There are many very strong researchers at universities that are not the most selective in terms of their programs. For example, if you are advised by a National Academy member at a university that is not in the top 10 of the USNWR rankings for the engineering discipline you are interested in, then it is a pretty good bet that you will not have a problem finding a job either in industry or academia after graduation. Personally, I am not in the National Academy and my university, Illinois Tech, is not at the top of the list but my Ph.D. students have had no problem finding jobs in industry or as post-docs.
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  • MrTims4783MrTims4783 7 replies2 threads New Member
    Sorry to ask so many questions but my main question is whether you might think my transcript could affect the admissions process? Do you have any thought about that? Thank you for all of your help. I most definitely am not biased against lesser "ranked" schools, I will apply very broadly.
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  • PurpleTitanPurpleTitan 13628 replies32 threads Senior Member
    @MWolf & @boneh3ad, aren't you 2 saying the same thing?

    You're both saying, for jobs in industry, specific research and connections with industry matter.
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  • boneh3adboneh3ad Forum Champion Engineering 7508 replies134 threads Forum Champion
    Sort of, but what I'm saying is the PI's connections with industry and reputation are much more of a factor for PhD jobs than the university's connections.
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  • MrTims4783MrTims4783 7 replies2 threads New Member
    @xraymancs Sorry to ask so many questions but my main question is whether you might think my transcript could affect the admissions process? I have 3 retakes (when I didn't do as well as I liked in a class Freshman year) and 2 P/F during the COVID semester as well as a bunch of Bs in core classes. I'm currently sitting at a 3.63 GPA and should get it to a 3.7+ by time of application (my classes senior year are in the line of my strengths).

    Do you have any thought about that? Thank you for all of your help. I most definitely am not biased against lesser "ranked" schools, I will apply very broadly, but my dream school (with my dream lab) is the University of Colorado which is a top 20.
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  • MWolfMWolf 2580 replies14 threads Senior Member
    boneh3ad wrote: »
    Sort of, but what I'm saying is the PI's connections with industry and reputation are much more of a factor for PhD jobs than the university's connections.

    And I'm saying is that many of the connections are forged at the departmental and college (as in "College of Engineering" or "College of LAS") levels as well. Connections of the dean and department head help, and PhD students also have three-four members of their PhD committee who help them with connections.

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  • boneh3adboneh3ad Forum Champion Engineering 7508 replies134 threads Forum Champion
    For a PhD, recruiting is so targeted to needs that these general relationships don't mean a whole lot. For BS and MS jobs, those high level connections by the college and departments can be very beneficial. For PhD recruiting, those connections are so general in nature that all it does is establish a baseline level of competence for graduates but not in the sort of targeted positions that require PhDs.

    The connections of the Dean and Department Head specifically are nearly useless unless they have worked directly with the student and the connections are very relevant to the student's expertise.

    For the PhD committee, it's a mixed bag depending on how closely the committee members have worked with the student, but those are still individual faculty relationships that I have cited before and are not very quantifiable as an external student looking for a program.

    Ultimately, the two most important sets of connections are those that the PI has and those that the student makes through presenting their work at conferences.

    Source: I am an engineering faculty member working daily with these issues.
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  • xraymancsxraymancs 4724 replies19 threads Super Moderator
    @MrTims4783 - Well, the transcript will be looked at by the admissions committee and they will draw their own conclusions, however, when I look at a transcript, I generally look at the grades in later semesters, in upper division major courses. These are the most indicative of the student's abilities. B's are OK as long as there are not too many and a number of C's are a cause for concern. As for the COVID-19 semester, I would disregard it altogether. At my university, Illinois Tech, all undergraduates were given pass/fail grades for this semester.

    By the way, I prefer to categorize graduate programs as "highly selective", "moderately selective" and so on. I dislike the words "top" or "ranked" because the rankings for graduate programs are generally skewed to the usual suspects just because everyone knows their names and bigger programs because there is a better chance of the department chairs and graduate program directors who fill out the ranking surveys to know someone at that program. Smaller programs are at a disadvantage even though they might have some true strengths in a particular area. The disadvantage of highly selective programs is that they often triage their many applications using GRE and GPA. Only those making the cut will be evaluated thoroughly. This is simply a practical matter since they have so many applications. Smaller, moderately selective programs might not have as many applications and can afford to look at each one holistically.

    My advice to students is to have at least one moderately selective program (your faculty mentors can give you advice on this) that you would be happy to go to and then apply to whatever programs you dream of attending.
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  • MrTims4783MrTims4783 7 replies2 threads New Member
    @xraymancs I understand but do you believe I have a chance at these "highly selective" schools? I do not want to waste time applying when I do not have the background necessary to be successful in admissions. Will a 3.7 be strong enough to pass the GPA triage? I will ask my faculty.
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