Chance my DD for her phD

Hi! My DD is applying for a phD program in biological sciences. She hasn’t told me all of her scores/stats, but I’m nervous about her chances. She had a rough patch in college and I think it might reflect poorly in her applications.

Here are her stats (that i know)

around 3.5 major GPA (bio)
she won’t be taking the GRE (she promised me that the schools were waiving them this year–is that true?)

She did “theater” for 3 years as her only extracurricular, which I thought was a shame, because it had nothing to do with her future career. She had a job as an undergraduate researcher in a lab where she studied fruit flies, though lord knows what she was doing with them.

She’s only applying to top-tier schools, like Ivies and UC schools, and I’m worried that she’s going to get her heart broken.

What are her chances?

Thank you in advance!

I have a PhD and once served on a graduate admissions committee in my field. We cared about one thing: academic performance and experience in the field/coursework.

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@lenavkogan, while harsh, is correct. Based on your description, your DD does not seem to have the accomplishments that are generally considered attractive for PhD programs.

Applicants for top PhD programs should have had a good amount of lab experience, at least one internship, at least one presentation, and having a publication is even better.

They should have already contacted professors in the departments at which they wish to do their PhDs, and have talked shop with them. They should have some basic idea of what full blown research projects look like, aa well.

Students don’t pay universities in order to do a PhD, but the opposite. Universities support PhD students financially, academically, and professionally for 5-7 years. Every applicant has to convince the PhD program that they are worth the tens of thousands of dollars that will be spent on their PhD. Has your DD demonstrated that a university should bet its money, time, and reputation on her finishing her PhD?

In all honesty, based on your description, I do not really think that she has a very good chance for admissions at any of the universities which you describe. I am sorry.

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My daughter was originally going to go this route, and this is what she told me:

  1. GRE scores are not as important as other things
  2. Research is very important
  3. Publishing is important
  4. Showing a strong interest in the lab, contacting the professors, matching your interests and research experience to the programs you apply to, etc is important
  5. A PhD in the biological sciences is not easy, and she knows many people who almost dropped out for a variety of reasons (even when they did everything right prior to applying)

It sounds like your daughter has a lot of work to do if she decides to go this route. She doesn’t have to do this straight out of college, but she should be the one taking on the challenge.

This is a good summary, though I would add that overall GPA is somewhat less important than GRE, while GPA is courses related to the field are somewhat more important than GRE.

But yes, research experience is #1.

This student might want to take some time off before applying to programs. She can apply for positions within labs and work her way up from there. These positions won’t be glamorous, as she will likely be cleaning and setting up equipment etc. From there she can try to work her way up, get to know the researchers, hopefully become more involved in research, take the GRE, etc. She needs to build up her resume…a lot. Her undergraduate lab work is a start, but it’s not nearly enough.

Can she speak to one of her professors for advice?

If she truly wanted to get into a PhD at only an Ivy or in UC, her heart will be broken.
Maybe she is only applying to those knowing they will reject her so she can say it wasn’t her fault.

She has time to find her way. Allow her to get out into the world and get some real working experience. Be proud when she does this regardless of the letters after her name or what her salary may be.

You can be nervous for her but know that this is her journey. As someone who is starting their doctorate next year at age 47, I know that learning is a life long endeavor.

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Anecdote 1: niece was PBK at JHU in Biology, with year round research experience from 2nd semester frosh year on. Was thrilled to get into UNC-CH (USNWR ranks the program #33).

Anecdote 2: neighbor kid had a 3.5 in Bio from a mid-tier LAC, with not much research experience. Got an internship in a lab after graduation (and worked as a barista b/c the internship stipend was predictably small). Over 3 years, the. Internship morphed into bottom-rung job, which morphed into a better job. By then she knew what she wanted to do, and where she wanted to do it, Applied to a few very specific programs, who were familiar with her research / lab / PIs. Accepted to all.

There are a lot of ways to get there, but she really has to do it herself. And you get to join the ranks of parents confined to the cheerleading section- all support / all the time. Her decisions- and if she makes mistakes, her mistakes- her adult life. :slight_smile:

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I’m actually going to say that we don’t have enough information to give OP a good sense of her daughter’s competitiveness. It is completely impossible to judge a candidate on a skeleton of information tossed into a thread by her mother.

First of all, @pudgesciencemom, one of the reasons that you might be here and not your daughter is that she may be aware that “chancing” people for PhD admissions is kind of useless. Graduate admissions are holistic. They’re not based primarily on status and extracurriculars like in undergrad; rather, the fit with the department and its professors’ research activities is very important. The quality of her research experience, the quality of her letters of recommendation, how she tells her story in her statement of purpose - all those are more important than her GPA and GRE scores. We don’t have enough information on any of that to assuage you (and really, it’s hard even for students to come here and give enough information to get feedback).

You said she had a job as an undergraduate researcher, but without more detail (that can really only be provided by her, and really only understood by life sciences researchers) it’s really not possible for any of us to say that she isn’t competitive or should wait a year or whatever. Please do not go and badger your daughter based on what random people in this thread say! Fruit flies are a very common biological model. Generally speaking competitive candidates have ~2 years of research experience in undergraduate, and usually 1-2 summer research experiences in the summers of their undergrad.

A 3.5 GPA is totally fine. It’s not the highest GPA they’ll see, but it shouldn’t hold her back from admission in and of itself. It also depends on the program, but I strongly disagree that overall GPA is less important than the GRE. Graduate professors in general care a lot more how you performed in academic classes than about how you performed on a 3-hour test. In my experience, the GRE is one of the least important aspects of the package.

If your daughter told you that schools are waiving the GRE, you should believe her. She owns her own admissions process, and she’s the one who bears the brunt of being right or wrong. Incidentally, it happens she’s right - taking the GRE is dangerous in a pandemic, and many programs have waived the GRE requirements for this year’s admissions cycle in recognition of that.

Why is it a shame that your daughter spent three years doing something that she presumably loved and enjoyed? What a boring life we would live if we only did things that had to do with our (future) careers! I have a PhD and I did all kinds of interesting things in college that theoretically had ‘nothing’ to do with my future career. I currently have a (great) job and I also do all kinds of interesting things when I am not at work, including continuations of things I did in college. College isn’t a vocational program designed to shuffle her down an assembly line to a Successful Career; it’s a time to prepare her for her future in many senses: her career, her personal and social life, her participation in a (hopefully) democratic society. (Pragmatically speaking, professors in graduate programs don’t really care if you had non-scientific extracurriculars. They don’t help, but they don’t hurt either.)

Moreover, theater teaches one to be comfortable speaking/performing in front of a lot of others; to work together on a team to accomplish something; to practice something until one perfects it; to understand nuance and meaning. Those are all things that can make one a dynamic speaker and teacher, both of which are things your daughter will have to do in her PhD program.

I wouldn’t recommend that she re-evaluate her career plans or that she wait a year, and I certainly wouldn’t assert that she’s going to get her heart broken. As a counterexample I got my PhD at an Ivy and I had a 3.4 GPA and “a job as an undergraduate researcher where I studied HIV, although lord knows what exactly I was doing with it.” I also had other stuff that my mom would not possibly be able to accurately describe, though I do love her very much. I chose to only apply to top-tier schools because I would’ve rather gone to do something else than gotten a graduate degree at a non-top-tier school (a lower-tier school would not have been useful for what I wanted to do). I wouldn’t have gotten my heart broken if I hadn’t gotten in; I would’ve just done something else. For all we know, this is how this young woman feels, too.

We simply don’t have enough information to recommend…anything, really, especially when the recommendation is not to the applicant herself. Moreover, I’m assuming that this young woman is at least 21 years old and has biology professors that can serve as mentors and advisors for her. Therefore, my recommendation is that you trust her to handle her own career from here on out, and relegate yourself to only providing support if she asks for it.


Op, just a post of solidarity and support. Just because they’re 21 doesn’t mean we stop worrying about them. My D is also applying to PhD programs and I still helicopter (more so because covid has her back home). She often swats me away but I’ve also pointed her in the direction of fellowships that she might not have learned about if I hadn’t mentioned them.

And you’re right not many top schools will consider GRE scores this year (bummer for my kid who is a good test taker). Still she does get tons of e-mail from schools who saw her scores, so I recommend that your D take it if she can to help schools who would want her and fund her to find her.

I think cc should be a safe place where we can worry about our kids without worrying our kids together.

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Of course you can worry about your kids! I don’t think anyone here was intending to say that OP shouldn’t care, or shouldn’t worry, or shouldn’t try to help her children achieve. I’m 34 and my mom was a huge support for me emotionally as I completed graduate school and started my first job.

I think the advice was more about how to support your child. Pointing them in the direction of fellowships is a great way to support! Chancing them on an Internet forum with incomplete information, and then delivering advice based on that incomplete information…may not be the best way, as it may just stress the both of you out without being helpful.

Honestly the best kind of support I got from my mother during my application and graduate school process was emotional. The process of applying is really stressful, and graduate school is even more stressful, and having reassurance that I was worthy and smart from one of the people who loved me most was so valuable. I had lots of people I could ask for help applying and finding information, but far fewer people who loved me unconditionally for who I was and would tell me that until the sun burns out :slight_smile:


A bit surprised to read that an undergraduate GPA of 3.4 was adequate for acceptance to a, presumably, funded PhD program. I suspect that there are significant other factors not shared in this thread.

@juillet Your fourth paragraph in your first post above seems to contradict itself. Was 3.4 an overall GPA with a much higher GPA in targeted subject ?

Good question. Most programs don’t care about grades/GPA in unrelated disciplines.

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I don’t think there is any gpa cut-off, it is the whole package. A 3.0 with a high impact publication might get in.

A few programs do have a GPA cutoff. It’s usually 3.0, though a few programs which are pretty popular reduce the number of applicants by having a 3.5 cutoff. Some programs don’t have an official cutoff, but will report that their graduates all have GPAs above a certain grade, partly to boast, but also to discourage.

There are also programs, especially large ones with many applicants, which don’t have an official cutoff, but where the applicants will be pre-culled by GPA before the applications are seen by the graduate committee. When my wife was a grad student at UIUC, they would do this.

So a GPA is rarely used as an actual factor in decision as much as a quick and easy way to reduce the number of applications. The only part of the GPA that is actually important in in those subjects that related directly to the topic. So applications from a person who wants to do a PhD is CS who has barely passing grades in algorithm courses, a person who wants to do a PhD in Physics who barely squeaked by in differential equations, a person looking to do a PhD in English whose grades in writing classes are low, etc, are likely to be treated with skepticism.

However, all that being said, an impressive set of actual accomplishments in the field, like a good publication or two, good letters of recommendation from big names in the field, etc, will get an applicant admitted, despite having a lower GPA, or even having a GPA that is below the cutoff.

Since the point of a PhD is to train a student to be a researcher, that means that the best indication that a graduate student will succeed is if the student has demonstrated research capabilities. there is no better evidence than a peer-reviewed publication.

Also, if a faculty member is interested in a particular student, the program will often accept that student, no matter what their GPA or GRE are. While a graduate student does reflect on the program, the student reflects on their PhD adviser more than on anybody else. So if the potential adviser is willing to take on a student, that is sometimes enough for the graduate committee to agree to accept that student.

PS. UCLA is an example of a college which has a 3.0 cutoff for grad school: Admissions FAQs | UCLA Graduate Programs



I’m not sure I understand your question. Can you tell me what contradiction you see? My fourth paragraph in my first post mentioned overall GPA, and my opinion that a 3.5 is fine, and most of the rest was focused on GRE being relatively unimportant.

As for my program, it was indeed funded. My major GPA was a 3.67 - higher, but not astronomical. And yes, there were significant other factors not shared in the thread; that was, actually, my point :slight_smile: If I had come here in 2007 and posted just my stats, I may have been told that I had slim chances of admission, but those wouldn’t be accounting for my strong recommendations (including one explaining why my GPA was lower than my potential), my strong personal statement, my senior honors thesis, my 2.5 years of lab research experience, my advanced statistical training and my excellent fit with the departments I selected. It’s hard for people to evaluate your competitiveness even with that information; without it, it’s simply impossible.

I also won an NSF GRFP with that undergraduate GPA, so GPA isn’t everything! :wink:

Also, many departments do care about your grades and GPA in unrelated disciplines, although it depends on how ‘unrelated’ those disciplines are. Departments don’t really want people who, for an extreme example, aced all their field-related classes and barely squeaked by in everything else; first of all, some of those could indicate serious gaps in communication, critical thinking, and writing skills. Second of all, PhDs involve a lot of tedious required work, and any signal that you slack off when things aren’t super-interesting to you can be a red flag. 3.0 GPA cutoffs are pretty common, although I can’t say I’ve ever seen a 3.5 cutoff.

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Thank you for your response which clarifies the matter as the thread’s focus centered on the OP’s concern about just a 3.5 GPA in her daughter’s major.

Clarifying that your major GPA was a 3.67–and not just a 3.4–is quite helpful as are your other comments.

P.S. Your 4th paragraph left the impression that a 3.4 GPA in one’s major was more important and sufficient to render one’s GRE score of much less concern. Seems as though a 3.4 GPA in one’s major would raise concerns for an applicant to a funded PhD program–so there had to be more—and your follow-up post shows that there was much more.

Again, thank you for your clarification !

If you are interested and not already aware of it, there is more chat about grad school and sharing of stats and results on reddit /r/gradadmissions. Also gradcafe.