I graduated from college in 2002. I have an undergrad GPA of 2.12, and I have decided that I really want to go to graduate school to pursue a Ph.D. I have been working in the field I would like to pursue for 5 years, and have been given glowing performance reviews. Is my dream of graduate education possible?
The A: Your dream is not dead.
I won't lie to you: Regardless of the subject you want to study, a very low college GPA is certainly going to put you at an early disadvantage when it comes to applying to a graduate program. But college performance is not the only measurement of a student's worth, and there are plenty of steps you can take to offset a poor GPA.
In fact, it sounds like you've already taken one of the most important steps: worked in your field of choice. Quality, real-world experience -- and successful real-world experience at that -- can be tremendously important on a grad-school application.
Consider why a low undergrad GPA is such a big deal to begin with. Grad-school programs may balk at a GPA not merely because it's a low number, but because of what they fear a low number *means*: That you either don't understand the subject well enough to continue your education in it, or that you lack the ability to study effectively or perform well in a classroom setting. So if you've got a bad GPA, you need to prove that both of those things are not true. And to do that... Well, you do things along the line of those you've already done:
-- Rack up real-world experience (and at least one outstanding recommendation letter from a superior).
-- Take additional, challenging courses as a non-matriculated student and do well in them (ideally getting new recommendation letters from professors along the way).
-- Put in a killer performance on the GRE (and, if relevant, the GRE Subject Test in your field).
-- When you apply to grad schools, write one heck of a personal essay. (If your low undergrad GPA is due in part to non-classroom factors -- such as personal/family problems, mental or physical health issues, a lack of direction/motivation, a learning disability -- then your essay will give you an opportunity to explain them. And, much more importantly, to explain how you've overcome those obstacles and are now prepared to succeed in grad school.)
Something else to keep in mind is that there's often more than one way to actually get into grad school. For instance, you can try to get into Ph.D. programs directly; you can apply to master's programs, which are generally much easier to get into (depending on the field), and then work your way up; you can get into special training, professional or graduate programs through your work and then transition into a more formal, accredited program from there.
So take some time to investigate your options. Think about what type of graduate education you ultimately want and precisely what you want to use that education for. Make sure that the goal you want to achieve really *is* best achieved by earning a Ph.D. and not through some other route. Ask your superiors at work about whether your company can provide you with any assistance as you go down this road (e.g., tuition reimbursement, placement in a special training/education program, etc.). If it can't, consider another job that would.
Best wishes as you start down this path. It may be a difficult one, but if your heart is in it, you *will* find a way to make it work.
Helfand, General Advisor
This response was written on May 26, 2007.
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