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Q&A: How to apply for a PhD program with a disappointing MSc thesis grade

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I recently received the following email from a reader (edited to preserve the anonimity of the reader):

Hi Dr. Eva

I am a huge fan of your blog. I also follow you (and your cat) on twitter. Keep up the good work.

If you don’t mind, I really need your advise on an issue that has continued to hamper my PhD applications.

I had a C grade on my master’s thesis work. This was highly unexpected and unacceptable. During the final writing of my thesis I had technical issues with the storage drive for my data and literature reviews. This delayed my work, and as such I had to apply for an extension on my thesis submission date.

As an an unwritten rule in my department, any student who extends the department approved submission date automatically loses some points in the final grading (e.g. a thesis that was supposed to receive an A gets a B grade instead).

The quality of my work was definitely above average, at least. It is presently a manuscript in preparation. The rest of my academic grades is [edited] pretty good, but the thesis counts for half of all credits [edited]. This greatly affected my grade point average.

Since then I have found it difficult to successfully apply for PhD positions as most schools are reluctant to take a student with a C grade on the masters thesis.

My question is this: How would you advise I go about explaining this in my application letter, for e.g? Do you think it is important to mention it in the application at all? Do you have any other advise that can help me out? I would eternally be grateful.

This singular event is greatly derailing my ambitions to pursue a career in academic research.

Thank you for your help and time.

I replied as follows, and hope it might help someone else in a similar situation to prepare for his/her application:

Dear Reader,

Thanks for reaching out to me through my blog, and thank you for your kind words on my blog.

I’m sorry to hear about the troubles you are having with your PhD applications. Unfortunately, professors are people, and not all of them treat all students equally (I have had my share of horror in that regard, because of my gender). With that said, I think it is difficult to use your application letter to explain the situation – depending on who reads it, they might think you are just making excuses for not having worked hard enough (old boys club of academia, anyone?).

What I see as an opportunity for you to stand out in your application is to highlight your successes. How’s that paper coming along that you mentioned? Try to have it in revision as soon as you can, so you can say that your MSc research has led to a paper that is currently under revision. From my experience of sending my BSc students out in the world, the ones that I have published with, whose BSc thesis led to a conference paper, seem to get really good opportunities for an MSc, even though they might not have a GPA of 3.5 or higher.

How is your relationship with your thesis advisor? How is his/her “weight” in the academic field? Do you think a recommendation letter from him/her could be a big plus for your application? Or did you work with other professors who are heavy weights in their fields, that could endorse you as a candidate? Or outside of your institution – people from the industry, if you did an internship or worked for a while? See if you can get a “big name” behind you.

Another point that tends to work well for applications: do you have any extracurricular activities that you can highlight? Can you show how you’ve combined for example competitive sports with studies? Or how you’ve managed to develop other interests and learn extra skills outside of your MSc program?

If all else fails: do you have the chance to meet with a possible future PhD advisor? Do you have a chance to attend conferences to meet some senior academics and see if they might have an opportunity for you?

Hope that helps,


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