Can stellar MA grades outweigh poor undergrad marks on PhD scholarship applications?
October 16, 2008 7:41 PM   Subscribe

Am I deluded to think I can land a crucial PhD scholarship with abysmal undergraduate grades?

It's an Arts/Creative Media degree in Australia. I earned an MA with distinction and was #1 in my masters cohort (of 9, at a so-so-reputation UK university) last year; I've had 12 years of strong and occasionally award-winning professional experience in the field of journalism (so, related–but not an exact match); and it's been 15 bloody years since I tanked my BA studies at Syracuse.

I struggled with an all-too-common situation then: severe, undiagnosed clinical depression combined with a shockingly unsupportive family. I was so up, down and out of it I didn't even realize what was happening to my lfe. Result: extremely erratic and mostly poor academic performance, barely managing to hold onto the prestigious scholarship I walked in with. Final GPA: 2.73 (ug).

I got my act together when I was about 24, and I'm 33 now. Is it worth explaining the situation in my application, or is competition going to be too fierce to make it worth my while? (I'll be applying as an international student.)
posted by damn yankee to Education (14 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Well, what matters is your admissions committee's opinion, not mine, but it seems to me that your good masters' degree and more recent excellent professional work would outweigh the bad undergrad GPA that was 10 years ago.
posted by ikkyu2 at 7:50 PM on October 16, 2008

2.73 isn't that bad. It was a decade ago. There is intervening positive experience. I wouldn't worry about it.
posted by phrontist at 7:54 PM on October 16, 2008

Yeah, I wouldn't worry about it either. Your performance in your MA and your professional experience are going to far outweigh your BA experience. I had a similar GPA as an undergrad and am in a great PhD program now.
posted by drobot at 8:05 PM on October 16, 2008

Did you do an MA thesis (dissertation in British English)? I found that my American PhD program was most focused on how I did on my British MA thesis. They didn't understand the grades that I got in my MA program though and focused on my undergrad GPA (which was 6 years old at the time).
posted by k8t at 8:10 PM on October 16, 2008

And GRE scores could help your app too, obviously!
posted by k8t at 8:12 PM on October 16, 2008

If anything, it actually looks kinda impressive that you turned your performance around so radically. It shows you have a real determination to be there. Perhaps you could put a brief statement to this effect somewhere on your application?
posted by Weng at 8:17 PM on October 16, 2008

I wouldn't worry about it either. I'm a PhD Design researcher/practitioner in Australia and my undergrad grades were occasionally sub-average until the final year when I discovered my calling and my grades went through the roof. I think a professor even used the term "skating on thin ice" in one subject in my first year. Gasp. Since then I've done an MFA and had lots of professional experience etc. I think you'd have to worry if your Masters grades were ordinary.

Which University?

Good luck!
posted by lottie at 9:22 PM on October 16, 2008

Bah! If you've been rocking out since you were in undergrad and doing half as well as you said you were -- and you play that up in the statement of purpose/letter of intent -- you're fine.

In my limited experience at universities (never on an admissions committee, but having admitted!), doing something productive between undergrad and post-grad can speak volumes more than shitty GPA at undergrad.
posted by barnacles at 9:27 PM on October 16, 2008

Upon re-reading, though, you're talking about scholarships at an Australian university. I suppose one problem there, of course, is the emphasis they seem to place on Honours degrees (1st or go home!!), and since you not don't have an Honours but you tanked BA, that could be problematic. If I were you I would go the route of emphasizing that the BA was a long time ago and that your MA should be what they consider when they consider your academic quals.

I did an MA at a good Australian uni, and I know that for that uni's PhD positions and scholarships Honours degrees were key. However, lots of folks considered a foreign MA to be the equivalent of a local Honours, essentially.

Scholarships down there are highly, highly competitive, though. Even with fantastic qualifications as an international applicant -- and that's the key part -- I wouldn't really get my hopes up. MeFi mail me if you want to chat about it.
posted by barnacles at 9:33 PM on October 16, 2008

barnacles has it right, some universities here will ignore my Australian MA by RESEARCH and insist on Honours. Crazy.

What is likely to happen is that they will insist on enrolling you at the MA level (again) until you can prove you are making enough progress to transfer into the PhD.

Good luck!
posted by wingless_angel at 2:54 AM on October 17, 2008

My undergrad GPA was about what yours is and my Masters GPA was right about π, and I landed a supported position at Indiana University. Of course, I also failed to get positions at many other universities, but it is possible. The impression that I got when I later talked to the people who were in charge of making the decision is that a dramatic upturn in performance makes a big difference. If it had been the other way around, it would be harder to sell. If you've got a good narrative about the improvement, that's what your application essay is for (though don't try to play the sympathy card too much).

(I'm in math, so I'm sure some things are very different.)

It occurs to me that you didn't mention what sort of scholarships and schools you're applying to. Things might be enormously different if you're staying in Australia. For one thing, you probably wouldn't have to worry about the programs undervaluing your degree just because it came from an Australian university.
posted by ErWenn at 6:56 AM on October 17, 2008

My undergraduate GPA was 2.73 exactly. I had a lot going on and I really wasn't prepared for school. 7 years later after a productive turn in a difficult career I was first in my cohort as a Master's student with a 4.0. I had high GRE scores. I received a prestigious research fellowship in a good Ph.D. program.

I felt as if I needed no end of explanation for my M.A. application, less so for the Ph.D., just an acknowledgment that my academic career was one that took a while to build momentum. Obviously, I think you have a decent chance for funding of some sort, even if it's a GTA or GRA.
posted by mrmojoflying at 7:37 AM on October 17, 2008

Not a Phd program but, I got into mid-tier law school with what ended up as a 1.88 undergrad GPA after they recalculated (my undergrad university replaced grades when you retook a class but the law school averaged.) Needless to say I had no scholarship to barely hang onto.

I had no excuse for my poor undergrad performance other than I fucked off. I was accepted based upon a good 12 work history in a related field, a good LSAT score and by lobbying the admissions people.

From my experience, I think "12 years of strong and occasionally award-winning professional experience" and your MA work will do a lot to push that 2.73 undergrad GPA into the background when they make their admission decision.

I don't see anything that should prevent you from taking a shot and if they don't accept you the first time try again.
posted by Carbolic at 8:13 AM on October 17, 2008

Thanks, everyone. To answer a few questions, the schools I'm applying to are Monash and RMIT; the scholarships are geared exclusively to postgrad international students and pay full fees plus a living stipend. Competition is university-wide within that population, in each case.

I'm not worried about admissions so much as I am the scholarship; Monash has already informally accepted my research proposal, and I'm fairly confident that RMIT will as well once I flesh it out a bit more for them. Accepting me as a full-fee-paying international student is no skin off their noses as long as I'm reasonably qualified, but I can't afford to pay my own way for any more postgrad education. My current student loans will be with me til I die, oy.

Averaging out what you've all said, it sounds like it's definitely worth trying–but wise to not be too optimistic about my chances.

Thanks again.
posted by damn yankee at 7:25 PM on October 17, 2008

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