I am an international master's student in the US. I am currently finishing my last semester of courses.

This semester has been very tough on my personal life because of some family issues. I also had major unexpected technical difficulties with one of the projects which made it practically impossible for me to finish it in time. As a result, my performance in one of the courses suffered in the second half of the semester (I was doing well in the first half). I just had the final exam and I feel that it went badly. I am now scared that I might fail the course and have to come back again in Fall, especially because that means I have to move back to the city and spend more money on tuition.

I am confident that I would have done much better on the course had my circumstances been different. I am therefore considering contacting the professor to explain my situation in the hopes that he won't give me a failing grade.

So my question is this: is it advisable to contact my professor in this situation? If so, how can I approach the topic? What should I avoid discussing?

Perhaps I should mention, I don't feel very comfortable with him on a personal level, and he has been generally strict with grading guidelines.

  • 10
    Your university may have an official procedure for reporting extenuating circumstances-- I would try to find out about this before contacting the professor directly. Commented May 4, 2018 at 7:24
  • 2
    What would you expect the professor to do? Grading is supposed to be fair. Exceptions usually have to follow university rules, too... Commented May 4, 2018 at 7:59
  • 8
    Professors do not "give" grades; students earn grades.
    – Bob Brown
    Commented May 4, 2018 at 17:36
  • 6
    You should find out if your university has policies around "incomplete" grades - this might be a path for you to avoid failing a course (though understand that assigning an incomplete grade is often a lot of extra work for the professor, not just you). However, this is very late to be raising these concerns given the final already occurred.
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented May 4, 2018 at 21:31
  • 5
    For future reference, such circumstances should be brought to the attention of your superiors as quickly as possible, both the personal and the technical kind. Not long after those circumstances have already had their negative impact and it's time for the final result to be delivered. Not necessarily directly and with full details for the personal problems. Sometimes there are alternate channels you need to go through, but whatever the process, the sooner the better. This goes both in academic and professional realms.
    – jpmc26
    Commented May 4, 2018 at 23:58

9 Answers 9


When I read the headline, my immediate impulse was to say "yes, of course" - assuming, that the course is still running and you need advice on how to proceed and come to a good result.

After reading the full question, my answer is a clear "no". I'm located in Germany, but I assume the following thoughts are applicable to the US too:

  • If you explain your situation to the professor right now, it will feel like you want to influence his objective grading attitude. I would never accept such an attempt and I would in fact be angry just because you told me, I will be influenced. I won't rate you better, but I might even be stricter in cases where I'm unsure whether I should give a point more or less, just to avoid beeing unfair towards the other students.

  • If the professor would react on your situation, it might even be illegal, it would be definitely unethical. In the worst case, he could be fired. #Everyone has to be treated equally.

  • Most (all?) universities have defined rules on how to treat sickness, bad personal circumstances, etc. You should check your local regulations and get advice from either other faculty members, students organizations or the responsible university staff. In many cases, there are options to re-do an exam.

  • You should check the regulations mentioned before, but I would not take any measures before the results are out. After they are published, you could ask the professor on advice on how to proceed and explain your situation afterwards. Maybe there are some options like a second attempt or otherwise.

  • 12
    +1, but some measures could be taken before results are published. The earlier any kind of problem is reported to university services, the more reliable it sounds. Best before the exams, but still better before grades have been published than after it is know that you failed the course.
    – Pere
    Commented May 4, 2018 at 11:51
  • 9
    Sorry, but this is bad advice. There are options, specifically withdrawal or an "Incomplete" grade, which must be undertaken before final grades are submitted. Once a grade is submitted, it can only be changed for extremely limited circumstances, typically a mistake. In the United States, there is generally no option to retake the final, unlike other countries. (In the US, the final tends to be a smaller portion of the overall grade)
    – user71659
    Commented May 5, 2018 at 17:30
  • 1
    Unethical, sure, but illegal? Which laws govern what grades professors give their students? Why are professors not getting sued constantly by failing students (or passing students who feel cheated) based on those laws? Commented May 5, 2018 at 22:12
  • @AlexReinking I have to treat all students equally. I I differentiate my grading because whatsoever, I'll loose any law suit if a student chooses to go to court for it. We had such examples at our university (fortunately not in my department). To avoid this, we have the internal rule that we have to publish all terms and conditions for each exam in the first weeks of each semester and stick to it. But I can not make up a rule like "if someone feels bad after an exam, I can push them up a few points". The only thing I can do is lower the threashold for all.
    – OBu
    Commented May 6, 2018 at 8:11
  • Obviously a professor should not adjust grades for extenuating circumstances, but there may be legitimate reason to allow the student to withdraw or take an incomplete and do the work over, and either of these options would be better than a failing grade. If your institution has no policies to allow even the consideration of such action, that's a real shame Commented May 6, 2018 at 17:10

Situations like yours are why I tell all of my advisees and students to adhere to the following suggestion:

Talk to people when you have a problem, not when it becomes a crisis.

If there’s the possibility that something extremely bad could result (and failing a graduate course could certainly qualify), raise the issue before the worst-case scenario comes to fruition. At that point, it may be too late to do anything about the problem.

Unfortunately, you’ve waited until you’ve reached crisis conditions, and at this point, things are entirely out of your hands. You should have expressed concern during the project when things started going wrong. All you can do at this point is beg for mercy, and as the others have mentioned, that puts the instructor in an ethical bind.

  • 1
    The point is, it requires experience to know when you have a problem, or when the problem you are facing with would lead to crisis.
    – Ooker
    Commented May 5, 2018 at 3:32
  • 1
    The student was cognizant of having major problems on the project. That's usually a sign that you might want to speak up in this case. But when you're a student, there's almost always a few tipping points that trouble is looming on the horizon.
    – aeismail
    Commented May 5, 2018 at 3:42

I am confident that I would have done much better on the course had my circumstances been different.

I don’t have advice on whether you should or should not contact the professor, but you should know that any professor with more than a couple of years’ teaching experience will have heard this same argument from students many times before. Unfortunately this argument is a fallacious one and implies a misunderstanding on the student’s part (or worse, the student dishonestly pretending not to understand) about the meaning of the grade: the course grade is not designed to measure how well you would have done under some hypothetical set of favorable circumstances. It’s only meant to measure how well you actually learned the material, in the real world.

My only advice is that if you do contact the professor to explain the situation and beg for mercy (not the most honorable course of action, but a somewhat reasonable one that has a low but nonzero probability of having an effect of some sort), do not include a statement along the lines of the quote I cited at the beginning. Making such a statement will undermine your case and make it extremely likely that the professor will reply with a standard explanation (the same one as I wrote above) of why the logic of your request is invalid, and refuse to do anything to help you.

I am sorry about the personal difficulties you’ve had, and good luck with your studies.

  • 5
    ... and, yes, this is also completely true/correct. It is not the instructor's responsibility to figure out how to induce you to learn the course content... despite your personal circumstances. Yes, I know, at least 10 percent of students in a Calc I course in land-grant Unis in the US will have "personal reasons" for screwing up... and the Uni can make accomodations... but it is NOT the instructor's responsibility to repair anyone's life. Boundaries. Commented May 5, 2018 at 1:37

No, it is not advisable to contact your professor in your specific situation. The risk of contacting the professor concerned directly is that it may be seen as seeking preferential treatment by sidestepping the proper channels. At my university (and doubtless most others), there are procedures in place to deal with life events affecting your study progress. Usually, it is best to bring up such situations with a counsellor, study advisor or mentor (the name of the person to go to varies from one university to another) when the problems first arise and not wait until after the final exam. In your case, it is too late for that, but the action taken should be the same: find out what the procedure is and who to speak to, and do so as swiftly as possible. Then follow the advice you are given.

(If you have no idea how to get started, your university should have some sort of student support services you can contact.)

  • Yes, although to people unschooled in bureaucracy this answer might sound counter-intuitive and inhumane, (in the U.S.) it is the bureacratically correct thing to do. Not in such a perverse way, really, but just that faculty will be bound by any sort of Disabilities Office or X Office to do a certain thing (which hopefully will be reasonable), and will not have to exercise any sort of judgement. Etc. Commented May 5, 2018 at 1:34

I do understand your concern. You have put tremendous effort into your growth and don't want to see it sidetracked. I think you need to find another way out.

I suggest you think of it from the Professor's perspective first. You admit you don't have a good relationship with the instructor. That is not working in your favor. If this is a tenured professor, it is working against you.

I suggest you think of your classmates. What makes you think of you were the only student struggling? What makes you think you were the only student who had "major unexpected technical difficulties with one of the projects"? Did you reach out to any of them? Will any of your classmates vouch for you and say that you had it harder than everyone else? If not, then why you think you deserve special treatment? I completed 42-graduate levels in 2-years at my school and never once thought I earned less than a B+, my lowest "failing grade". (MSIA/MBA) I had a miscarriage while working towards my Harvard doctorate and still managed to pass my classes. I know I earned straight-As. (DBA/MPA) Imagine me as one of your classmates. Do you really think your instructor is going to believe your circumstances were so horrible that you couldn't approach him earlier, ask for help for classmates, drop the class, or pass the class? I don't. I would be very angry with him if he did knowing what I went through to pass my classes.

I suggest you think of your future employer or institution. They are going to hire you believing you know something you have failed to master, based on your belief that you failed the test. Is this going to be your life plan, to make excuses-after-the-fact?

I suggest you think of everyone who is going to follow. How far do you want your institution to lower the bar so you can pass? Talk to your professor by all means. Instead of asking to have your grade changed, asked for a second chance. Ask for an incomplete or a Pass/ Fail grade. Ask to be allowed to drop the course. Don't ask him to raise your grade though.

Forgive me if this is harsh. Today is my first day and this is my first answer. I hope this helps, even if it hurts to hear.

  • 1
    Welcome to Academia SE! First, I'm so sorry about what you went through during grad school. I think it does sound a little harsh, because just because you were able to tough it out successfully does not mean everyone should be forced to. (At a school like Harvard, there is generally a lot of room for second chances and working with the student to find a way through, though I would guess there might be stigma against that, perhaps especially at HBS.) I really like your suggestions for a second chance: you've identified there the best possibility for a win/win scenario. Commented May 5, 2018 at 0:54
  • A good answer. And, looking at your "user profile", I am (yet again) sorry that the U.S. system does this. As I've said to people before, I'd be entirely willing to be a "representative for my class" (old white guys) if only I had binding decision-making power... (Hope things are good where you are...) Best... -pg Commented May 5, 2018 at 1:41
  • 1
    Cactus_partner - Ivies won't are reluctant to flunk students out because they pride themselves on making excellent admittance decisions. When a student flunks out, that means the entire Interviewing and Selection committee failed. The first thing they tell you is that they don't make mistakes. You are there because you belong. Every other school tells you that you will likely fail. Ivies tell you that the hardest part was proving you are worthy to belong. Paul Garrett - Harvard is GREAT. So glad I went! Commented May 5, 2018 at 13:45
  • @KarenM.Rozier Yes, that's my experience, too; and when someone does flunk, they're often readmitted to finish later, and that's why (the undergrad programs, at least) have top graduation rates. (The "they don't make mistakes" part sounds like typical HUbris ;) but they do a lot to create a sense of belonging.) Anyway, I guess your dose of reality is useful if the OP had not been thinking along those lines, but if the OP was already doubting themselves, they should probably skip that part. Commented May 5, 2018 at 18:25

The first thing you should always do is discuss with your advisor. They are there to help you. (It doesn’t sound like this professor is your advisor.)

Secondly, as of right now I am only in my second semester in grad school, however, I can say I have generally had difficulty with all the exams. That being said, my grades are fine. Grad school is supposed to be challenging.

Most departments also have rules about dropping a course before you fail it. In my institution, if you fail you are kicked out. You will want to check into this.

My advice is that you speak with your advisor and the professor and explain your family situation. At the end of the day, they are human beings and should be somewhat reasonable.


If there are genuine extenuating circumstances, you could email him and explain the situation and see what he says.

If not, I don't think failing a module is necessary a problem. My friend is doing a PhD in Mathematics and she failed her module on Group Theory in her MSc and had to re-sit it (I think I remember reading somewhere that Ernst Haeckel failed one of his modules). However, if you do fail it will be taken that the subject which you failed on is not to your tastes. So if you fail a cosmology module and then never touch cosmology again, it does not really matter, but if you fail and then apply to a PhD in cosmology, that could raise some eyebrows, even if overall you got a high grade on the degree. You may not be invited to interview or if you are, they will likely ask you about your result and if there was a reason for failing: this would be the opportunity to mention the extenuating circumstances which contributed to you failing.


I would suggest contacting someone in the administration or faculty (preferably, graduate advisor) who you feel comfortable with and who can mediate the situation. There could be various resolutions to this situation, and an independent person looking at it would be most helpful. They can potentially negotiate something with the professor, etc. I would advise not to try to resolve it with the professor directly. Good luck!


I have never taken graduate level courses, but having had similar problems as an undergraduate, it is very important you speak with a counsellor about any other personal issues which might be bothering you. In addition if it turns out you fail, it will also be necessary to get counseling on that. I assure you there will be a lot of bad feelings which will come up when you fail a course, especially if you are used to success in the past.

  • 1
    Welcome to academia.SE! I made a few edits to try to focus your answer -- feel free to edit my post with any details you'd like to add or clarify. Also, please note that the question was "should I contact the professor" -- I didn't flag your answer as non-responsive, but be aware that others may do so.
    – cag51
    Commented May 5, 2018 at 7:30

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .