I have read a few posts here about the matter, but I don't think other posts fully address the situation I'm in. I apologize if this thread is redundant.

I would like to do research in the future, I think getting a Ph.D might be a reasonable step to take (if I were to be capable of doing research, at some point). Fields of interest: Neuroscience, neuropsychology. University I would like to apply: Yet unknown but somewhere in France would be ideal (current location: Argentina); would rather not pursuing higher education here if possible. Some background will be useful to give a proper assesment of my situation

(1) I'm fairly old at 28, and likely will not apply until 30. I believe this might be a problem when applying to some universities, since they receive brilliant people still in their early 20s.

(2) As you might have guessed, my undergrad grades are very much below average. I have three undergrad degrees and two masters in which I did good enough (not GREAT unfortunately).

(3) My grades report gives a full account of my activity, which is very unfortunate considering how bad I did stuyding mathematics: even if I passed the last courses with the highest possible grade, it will always how many courses and exams I failed before the last three semesters before graduating (and it goes up to 10). I don't think our grades here work like in the US. It's not possible to make your "GPA" go up after you failed. Taking extra-curricular courses and getting a good grade will make the final grade higher, but it will still show how many I've failed. I also graduated late when an undergrad.

(4) I am certainly not aiming at a top university, not even top 200 due to the fact of being a failure. But the fact that I am quite old and with a broken academic record makes me question if even the lower tier would take me in.

I'm very much in need of advice. If I were to apply when two years from now, there are several things I should do and it would take much time and effort, and it is unlikely I will go through those matters if the chances of going into research are way to slim to bother. Is there something I can do to make a future application "decent"? What should I consider when sending an application to a university?

Would it be better if I apply for a master X university before applying for a PhD in the same university?

What general advice could you give me? I would consider dropping the PhD plans if it is too unlikely.

  • 4
    I don't think your age makes a difference (in fact, it probably works to your advantage because you have likely put more thought into your decision to do a PhD than someone going to PhD straight out of undergrad just "because"). I would also guesstimate the average age of the PhD students in my department is about 27, so at 30 you would definitely not stand out. Commented May 12, 2018 at 21:23
  • 2
    A weak transcript doesn’t necessarily disqualify you for life, it just puts you at a disadvantage at the time of application. If your successive transcripts show ongoing improvement, I wouldn’t be surprised if someone gave you a shot.
    – J.R.
    Commented May 12, 2018 at 22:30
  • 1
    This isn't a "bad grades" thread. The real question is your next-to-last one. The last question is answered here.
    – aeismail
    Commented May 13, 2018 at 1:05

4 Answers 4


I had a student who was, if not exactly in your shoes, certainly "disadvantaged" in being able to make it into grad school. Normally, I would just not respond and file away a cold call like that, but reading his email, which was asking for a chance to do research (not even paid—just work doing something related to research), and had a strong vision of what he wanted to do in the future, that it resonated with me. It also just happened that around the same time, I had some ideas I wanted to try out, and a small bit of funding available. So I offered him an internship that would be able to pay his living expenses, and gave him a shot. Today, he's thriving as a PhD student in an aerospace engineering program in Europe.

So there's always a chance. The best thing to do is to get research experience. Once you can get some people who can comment "don't worry so much about user92705's grades, because user92705 has done really well working in my lab, and I know will become a good researcher," it will go a long way in getting you into a graduate program.


I agree with Astronat - age won't work against you. (case in point: I started at my PhD program at 31), and also with J.R. re: your transcript not disqualifying you completely.

So your transcript records don't read the way you'd like them to. You still have other application materials that you can focus on that'll help admissions committees see your potential as a PhD student. I'm not sure what application materials you need to submit since I'm not familiar with your field or with admission requirements in French universities, but I would focus on making those other pieces shine as much as possible. If you're writing a personal statement, for example, maybe acknowledge your grades but also point out your dedication to continuing with your studies and determination to improve.

At the end of the day, committees do want students with a demonstrated track record of academic excellence. But they're also looking for students who are focused, have clear academic/career goals, and potentially a good fit in their department in terms of research interests. Ultimately, you need to show them that you're a good investment. Having a stellar transcript certainly helps, but it's not the only way to go about in it.

  • Do you think applying for a m.sc in the same university would be a better way to go? I believe universities accept more master students than ph.d, and having a degree from their university may help in the selection process.
    – user92705
    Commented May 13, 2018 at 20:37
  • Not sure. If the degrees you already have are close enough to your potential PhD, I'd say apply directly into the PhD programs.
    – Ace
    Commented May 15, 2018 at 3:47

Welcome to Academia SE! I hope that other answers will address logistics, but I wanted to address an important element of this: why are you pursuing a PhD?

My reading of your question, and my answer, may not be accurate for you, but Stack Exchange tries to have answers that will help other people, as well. Perhaps some of this was lost in translation, but when you say "due to the fact of being a failure" and having "a broken academic record" (even though you have TWO master's degrees with good grades), I am worried that you might be judging yourself too much based on your academic record. That is, from what you've presented here, I would not consider you "a failure," and I hope that you do not think of yourself in those harsh terms.

Part of the reason I'm worried is that academic careers, almost by design, involve a lot of judgment and failure. Much of graduate school, and then seeking and holding academic jobs, applying for grants, submitting research for publication, etc., is the experience of repeatedly applying for things, being judged by someone mysterious with power, and often being rejected before applying for the next thing (cf. a recent question about academic failure.). For those of us who struggle with getting a sense of worth from external sources, academia can provide tangible markers of success that feel great, but those are unpredictable and often feel temporary.

The other parts of "why" are important too. You've gotten two master's degrees. Based on what you've seen so far, what parts of academia are most interesting to you? Do you want to pursue biostatistics research within neuroscience? Or do you want to do more wetlab work? Do you want to do more behavioral research? Getting a job as an assistant in whatever area of research you want to pursue may be one of the best paths forward. Good luck!


Being accepted into a PhD programme is highly dependent on how you present yourself. You have two different masters? Great! This is an advantage. You chose intentionally not to immediately run down one path, instead you chose to explore options, you show you are flexible and capable of thinking in general, not just good at one particular thing.

It is about getting to know people, talking to them and showing what you can do. My master's thesis was bad, really bad. And yet I am accepted into a PhD programme, because I was able to present myself to the relevant people, show them that I have a broad horizon and aimed for a complete understanding of my field. It did help that the project was an almost exact match for my qualifications, I have to admit that.

If possible, have a look if the universities you are interested in have open research projects. That way you could have an option go get to know the people in that department and demonstrate you are good at what you are doing, even if your grades might not be stellar.

I don't think doing a masters at that particular university would help. I think that for two reasons:

1) As a Master's student you are still in education, while a PhD should grow into an independent researcher. It can happen that the "apprentice-master" relationship between you and your potential supervisor carries over to the PhD, giving you much less freedom.

2) People coming in from outside the University are even sometimes preferred to giving positions to students from the same University. While a professor knows what kind of student he/she will get when hiring a 'local' student, someone outside the institute has had a different education and hopefully brings a new perspective to the project, thereby stimulating the whole research environment

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