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I am currently an MSc student in math in Europe (I'm doing mainly analysis and applied math). During my Bachelor's I've had mainly average grades (I'm not sure what the exact GPA equivalent is, but it would be around 2.5, I guess). Now, in Master's, I've been getting only good grades and I am looking forward to finishing with distinction/honors.

My first PhD option would be at the university I have been studying in the last few years, which is good and well-known, but below the ones in the US or the top unis in the UK. Some of the programs are funded, depending on the advisor. How important are my Bachelor's grades? Am I overestimating myself if I go and talk to a possible PhD advisor and, moreover, ask him if I can enroll on a paid PhD program?

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This is the sort of thing you won't know until you apply and someone with authority to decide evaluates your background. However, in general, your most recent work will weigh more heavily in a decision for most people who think about it for more than a minute.

However, you are in competition with others who don't have your "disadvantage" so you need to have some way to explain it. If your recent work overwhelms the past then you are more likely to be successful.

A doctoral advisor will be more interested in your potential for the future than in your past and will be looking for both deep knowledge and enthusiasm. Most likely the issue of getting funding or not depends on how much confidence he/she has in you rather then your past. But there will be competition, even there.

But if you don't ask, you don't get an answer.

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    Thank you for your comment. What do you mean by having some way to explain the "disadvantage"? – Fitzgerald Sep 20 '18 at 12:47
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    I put it in quotes as it may or may not be an actual disadvantage. But it puts you behind the completion in the minds of some, so is a possible concern. But why did you do less well earlier? Is there a reason for it? Some do poorly because they were ill. Others because they needed to also be employed. Others were just lazy. – Buffy Sep 20 '18 at 12:52
  • I understand. I did have mild depression (which I thought is considered a disadvantage, since for some schools mental illness is a deal breaker when it comes to admission), but I was wondering whether these explanations might appear as excuses or sound unprofessional to an admission committee. – Fitzgerald Sep 20 '18 at 13:00
  • They might, so tread carefully and stress later success. I doubt that illness needs to be explained in detail to a questioner. Medical issues may be enough, but don't bring it up yourself. Stress the positive but be prepared to address any questions that arise. – Buffy Sep 20 '18 at 13:06
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Overall grades don't matter as much as your specific grades. Remember a PhD will be focused on quite a narrow field. If, for example, you're going into a dynamics PhD, and you have first class marks in dynamics, a dynamics based dissertation, and rubbish statistics grades that pull down your overall, then it probably wouldn't matter too much. Research is different to exams. It's not as much of a memory test and requires different skills, more creativity and perseverance than ability to recall past papers, and selection panels understand that.

If you're looking at something in applied maths, then how much you know about the application will play heavily into it too. My PhD was mathematical modelling in cardiology, and going into the interview having read quite a bit about the various existing approaches probably went a long way to helping me, with average grades from an average uni, get a PhD position at a top 10 university in the UK. When I applied for my PhD I was told in the interview 'I see your Groups Theory mark was quite low, I hated that subject too', and was given the position because I 'clearly had the right ethos for the project' after complaining about how most of the research in the field doesn't make their application clear enough.

  • Thank you for your comment! Sorry if my question regarding your topic (which is close to what I'm interested too) is a bit off-topic, but what subjects did you focus on before applying for your PhD? Modelling, kinetic theory, ODEs, PDEs etc.? What background knowledge did you need? – Fitzgerald Sep 21 '18 at 10:41
  • Hi Fitzgerald! I focused on ODEs in my undergrad, and masters. My supervisor mostly worked on models based around nonlinear dynamical systems, so was keen to get someone who liked that branch of mathematics. However, plans don't always work. Turns out you can't really model the heart like that, you need reaction-diffusion PDEs. So I needed to learn that on the fly. Research rarely goes to plan. You often need skills that you never expected you would need. It's not about knowing things. It's about an ability an openness to learn new things. Good programming is also very important in apl. maths. – E. Rei Sep 22 '18 at 11:05
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A close relation of mine was applying for history grad school. Before he majored in history, he had tried engineering and had rather sub-par grades in math/physics, which were definitely held against him when he applied for grad school in history (even though his history grades were excellent). I don't know if this speaks to math programs, though it could. I know several math students who got a master's but did not pass the Ph D qualifiers. All of this is for a major Midwestern U.S. University with a U.S. state in its name.

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