I've been wondering this for a while.

I'm currently doing the first year of my PhD in Frankfurt. Originally from New Zealand.

I'm not complaining about my situation but if anyone asks me I'll honestly say I would have preferred an English-speaking country.

I'd actually applied to about 9 PhD programs in the US and all rejected me. Yet I was accepted to a (supposedly far more competitive) fully funded European PhD, and rather quickly - accepted late last year and already working now.

It has me wonder. I had very strong letters of recommendation from professors that are well known in my field. I had also published a paper (which has now been cited in Nature) out of the fruits of my research Master's.

My GPA is about 2.8-2.9 by US standards (hard to convert, my school was a "we grade harshly, rarely give out As and we'll make you sweat for a B" style system). Professors at home told me my grades were irrelevant with the strong letters.

People say that I was likely discounted because I had a research master's already and I'd probably see doing more course load as beneath me? That doesn't seem to hold water.

I really don't know. Any thoughts?

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    Did you include General and Subject GRE scores with the US applications? Even programs that say these are optional often put a lot of weight on them when making admissions decisions. – Elizabeth Henning Apr 11 '19 at 18:03
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    I'm not sure what you expect us to say. We don't know your CV, and your situation already clearly shows the (somewhat unsurprising) fact that different universities look for different things. – xLeitix Apr 11 '19 at 18:04
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    2.8-2.9 would easily get an American student rejected, perhaps without even reading the letters. If those grades are typical for NZ, I would expect the conversion formula would take this into account (otherwise no one from NZ would ever be accepted). but if your institution grades very harshly by NZ standards, that could easily explain it. – cag51 Apr 11 '19 at 18:28
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    By the way, (I'm in the U.S., in mathematics) I know of no situation in which letters of recommendation are anonymized at all. And for better or for worse, "academic nepotism" is often decisive... Unclear whether or not it really means "inappropriate influence", or, perhaps, "detailed knowledge of the viewpoint of the letter writer". – paul garrett Apr 11 '19 at 21:47
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    Looking up a 2.8 in my New Zealand institution's international GPA conversion guide, the equivalent local grades would be well below what we would consider for doctoral admission for domestic students. I don't know where you were, but it would have needed a lot of explanation even though we would certainly know the institution. Do you think that explanation was covered in your application materials or letters? What was the original GPA? – Michael Homer Apr 12 '19 at 6:37

It is sometimes difficult for admissions committees to evaluate applicants coming from universities or university systems that they don't have direct experience with. This is especially true if they also don't know your letter writers. It can help to apply to universities where someone in the dept. has some connection to the country you're applying from. Since someone at Frankfurt knew one of your letter writers, that person may be better informed about your letter writers, the quality of your school, and the meaning of your grades.


Many Universities have GPA cut-offs where they don't look at applications below a particular GPA threshold. The cut-off is generally much lower than the average admitted applicant, but can still be quite high. Universities vary on this, some don't do it at all, some have strict transparent GPA requirements, and some do this in practice but don't say so in writing. Most programs that use these sorts of GPA cut-offs would probably have a cut-off of 3.0 (or even higher for elite institutions). So your application may have not even been read if your official GPA conversion translated to 2.8 - 2.9!

If you want to avoid getting your application thrown away before it is even looked at, one strategy is to contact a professor in the department that you want to work with. If you convince them that you would be a great student under their supervision they can often contact the admissions committee and ask them to look out for your application. In this scenario, you still might not get admitted, as the committee does usually have the final say, but your letters of reference will at least be looked at, and the professor at the university you are applying to can send the committee a note about how tough your university is and how well respected your letter writers are in your field.

Your friend's explanation about your research masters is almost certainly wrong. I doubt many programs would reject you just because you already had a research masters.

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    From my experience, a 3.0 might be even a low cutoff. I have seen higher (e.g. 3.3) – bremen_matt Apr 12 '19 at 6:39
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    Grade inflation is real and damaging! – bremen_matt Apr 12 '19 at 6:40
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    The grade cutoff was my first thought as well. Even the company I work for has a 3.0 grade cutoff for new graduate hires, and I'd expect that to have much less restrictive requirements than an internationally well-known PhD program. – kuhl Apr 12 '19 at 12:38
  • Also I presume submitting a GRE (with very high scores) is almost mandatory when you want to claim 'its not me, its my school grading harshly". – lalala Apr 13 '19 at 12:20
  • @bremen_matt usually 3.0 (or even as low as 2.7) is the type of official requirement that might be written on a University website. But you are right, in practice, the admission committee might operate using a much higher threshold, 3.3 or even as high as 3.5 would not be uncommon for the most elite programs. – WetlabStudent Apr 13 '19 at 15:49

Your existing related master's does make a significant difference in most US schools. Somebody that already has a master's will usually skip coursework and go directly to research because the school cannot grant a second master's in the same or related field.

This means you bypass the stage where you're being a TA and taking classes and consequently, there's no opportunity for you to get to know professors and their labs. On the flip side, there is no period for groups to assess your work before they invite you in.

Practically, in the departments I've been in, this means a student with a master's needs to contact professors prior to application review and find a group that is willing to accept them. From that point, the application is a mere formality.

As you have found out, there is little chance if somebody goes through the normal application route. Those applications tend to get stuck in a pile that PIs don't read.

The strongest way to do this is having your existing professors send an e-mail, especially to somebody they have a working relationship with. In any case, good recommendations are required with research background. Courses and grades aren't really that important.

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    While perhaps true for some fields of study at some particular universities, this is simply not true in general. For example, in mathematics, you'd likely still take coursework even if you got a masters elsewhere. You might be able to take different classes though. And at my university, you were allowed to get a second masters in mathematics. – WetlabStudent Apr 12 '19 at 2:30
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    In other places, you do not TA while you are still taking courses (the first year or two) but rather after that (the last, say, 3 years). – Richard Hardy Apr 12 '19 at 12:15
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    Hmm, this certainly isn't true in the fields I'm familiar with. – Azor Ahai Apr 12 '19 at 16:25
  • @RichardHardy Some schools, including my current institution, incentivize TAing with classes. After somebody is done with classes and qualifies, the tuition drops to a lower level. Because TAing comes with a tuition waiver, it's best to do this early. (There's a minimum 1 course TA requirement, so this is $30k+ of guaranteed money, the difference is something approaching $10k after overhead) – user71659 Apr 12 '19 at 16:31

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