A friend of mine is enrolled as a master's student in Computer Science and considering to convert to a PhD at the same university. My guide acknowledges that he has excellent interpretation, understanding and deduction skills. He is also very good in implementing ideas as code.

He has been able to score just around average grades in all the subjects primarily owing to class projects. The problem he attributes to is that he is not at all good at reproducing things during the examination. In fact, while studying, he tends to ignore all the information like names of techniques, methods etc and just focus on what and how things work. In fact, he doesn't like to write the exam at all and usually just focus on the most tempting or the most thought provoking questions in the paper. (and just writes something to other questions for the sake of writing).

Now, he is just falling short(by 0.2) of the CGPA criteria set at our university to convert to a PhD. So, not being able to properly write examinations and not being able to score good grades, makes him a weak potential candidate for a PhD or does it affects his chances of successfully completing a PhD ?

  • 3
    Academic research has nothing to do with exam writing skills .Stephen Smale had an abysmally poor gpa in his undergraduate years but yet he went on to win the Fields Medal
    – user774025
    Commented Sep 22, 2013 at 9:29
  • possible duplicate of How do you get a bad transcript past Ph.D. admissions?
    – StrongBad
    Commented Sep 22, 2013 at 12:42
  • It also may be a duplicate of academia.stackexchange.com/q/3499/929 and academia.stackexchange.com/questions/8380/…
    – StrongBad
    Commented Sep 22, 2013 at 12:43
  • @DanielE.Shub: I don't think this is a duplicate. The above-referenced questions are asking about admissions—this one is asking what happens after the student is admitted, and being considered for acceptance to the doctoral phase of a degree program.
    – aeismail
    Commented Sep 22, 2013 at 16:31
  • He can still become an excellent researcher but you may be pretty sure that his adviser will need sleeping pills and a professional psychologist to manage his stress and anger when your friend is writing down the thesis under his supervision. If no potential PhD adviser ready for that is in sight, your friend should better take care of his habits now in some way. :-)
    – fedja
    Commented Sep 22, 2013 at 17:44

3 Answers 3


Let's map what you've written about your friend, onto the sort of things we might look for in a promising PhD candidate, to see why, although exams and PhD research are very different beasts, we might learn about one thing from another.

  • Meticulous? No.
  • Demonstrates good grasp of the substance and relevance of theory? No.
  • Can perform under pressure? No.
  • Can follow protocols? No.

As you can see, although you say the grade point average is only just below what is needed to convert to a PhD, there are a few warning signs that this student might not be appropriate PhD material; both the student and the decision-making body should pay heed.

I appreciate that this may not be easy for you to hear, as they are your friend. But really, PhDs aren't for everybody: there are lots of domain experts who are not PhD candidates; and there wil be lots of successful Computer Science PhDs who will never be such good programmers as your friend. A PhD is a measure of academic research skills, not of industrial skills or life skills.

Computer science and software engineering are two different disciplines, though they are related. Different institutions will teach them with varying degrees of overlap. But they are distinct. Maybe your friend is a talented software engineer who needs to specialise there, rather than in computer science.

  • 6
    I would disagree with bullet #2 -- "he tends to ... just focus on what and how things work" requires a firm grasp of the theoretical underpinnings, IMO. The other observations are spot on, however.
    – Ben Voigt
    Commented Sep 22, 2013 at 22:45

Some people have a specific weakness with exams, for example because they don't work well under time pressure. It sounds like the issue here isn't exams themselves, though, but rather your friend's approach (not learning what things are called, being unwilling to work on any exam questions except the most thought-provoking ones, etc.). As an advisor, this would worry me and I would want some evidence that it won't be a problem in other areas.

The problem is that a successful scientific research career requires more than just scientific ability. You have to be willing to do things that are necessary even if they aren't fun. (If you are sufficiently brilliant, you might be excused from doing things that are required of other people, but this is not something one can or should count on.) Some people have plenty of scientific ability but are not temperamentally suited for a research career and are not likely to be as successful as their ability suggests.

For example, you have to read other people's papers and cite them appropriately. You have to work out details carefully, rather than just giving an impressionistic account of the main ideas. You have to write down and publish your work, not just keep it in your head. You have to publish the papers you can write, rather than holding out for years waiting for the perfect paper you might someday be capable of.

Most people are fine with all these things, but some people just hit a psychological wall and can't bring themselves to do something. This is a major career impediment. It's not worth preparing someone for a career they are going to derail, so it's important to try to predict who can do what they need to and who can't.

To return to performance on exams, getting high scores is partly a demonstration of knowledge, but also partly a form of jumping through hoops. Hoop jumping is of no value in its own right, but it's a demonstration that you are willing to do what you have to do. When a student refuses to jump through hoops, I sort of admire the stubbornness, but at the same time I wonder what else the student will be unwilling to do.

Supportive letters are critical for grad school admission. You mention that your guide has a high opinion of your friend's work, which is a good sign. If your friend can find letter writers who make a compelling case for why he will be successful, then I expect many admissions committees will admit him despite the exam grades. Otherwise, getting admitted will prove difficult.


I agree with EnergyNumbers's top-level conclusion—bad performance on written examinations can have a detrimental effect on a graduate student's career—but I will disagree with most of his lower-level arguments.

Examinations at the graduate level do show some correlation to the ability to do well in a doctoral research program, but it's only a weak correlation at best. Having a perfect GPA indicates that you are good at taking tests, and that you might have the aptitude to be a good PhD student. But that is by no means a perfect correlation: I've seen students who can ace exams who would make horrible graduate students, and I've known quite a number who are not so good at taking tests, but are outstanding researchers!

The reason the poor performance is a problem is that it means additional "intervention" is required to save the student's candidacy. That is, someone within the faculty will probably have to speak out actively to defend the candidate's record. "X is not a good test-taker, but she's been doing an outstanding job on her mini-project in my group, and I'd like to act as her PhD advisor. Keep her!" Without that internal support, the record is all they have to go with; when that's weak, the odds of doing well are not good.

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