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I have recently passed my qualifiers and research proposal. My research is in computational mechanics. I had two courses (continuum mechanics and finite element method) as part of my research related courses. I will be using the concepts learnt in the courses in my research, though my research will be more applied than theoretical, so will involve utilizing a commercially available software and develop few additional routines for it.

Now, I scored B+ in both the courses (the minimum grade required for being eligible for qualifying exams was a B-). I struggled through few concepts but fared fairly well in the qualifiers and answered most of the questions asked by the committee.

However, I am concerned that my average grades might be an indicator that I might not be fit for the field I have chosen to build a career in. Now, I am confident that I will manage to adequately complete my PhD thesis and publish papers as required.

But, I am worried that academia is going to be a closed door for me. Eventually, if I get tenure track position after my PhD, I will have to teach these subjects (There's no teaching assistantship opportunities in my department for me), and how will I be able to teach something in which I fared poorly? Also, I will have to do theoretical research work after my phd, and I will not fare well in that. What should I do?

  • If I understand correctly, you'll use material from these courses in your thesis research. So it seems that,by the time you finish your Ph.D., you'll know those concepts quite well, certainly well enough to teach the courses in question. – Andreas Blass Jul 16 at 22:48
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    Here's a link to an obligatory PhD Comic on the topic: phdcomics.com/comics/archive.php?comicid=470 – Richard Erickson Jul 17 at 14:26
  • I come from Europe where grades do not matter as much as in the US. Often, grades are given for arbitrary reasons (the Professor not feeling well, politics not good etc.) and many profs admit this. – user111388 Jul 31 at 16:00
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You are overthinking it. First, if you complete your degree and get that first academic job, no one will care anymore what your grades were.

Second, you seem to be implying that your learning ended in those subjects with the courses you took. I think that isn't very likely.

In fact, for teaching purposes, it is sometimes valuable to have had the experience of struggling earlier, so that you have an appreciation for those students that don't find everything easy, or even trivial. You will probably be required to teach students who are not at all like those who go on to earn doctorates - i.e. not at all like you. Every student is different and the strugglers need to be taught along with everyone else.

There are many reasons for mediocre grades, though yours are a bit better than that. I suspect that things may have been hectic at the time and there wasn't time enough to reflect and gain deeper insights. But that level of insight isn't forever closed off to you.

As for the research, in many fields the research is so deep and narrow that it is almost necessary to give up a deep knowledge of other somewhat related, but not essential companion fields.

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A bit about myself-

  1. I am a methodological/statistical reviewer for the top journal in my subfield
  2. I landed a postdoc in a top 10 school
  3. I will be an assistant professor at an R1 where I will teach graduate level statistics (of which my B's on my transcript never came up in the interviewing process).
  4. I publish methodologically rigorous work (at least in my opinion) that uses complicated statistical and computational techniques.

Also

  1. I got a B- in my introductory stats course in graduate school and probably should have gotten a C except for the professor cutting me some slack.
  2. I averaged around an 85 in my statistics courses throughout graduate school.
  3. I think of the myriad of statistics courses I took, I only got a single A. Maybe 2.

I have found that me making B's in my stats courses in grad school has only had the purpose of showing how grades in graduate school are not reflective of research productivity or expertise. I can share my story and say "dont worry". The moral of things are not to worry and let your research do the talking. My grades are probably reflective of me being a poor classroom student rather than anything else. Probably indicative of the test anxiety I have.

If you publish research with rigorous methods in good journals, you are likely an expert. At the very least, you will be perceived as such by your peers.

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If one needs a single indicator to predict future performance, the set of grades in first year graduate courses is likely as good an indicator as any. Usually a student with the passion, interest, and work ethic needed to do research will get good grades in courses. Bad grades in courses at this level certainly are negative indicators (on the flip side, good grades are less reliable as positive indicators, because there is a sort of student whose goal is good grades rather than learning and this can lead to good grades, although the mentality is not one necessarily conducive to doing original work).

However, when one says grades are an indicator, one is thinking in probabilistic and distributional terms, in terms of expected values, and in big populations the lower probability events do occur. In fact, I know a guy who never passed his qualifying exams but got close enough that he was allowed to continue and went on to be a productive researcher, as good as many others who got much better grades (some of whom did not survive). He publishes things closely related to the subject matter of the qualifying exam he never could pass. But he's an unusual guy, with a lot of faith in himself and very little psychological need to attend to social conventions or institutional demands. His sometimes almost pig-headed passion for his field of study was always plainly evident, and he focused on what interested him rather than what he had to learn to pass qualifying exams.

You should ask yourself why you are trying to get a PhD. If the answer is that you want to have a doctorate, that a doctorate will be useful for achieving your professional goals, something external of this nature, etc., then bad grades are a bad sign. If the answer is that you want to learn more about X and there's really nothing else you want to do right now, then there is cause for optimism, provided you work hard to learn a lot about X.

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