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I am a final year PhD in mechanical engineering. I did average/below average in my core courses, during my undergraduate, and PhD coursework. My research area involves using finite element and volume methods to model material and fluid flow. I had got B-'s and C's in my mathematics, mechanics, numerical methods courses during my undergrad and grad school. I love the subjects, but I am not good at them. I decided to go for PhD in them because the research area fascinated me.

I really enjoyed working on my research during my PhD and was quite productive. My research was not mathematically intensive and focused more on developing optimization procedures while making use of existing numerical tools. My advisor, my committee think I did a fair job on the research projects I worked on.

However, since my goal eventually is to be in academia, I feel that my poor academic performance is an indicator of not pursuing a career in university academic environment. I am confident that I can do good independent research. And I like teaching, though, I did not get any opportunity to teach the core courses during my phd. I am worried that considering my poor background, I will fail to teach a core course when given the opportunity to do so.

Is it justified for me to think about a future in academia in a university setting?

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There are a lot of reasons for struggling though coursework and you don't really give enough information to make any clear recommendation. But I can give perspective at least.

One problem you have is that you haven't much experience teaching, so it is hard to guess how you would do at it. But some people who struggle with a course can teach it well and others who breezed though it can't. The reason for that is that the "struggler" recognizes (perhaps) the hard parts and can help others past them, while the "breezer" just doesn't understand why others don't just find it as easy as s/he did. Some people do some things naturally and without effort and find it hard to focus on the parts that others don't get and provide the insight to get past the problems.

Many new teachers holding PhDs don't understand that the students in their classes are not like themselves. Only a tiny fraction of their students will have the same motivation and the same sort of motivation that they do.

A second, orthogonal, idea is that your learning doesn't end when your schooling does. You say you "aren't good" at some subjects. Well that isn't necessarily a permanent condition. Moreover, your standards may be so high that you find it difficult to measure up to them yourself. So your not good may be someone else's good enough.

Teaching, like research, is hard work. It depends on understanding the students as much as understanding the "material". Your students can learn if you give them meaningful work to spark their interest and build their skill.

So, while I can't provide an answer, I suggest that you don't give up easily and think deeply about the implications of your choices. Independent research is very difficult. Having the collaboration environment provided by a university (or industrial lab) is a great help.

  • Yes. This. I wish only if you could add paragraph that on the end of day, in academia is only important how much money or grant you can bring and can you publish constantly. – SSimon Aug 23 at 3:53
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    @SSimon, that is true only in some parts of Academia. Pretty common in R1 universities, of course. But that is far from the whole picture. – Buffy Aug 23 at 9:25
  • but if but if choices between one with no grants and publication and good transcript and on the other side is the one that have it all except transcript, I think most hiring committees would chose second – SSimon Aug 23 at 16:01
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I'm surprised the earlier answers didn't emphasize that the PhD is a research degree as opposed to a coursework degree. When applying for academic jobs that require a PhD (which for mechanical engineering I suspect will start with postdoc positions), you will be judged primarily on your research track record---publications, presentations, patents, etc. This, not transcripts, will indicate whether you are "good at" the work of a PhD scholar (with scare quotes to remind that being "good at" something is an acquired skill rather than an immutable quality).

For roles that involve teaching, you will also be asked to demonstrate at least some potential for teaching ability, though the more evidence you can provide the better. Even for teaching-focused positions, this will be required in addition to (not instead of) research excellence. If this is a direction you want to go, you can voluntarily complete training in evidence-based STEM teaching, for example through MOOCs offered by the Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching and Learning. If your PhD (or future postdoc) funding permits, you can also enquire about teaching an evening course as an adjunct at a local university or community college. (This suggestion comes from chapter 7 of The Professor Is In by Karen Kelsky.)

While there may be some variation with field and country (from your mention of letter grades for "PhD coursework", I suspect you're in North America), at least in STEM disciplines transcripts will typically not be requested or given much weight in post-PhD job searches. To give some anecdotal evidence, I did not have to provide transcripts for any of my three postdoc positions or one tenure-track job in theoretical physics. When I was in grad school I had (at least) one professor who graded his postgrad courses on an A/Fail system, on the grounds that no employer should ever look at grad-school transcripts.

TLDR: You can still have a successful academic career despite poor performance in courses, so you should not give up solely for that reason.

Of course, a successful academic career is rarely easy in any case. I strongly suggest you discuss with your advisor/mentors what positions would be good (and realistic) for you to apply for as you complete your PhD. (I also suggest you do this soon, since at least in my field, postdoc application season for final-year PhD students has already begun...) They know your field and your track record, and can therefore make much more specific recommendations. Providing this sort of advice (and reference letters to go along with it) is part of your advisor's job, and advisors & programs also benefit from placing graduates in good positions. (Among other things they are able to highlight this success in future funding applications.)

  • Good point, that coursework marks and marks are not routine when applying for post-doc jobs – Poidah Aug 25 at 11:56
  • By contrast to postdocs, transcripts and grades are often required for applying for positions at SLACs in the US. – Noah Snyder Aug 25 at 17:21
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It is important that you enjoy researching, this would be a big plus since you are considering academia. As you know academia is very competitive especially for tenure and tenure-track positions. However, coursework performance is not a good predictor for research and academia, so don't feel discouraged. In 2016 an informal survey of Royal Society fellows, a UK organisation of distinguished scientists, 300 fellows were surveyed

18% achieved third class honours or worse, and even more had 'ordinary' degrees (the definition of which has changed over time, but generally means a pass without honours), closer to half (54%); 10% of these distinguished scientists never did degrees, and almost a third (30%) have a second, 2:2 or lower

You said you were productive, I hope this means publications!

Having a high number of high quality publications in your field is important to be academically competitive. Laurence et al (2013) analysed 182 academics in the biological and environmental sciences field (zoology, botany, ecology, evolution, genetics, environmental science and policy). They argued that "employment opportunities, grant success, and professional accolades are often tied intimately to one's publication prowess". In their The Conversation article they elaborate that a high number of publications were associated with a prolific publication success, more important than institution ranking with minor advantages if you are male and a native English speaker.

In a 2013 blog analysis, Cal Newport analysed pairs of PhD students who graduated at the same under well-known professors in his area of theoretical computer science for 4 years post PhD graduation. He found that "successful professors" published 25 conference papers on average during their first four years with non-successful professors on average had 10 publications. Successful professors their top 5 papers had over 1000 references, with non-successful professors, the number was closer to 60.

Teaching is also an important factor to consider as Buffy mentioned. In many vocational fields, academia is less attractive so your PhD will put you at a big advantage. So look wide and look far, there will usually always be a position around somewhere if you are willing to move.

References:

Laurance, W. F., Useche, D. C., Laurance, S. G., & Bradshaw, C. J. A. (2013). Predicting Publication Success for Biologists. BioScience, 63(10), 817–823. https://doi.org/10.1525/bio.2013.63.10.9

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