For a PhD interview (European paid PhD which requires a MSc), what is the best way to present personal and health issues when motivating a bad grade? To put it in perspective, I have overall good grades from more than 30 courses, but I have two relevant courses taken 2-3 years ago (at the same time) where I just got a pass. These courses were only graded on the basis of one exam each, so the grade only reflects my score on the exam. The poor grade was due to a combination of mental health issues and a very stressful family situation, which made me completely lose focus while writing the exams.

How can I present this is a polite way, explaining that it doesn't reflect my actual capabilities? It was also more than 2 years ago, thus I've amassed more knowledge within these topics. It is quite common for course grades to be based on total effort, but for these I only had a few hours each to prove myself, and in a bad condition. I have also shown that I understand the topics through other courses and the theses I've written.

Are interviewers usually understanding in this regard? Especially, since it was a few hours of exam time, taken place 2 years ago while feeling very unwell, it is a very minor issue. Other than this I have a very good record, but I fear that this will come up as a question since it seems very out of place.

1 Answer 1


Don't dwell on it, and don't bring it up unless your interviewer specifically asks about it. A couple "pass" grades doesn't sound too terrible to me, lots of people have much more serious marks on their academic record, such as a semester in which they failed most/all of their classes. Even in that case, though, I wouldn't bring it up in an interview.

Your academic record will be viewed as a whole, rather than in microscopic detail. A concerning pattern would be poor grades in courses central to the work you want to do, like underperforming in math compared to other subjects if you are in a STEM field. Two "pass" grades in one semester is not such a pattern.

If an interviewer asks about it (I actually doubt they will, or if they do, it might actually be more tongue-in-cheek than serious: more of a comment on the rest of your strong record), I wouldn't dwell on it, either. You don't really owe them any details. "Yeah, I had a stressful family situation that semester and didn't feel as focused on my coursework" is more than enough (could also mention that it was specific to the time of the exams that solely determined the grades).

The rest of your record speaks for itself, so let it do that. Keep your focus on what's actually important in the interview, which is your interest in research. I think an interviewer would find it strange, maybe uncomfortable, and counterproductive if you spent the interview trying to explain two grades rather than talking about research. Once you start a research career, your past grades become mostly meaningless.

(as a disclaimer, I'm from the US and don't have any experience interviewing in Europe, though I'm fairly confident my answer translates or I wouldn't have written it)

  • I recently talked to one of the potential advisors, and he said the committee were wondering about and they will most likely ask about it. So, I just want to be prepared. The courses aren't really central in what I want to work in, but they are closely related. However, I have many other courses in the same area where I have good grades. These two are just outliers, and I've shown that I understand the topics in my theses. Thank you for the comments, though.
    – Seal
    May 14, 2020 at 15:33
  • 2
    In addition to "stressful family situation" one might add that each of those grades was the result of a single examination.
    – Bob Brown
    May 14, 2020 at 16:51
  • 1
    @BobBrown Yeah, that does seem relevant and useful. Added.
    – Bryan Krause
    May 14, 2020 at 17:46

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