As mentioned in prior posts, I experienced a lot of stress and an episode of depression during my last undergraduate semester. The stress was caused by constant moving and housing insecurity for half the semester (giving me a late start on the paper) and the depression by learning of my professor being in the process of retirement/declining to be my graduate advisor. (I don't have clinical depression.)

I received an A- on a research paper in this class, but it was slipshod work, and (embarrassingly) probably one of the worst undergraduate papers ever written (written in a graduate level course no less). The worst part is that this happened with a professor I admired/loved, but from a practical standpoint, can this ruin my chances of graduate school? I've already graduated and can't afford to take more undergrad. courses. Even if I could, however, how would I get another professor to supervise my research when I've already produced poor work?

Has anyone been admitted to graduate school/succeeded in academia despite a poor research paper? For what it's worth, I'm finally rewriting it, but second chances seem rare in academia.

*I also experienced interpersonal conflict in the department, but my question is purely from an academic standpoint.

Edit- To get a better idea of the quality, here's the feedback I received on it: "Gemini, Your final paper has a clear thesis, includes and utilizes a variety of primary and secondary sources, and is organized coherently. Given that this is your first attempt at using ____ Style formatting, I attach a short summary of how to cite footnotes and create a bibliography. If you decide to do more with this paper in the future, you also would want to provide complete citation information for every note; correct numerous misspellings; and fix other common errors throughout." She also said that I received 28/30 points--a very good result. I interpreted this latter part "a very good result" as indicating that she was lenient with the grade (which I appreciated, but I wanted to impress her).

I know how neurotic/psychotic it must sound describing an A- as one of the worst papers ever written, but this really was horrible work, especially compared to the award-winning dissertation that one of her grad. students wrote. Although it was written during a nervous breakdown (and in around a week's time frame), the circumstances, I worry, mattered less than the results. (Everyone has a reason why their work turns out poorly, but in the end, poor work is poor work.)

*This course was in the specific sub-field/research area that I want to study in grad. school. Normally students perform their best in the favorite classes, but I didn't take the news of her retirement/absence from my life well.

I want to add that if it's unethical to share her feedback, I'll delete it. I only wanted to provide an honest assessment of the quality, and without sharing the entire paper, I wasn't sure how else to do that.

Edit- this isn't a duplicate of How does the admissions process work for Ph.D. programs in the US, particularly for weak or borderline students? because that question doesn't address research. My question was more about getting second chances after mistakes/screw ups than the admission process itself. As such, I'm asking for my post to be reopened.

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    Please consult the help for information about how to ask appropriate questions on this site. – Anonymous Physicist Jun 3 at 6:54
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    As you have repeatedly been told, both by your professor and in answers to other posts - both here and back when you were posting about this on reddit - this paper was not that important and will not hurt your chances of getting into grad school. The actual obstacle to your academic career is your anxiety. You have been obsessing over a single paper for (based on your story) well over a year, and destroyed your relationship with your professor and university over it. The help you need is treatment for your anxiety, not continued discussion about this paper. – Henry Jun 3 at 12:52
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    FWIW I hadn't written a single research paper before graduate school – BioPhysicist Jun 3 at 18:08
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    I wouldn't consider the comment about you grade being a "very good result" as meaning that she went easy on you. More likely she knew you have a tendency of stressing over imperfect grades or critical feedback and was assuring you that, despite the imperfect score and opportunities for improvement, your paper was overall "very good" and received a high score for that reason. There's almost no chance she meant "this is a very good result considering how shoddy your work is." That's crazy amounts of projection from your side. Please get help for your anxiety. – Kat Jun 3 at 22:18

Can One Poorly Written Research Paper Derail Your Academic Future?

No, it can’t. It sounds like you are catastrophizing. And in any case, if you got an A-, it’s extremely unlikely that your paper is poorly written. So as in the case of the advice I gave in the other linked answer, your excessive concern about ruining your academic career with a single small mishap is a much greater potential obstacle to success than the mishap you’re obsessing about. I suggest that you pay more attention to your mindset and mental state, and less attention to worrying about your work being slipshod despite external, objective evidence suggesting otherwise.

Good luck!

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    @CaptainEmacs: Correlation is not causation. Many students do good work because they are not easily satisfied and hold themselves to high standards. Catastrophizing, by definition, is a self-destructive level of worry about what will happen if those standards are not met. – Mark Meckes Jun 3 at 13:40
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    @CaptainEmacs I’m not exactly sure what you mean. I’ve only known a couple of people who had a tendency to catastrophize, and neither of them were successful scientists. Of the successful scientists I know, many have perfectionist tendencies and a (related) tendency to criticize themselves and hold themselves to a very high (sometimes unreasonably high) standard, which is something that OP is also displaying here, but that’s a separate tendency that’s distinct from the tendency to catastrophize. Perhaps that’s what you had in mind, I’m not sure. – Dan Romik Jun 3 at 18:29
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    To the original question author: based on the feedback you got from your professor, as contrasted with your own stated feelings about the paper, I am concerned that your level of anxiety is really excessive here. You even self-describe as sounding 'neurotic' ("psychotic" doesn't seem accurate, but "neurotic" seems right on.) Are you in therapy or otherwise seeking treatment for anxiety? If not, have you considered this? Truly, from what you have written here, your problem is "excessive worry", not the paper. I know that "you need therapy" is often unwelcome feedback, but please reflect on it. – Glenn Willen Jun 3 at 18:37
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    @GlennWillen If you observe past posts by OP, you'll see a history of this. It is concerning to the health of OP that OP wants to pursue a PhD given the degree of anxiety/depression/lashing out that has occurred just as a result of undergraduate studies. At this point, I am beginning to wonder if the SE community is enabling this behavior. – GrayLiterature Jun 3 at 19:11
  • @DanRomik Yes, that's what I meant. I am not sure where I would put the threshold at which one would use this word, but some of these people were quite at a high level of insecurity. In artists, this is a well-known phenomenon and often coincides with extraordinary levels of performance. – Captain Emacs Jun 3 at 19:54

I agree with Dan Romik -- I think you're worrying way too much! It's not entirely clear whether this paper/preprint has been published or if it's just part of your course?

If it's just part of your course, relax. You're a student and an A- is fine. If you've published a paper/preprint, that's a positive. Most people will be more impressed that an undergraduate took the initiative to publish than the quality of their work.

Although it's sad that your advisor is retiring, you could look at the situation positively. For example, you could apply to programmes at different institutions. Having a record of success across multiple institutions/work environments is often an advantage.

I know an excellent physicist who scored 40% (terrible) on a couple of their 3rd year undergraduate papers -- that's way worse than you. It's not a big deal. Most people do badly on an odd exam/practical/whatever. The main thing is your overall degree score. However, even that will stop mattering much once you have a graduate degree.

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  • This was a course paper, and I received an A in the course (the A- was only on the paper). However, I wanted to impress the professor and worried about what she thought of me after this paper (and whether she'd write a lor). Even with a high GPA, not having strong LORs, I thought, could ruin your chances of grad. school. – Gemini Jun 3 at 19:19
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    @Gemini I've never worried about LORs. They're only part of your applications, like your CV and academic record. I don't think it matters as long as they are positive and it's in your advisor/department's interest to write positive LORs as they should want you to succeed. – Jeffrey Ede Jun 3 at 19:32
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    @Gemini We cannot judge your papers or your work, from what you tell us, it sounds of reasonable quality, by no means a career-killer. But what's clear - your extraordinarily elevated worry level is going to do a lot more damage to you on the long run than a single not-quite-as-good paper. Don't shift it to a messed-up paper, to the prof, to misunderstandings, to this or that. You must tackle the core issue. – Captain Emacs Jun 3 at 19:59

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