My performance in my bachelor's degree was adversely affected by some medical extenuating circumstances (related to physical injuries). I am currently in a master's program and my performance is much better. Should I mention these extenuating circumstances in my PhD applications and should I include the relevant documents (doctors' statement, diagnostic report, etc)?


You might mention extenuating circumstances if:

  • They significantly decreased your past performance.
  • You explain why your performance will not be reduced in the future for the same reason.

Do not include any evidence unless it is requested, or perhaps if the circumstances were something very unlikely. Having been imprisoned for a crime and later exonerated might be an example where evidence would be a good idea.

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    +1 “do not include any evidence unless it is requested.” I would add that the best place to include this information is in the statement of purpose. – Kevin Miller Jun 29 '20 at 16:09
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    My experience -- albeit a little later down the road -- has been that most committees are quite forgiving of situations like these. A simple "Please note, I was hospitalised following a road traffic accident and unable to return to full time work between <date> and <date>, which adversely affected <exams>" is sufficient, and likely to have the intended effect. I have literally never been asked for proof of my spinal injury in academia, despite offering to produce it! – Landak Jun 30 '20 at 8:20
  • I think whether to include evidence or not depends on how the application process works. If they ask for a specific list of documents and you'd have to go out of your way to include the evidence, probably don't. But if it's an open-ended thing where you send a huge file containing all past transcripts, certificates of registration to universities, etc., I'm not completely sure that including evidence would be a bad idea. The idea being that committees can always ignore it, and there's some value in making it readily available in case they want to know more about that part of your application. – a3nm Jun 30 '20 at 17:12
  • @a3nm I have to oppose this. We shouldn't be normalizing sending medical information around unless it is truly necessary. A car accident is one thing, but we don't want people to feel pressured to send medical documentation for something like mental illness (e.g. suicidal ideation that might feel very private, or schizophrenia, which is highly stigmatized). If the office truly feels proof is needed, it can be handled on a case-by-case basis. However, I have not heard of anyone trying to cheat committees by pretending they had an injury when they did not, so your suggestion is somewhat a – Azor Ahai -him- Jun 30 '20 at 20:36
  • solution without a problem. – Azor Ahai -him- Jun 30 '20 at 20:36

Since you are now in an MS program now and are doing better at it, I think it would be a mistake, actually, to dwell too much on the reasons for poor performance earlier. At most, a single phrase in an application letter that you suffered physical injuries as an undergrad that impacted your performance at the time. No more than that.

Applications will put heavier weight on later work over earlier in any case and people improve their work for many reasons. If it were the later work that was impacted, you might need more explanation. But in this case, just a hint that someone can follow up on if they think it necessary, is plenty.

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    I agree with this and would also add that there's almost no reason to address it yourself. If one of your references thinks it's worth mentioning, they will say in their letter. – Kimball Jun 29 '20 at 20:53

I wouldn't attach any diagnostic report. But you could highlight, that you're especially proud of your performance increase during your masters, because it was closely linked to you overcoming the health issues you endured during your bachelors degree. But only use one sentence for this, it shouldn't be more than a side note.

Definitely don't make it sound like you want special treatment because of your past health problems, but instead present the way you coped with them as a strength. To overcome serious illness shows that you are capable to overcome setbacks, this is very valuable.

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    This may well be region-dependent, but to me (British, currently working in Sweden) I would prefer a straightforward statement like “Please note that my 4th year undergraduate marks were adversely impacted due to health issues (recovery from a road accident) in my final semester.” than something euphemistic about being proud of overcoming adversity. Being frank and honest isn’t asking for pity or special treatment — it’s just giving facts, and letting the admissions committee take them into account however we choose. – PLL Jun 29 '20 at 21:58
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    @PLL I think your wording is quite good and I agree with your last sentence. When reading my answer now, I think pity is the wrong word entirely and I therefore removed it. – user117200 Jun 29 '20 at 22:38

Your notes during your Bachelor's does add some weight to your application but in trying to negate a possible negative weight of these notes by supplying this information, you might add negative weight to the expectations for your future performance. Just keep in mind that what matters most to a potential supervisor is your future performance and they would always have second thoughts about a student that might potentially disappear from the lab for an extended period of time. One more thing that might be important here is whether the potential supervisor is doing a tenure-track or is already tenured. The former group are very stressed out and performance focused.

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