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I did my Bachelor's Degree in physics in the Middle East, graduating with the highest honors and an academic transcript full of A's. I was accepted to pursue my graduate studies in one of the best universities in Germany. I was able to score above the minimum required score to be admitted to the final exams. My performance was awful in the exams, even though I studied very hard.

I try not to compare myself with my colleagues but they are much better than me, or at least I believe this is what my professors might be thinking. Is this something normal because I am studying in a different country now? Or because graduate school is meant to be that hard? Does it get better? Does anyone have any advice to survive graduate school?

Clarifications:

  • Language was not a problem (the course is taught in English, which I understand perfectly, though it is not my first language)
  • Due to the pandemic, the teaching was suboptimal, and the material was so dense that I did not have time to prove every equation and apply every concept.
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    It's particularly hard in this period, but I highly recommend find a study group (yes, also in graduate school -- in fact I try to do pretty much the same thing now that I'm a researcher, only we call it Oberseminar :)). There's really no better way to learn something than to learn it with someone else. – Denis Nardin Jul 22 at 8:13
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    @Sally: So you just didn't have time during the exam? Then I think it's totally okay. Real research is mostly not timed, exams often don't measure how much one understands the material – user111388 Jul 22 at 10:03
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    I’m not sure if this applies (I’m not familiar with the grading systems involved) but in some grading systems the top grade is much easier to obtain than in others. For example, it seems in the US you should strive to be a “straight A student” although lower grades are technically also passing. Where I live (the Netherlands) getting the top grade (10/10) for everything is ridiculously unlikely, even getting a single 10 is an achievement. Instead, most programmes are designed in such a way that the lowest passing grade is still a fine grade. – 11684 Jul 22 at 10:31
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    @11684 Indeed, I find this is the place is the situation in most European countries, including Britain, from secondary school up to postgraduate degrees. For example, I recall that a friend of mine doing a year abroad at Imperial College London got a 71% on a physics module here, which got translated to a 96% back at UC Berkeley, where he was enrolled. Both are prestigious institutions, to state the obvious, and could hardly be accused of low standards. – Noldorin Jul 22 at 20:19

12 Answers 12

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Background: Some time ago, I've been working at a German university as an assistant in electrical engineering, and we had some students from Arab countries.

Generally, they were much better than the Germans in reproducing content they had learned, but had more difficulties than their colleages in applying that knowledge to the problems at hand. And the university valued knowledge application much higher than knowledge reproduction. So they had a hard time adopting to that different learning style.

Coming back to your question:

It might be that from a different cultural/educational background, you're used to a different style of learning than what the German university expects from you.

My best recommendation would be to seek contact to your professors and your colleage students, to find out what the professors expect / what the other students do differently. Try to find some colleages to form a learning group.

Your colleages are surely not brighter than you, they only have better adopted the learning style that the university expects (they grew up in the same educational system where they are studying now). Most probably, they'd have comparable problems when going to a Middle East university.

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    "find out what the professors expect / what the other students do differently" -- I can imagine such professors/students having great difficulty in expressing the expectations, because it's the only thing they've ever known. This could be relative to any other academic culture ("we emphasize applications" could mean different things in different places). Can a fish describe what water is like? Perhaps more detail on how to draw out the relative differences could improve this answer. – Daniel R. Collins Jul 22 at 20:12
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    @DanielR.Collins That's why I also recommended learning together with other students to experience how they cope with the learning tasks. If they can't adequately express how they do it, you can watch them. – Ralf Kleberhoff Jul 23 at 7:05
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Students perspective here:

Grades

Germany and Austria are countries where bad grades are possible and commonly accepted. Getting a C or D is what > 50% of the students usually get in the hard subjects. Other countries (e.g. UK) have more of an "if you pass, you pass with at least a B" approach. This can be devastating for new students.

  • So check back with your peers and see what grades they really got. If everyone got an A or B, then you need to apply the other answers.

Different country

Even a different university can be a hard change. Most of your peers will have received their bachelors degree from the same university, maybe even a bachelors program that is the logical precursor of your master's program. They will have learned a lot of specific things that may be needed for the master's program. The professors might even assume that they have learned these concepts.

  • They might have more courses with focus on X, while your university focused on Y.
  • Their courses might allocate 3 ECTS, but are more like 6 ECTS courses, something that very commonly happens in STEM studies. If your university respected time constraints, you will be at a disadvantage.

Graduate school is meant to be that hard

In my experience, if you are not especially gifted and determined / efficient then yes, graduate school IS hard. I have to work a lot, my peers have to work a lot. There are some exceptions, but these are really outstanding students who have a very special relationship with math and logical thinking. Expect to work 60 hours a week to get done in time. Or get more efficient, which is even harder in the beginning.

Does it get better

No and yes. You get used to it, but my struggle is constant. In your case, I assume that it will get better. Change of location, change of program, change of people... All this will become the new normal, and you will do just fine.

Any advice to survive graduate school?

  • Get organized
    • Set up a plan, use a calendar to allocate time for learning, and stick to that calendar.
    • Set up a list of things to do in the morning, and try to do these things. Make small, attainable goals for these lists (like: solve equation X, read paper Y, write short summary on theorem B).
  • Find friends and study partners
    • Learning is hard, a group that suffers with you makes it so much more enjoyable. Try to find a group of people that likes to learn on campus / in a cafe that is a little over your current skillset. Expect to prove yourself in form of contributions (e.g. solve homework tasks, explain concepts). Especially in the beginning, try to prepare something others might not have solved yet, or show attempts and reasoning of your solutions. This will make you accepted as a valuable member and your progress will be much faster.
    • This is hard during Corona times, but maybe use the class chat to propose a common Facebook / Slack / Mattermost / collaboration tool of your choice to communicate outside of class about problems. Best case is that people will join and ask for help, you help them and learn. Show initiative, it will be recognized.
  • Find out about existing online forums for this course. Most of the time there are some kinds of Wikis and Forums that already exist.
  • Communicate with your professors about hard problems. In class, ask questions. Out of class, write mails. Attach your attempts and reasoning, much like when asking a question on Stackoverflow. You will learn a lot while doing it, often solving a problem in the process (because, who wants to ask a bad question :P).
    • Make yourself known. If they know you they, will care. They will have a face to the name, and they will know that you are trying hard. This requires a lot of effort, because you don't want to be the person that asks dumb questions. You want to be the person that may ask dumb questions but always shows good, constructive effort on solving it first.
  • Don't worry. If you pass, you pass. Try to climb the bell curve of grade distribution, but keep in mind that you are in a hard program and this will be acknowledged by future employers and professors.
  • You are not alone. There are other students that struggle. Find them, and vent with them. Don't let them drag you down to "we can't do anything about it anyways, so why try", but sometimes a good rant about how hard and unfair everything is, is just what one needs (Do such things in person, no one wants leaked chat protocols ;-))
  • Follow the advice of the other comments about finding the culprits of your current struggles.

I somewhat like this book here (free). It's not for everyone, but I think it can give some guidance. Don't let yourself be stopped by the PhD in the title, almost everything is applicable for your master's and master's thesis too. It's very controlling, and maybe sometimes unrealistic but it gave me some guidance when I needed to get out of a big hole I dug for myself.

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You ask a number of questions, but i'll focus on the title. The graduate committee accepted you as a student because they were willing to take a risk that you would be able to do well in the program. So you already have some people that think you're able to do it, so that's positive.

Graduate school, for most people, is not a walk in the park, and comparing your performance to your peers is a habit you should try to get out of. Imagine if Stephen Hawking's colleagues always measured their value up against his, they probably would (and should) go mad.

What you are tasked with is reflecting on why you did poorly. Perhaps what led you to success in undergraduate will not lend you success in graduate school, in which case, you may need to tailor your attitudes and habits accordingly. It sounds like you are adjusting to a new sphere of learning and you will need to be honest with yourself in why it is that you did poorly. Perhaps what you think 'studying hard' is, is wrong for your new context, perhaps you need to study more efficiently. Perhaps you didn't understand the material or lacked the proper background, in which case, you will need to figure out a way to catch up. It appears that 'studying hard' didn't work for you, so you'd be best to dissect your definition of 'studying hard' and approach your studies from a new mode of thought.

There is no real solution to your problem apart from genuine reflection, persistence, patience, seeking help from your professors when you are encountering difficulties with the material, and most importantly, resiliency in the face of adversity.

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I think now is a good time to do some serious soul-searching.

You write that you scored straight A's at a university in the Middle East, before moving to one of the best universities in Germany where you did much worse, relatively speaking. By itself this isn't surprising: when you moved from high school to undergraduate, your competition got stiffer, because the not-so-good students dropped out and never went to university. Similarly, when you move from undergraduate to graduate, and especially if you move to a top institution, your competition gets stiffer. If you stay in academia, when you move from graduate to postdoc it will get even stiffer, and stiffer still when you move from postdoc to tenure-track positions.

What happened means that you are currently not as good as your peers - which is certainly not a good sign, even though it's not fatal.

Figuring out why you did so badly is the #1 priority. There could be all sorts of reasons. "The material was very dense so I did not have enough time to prove every equation and apply every concept to fully understand them" is not good enough - your peers dealt with the same material yet learned it better than you. Distance learning is also not good enough, since presumably your peers dealt with the same issues and still learned it better than you. What could be good enough then? Some examples:

  • Classes taught in English when your main language is something else. If this is the case, it should get easier as you get more proficient with English.
  • Your peers had a more solid foundation than you. For example, maybe you needed to know X technique to attack Y problem, and the professor assumed everyone knows X (and indeed your peers do, although you never encountered it). If this is the case, then you should close the gap with your peers after mastering the material.
  • You underestimated how hard graduate school is, thinking you'll be held to the same standards as your undergraduate experience (this could also apply if your current institution has much higher standards than your former one). If this is the case, you need to raise your game, but that is something you know you can accomplish.
  • You spent a lot of time figuring out one-off events that have no relation to class. For example, say you rented a room, got into a dispute with the landlord, and the dispute went to court. This distracted you and meant you had less time to study. If this is the case, since it is a one-off event, your performance should improve.
  • Of course there's also the possibility that your peers are smarter/better than you. It's virtually inevitable that someone out there will be smarter/better than you in every field of human endeavor. If this is the case, you might be able to get some indication of this by working together with them with e.g. homework assignments.

After figuring out what the explanation is, you can move on to figuring out what to do about it. If the problem is fixable, then fix it. If it is not fixable - which would be the case if they're smarter than you - then figure out what you want to do. Being worse than your peers isn't a death sentence, but you might want to adjust your expectations. For example, perhaps topping your graduate class is unrealistic, but graduating is still an achievement, and you can still find interesting jobs afterwards even if you can't become a professor.

tl; dr: figure out why you did poorly. Be brutally honest. Then figure out what to do about it.

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    It's worth to mention that the one who "can become a professor" is not decided via an exam but different criteria: well-connectedness, research in interesting topics, in some cases political connectedness and the ability to move around the world (ie not having family issues with that). – user111388 Jul 22 at 10:07
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Maybe it's the result of a difference in quality between the universities.

It's possible that you did well in your Middle-Eastern university because it wasn't a very good university. This might be because it was funded by oil magnates that just want their children to have university degrees as a mark of social status, because of shariah religious rules that drive away talented staff, a simple lack of funding because it wasn't located in a wealthy country, or possibly any of a number of possible reasons.

However, when you applied for the university in Germany, you were applying to a top-quality educational institute with the funding expected of a university located in a developed country, and you were competing against students that had previously been educated to a higher standard as a result. As a result of this disparity, you might have ranked relatively lower compared to the other students.

I wouldn't be disheartened, though; even if this is the case, and you did come from a relatively poorer-quality alma mater, you were still the cream of its crop, and that has allowed you to rise to find a position in a higher-quality postgraduate program in a developed nation. If you can complete your new degree, it would be worth much more than your undergraduate degree is, both because of the nature of undergraduate and postgraduate studies, and because it's from a more prestigious institution.

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    "... because of shariah [sic] religious rules that drive away talented staff". This is both unfounded and completely unnecessary to the answer. – Prometheus Jul 23 at 16:40
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    Your profile makes it clear that you were/are a church preacher. I hope you do a better job of suppressing your religious bias in your career than you do on Academia.SE. – Prometheus Jul 23 at 16:44
  • @Prometheus I'm not a preacher, but I am active in my church's community, and the fact of the matter is that countries like Saudi Arabia have some very restrictive Shariah Law rules that would drive away talent (e.g. rules that prohibit women from going out without their husbands). – nick012000 Jul 23 at 22:21
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Being the worst in your grad student peer group is an ideal situation.

What is the point of attending any school? Of course, the purpose is to learn.

When you are leaning, it is far better to be surrounded by peers who are more talented than you. This way, you can learn from them. Get with everyone who is better than you at something, and learn what you can.

If you were at a University where you didn't learn anything, why bother to go?

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  • This is a typical "half glass full" theory, but I like it. – scaaahu Jul 22 at 7:56
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    Being good in exams does not mean you cannot learn anything. Half the people in here were or claim to have been straight A students, yet they also claim to profited from their phds. Also, if you want to become a researcher, you need a phd, you cannot just say "I got all As in exams, so there is no reason to do the phd." I cannot imagine someone argues this way. So, -1 from me – user111388 Jul 22 at 15:33
  • @user111388 I don't see where I mentioned grades. I am speaking generally about personal growth, and the advantages of not being the best. Was your comment intended for a different answer? – axsvl77 Jul 22 at 17:05
  • No - the OP speaks about having worse grades and you give an answer to the question and speak about "being the worst in grad student peer group". – user111388 Jul 22 at 19:01
  • @user111388 ok, I see. I guess you are the type of person who focuses on grades, not learning. My answer is attempting to draw focus to the big picture. – axsvl77 Jul 23 at 1:05
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I work at a German university with lots of international students, and I can only tell you that the problem you describe is very, very common. We have lots of foreign students who apply with excellent grades, but when they are here they fail. So, you are not the only one.

The reason is that students all over the world get good grades, but they do not learn the same things. They are admitted to a university in a foreign country because of their grades, but nobody asks if they really have the knowledge they need. And unfortunately, you cannot compare the grades of country 1 to the grades of country 2. The syllabes and the ways of learning can be very different. Besides, there are also universities which are simply bad and give good grades without teaching the students what they need to compete with others.

This does not mean that you are not intelligent. You just have to catch up with the others, and this might take some time. First, find out what the core of the problem is. Do the other students have some knowledge you do not have? Or is it your way of learning, are you expected to learn / work more independently? Ask your professors and TAs where your weaknesses are. Try to gain the knowledge that is missing. Do not give up, and do not lose your self-confidence.

Good luck!

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It's hard to identify the root cause for what you're experiencing based on the information you provided, but having been there, I believe you'll find the answer in a few years when you objectively look back at your situation.

This has happened to me twice and I believe there were different root causes. I wonder whether one or both may apply to you too:

  • I got accepted into the best university for Computer Science in Spain many years ago. Coming from one of the best high schools in my Latin American city, being top of the class and having passed the access exam, I thought I'd do well. But I struggled to keep up and I often had to resit tests. Why? I believe the examinations and the grading was as rigorous as it was back home, but the academic curriculum back home simply lagged far behind and it was hard to keep up the pace in class when lecturers took for granted that I knew all the basics, but in many cases I didn't.
  • A few years later and with real-world experience, I started reading for a master's in Software Engineering at Oxford. This time I didn't struggle to keep up at all, but I did struggle to get more than a "pass" (a mark in the range 50-69). I must've got 2 or so distinctions, and an equal number of failures. Why? The bar is far higher than I was used to back home and in Spain, where getting grades higher than 70 (or equivalent) is pretty common. To get a distinction (70+) at Oxford, in addition to completing the entirety of the assessment correctly and accurately, your solution must also be innovative.

Ultimately, unless you're planning to stay in the academia, your grades won't be relevant once you graduate. So focus more on learning than acing exams.

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    Actually in Germany if you want to get a job they usually look at the grades. Then after working for a couple of years the grades do not matter anymore. – lalala Jul 24 at 9:35
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I will answer the exact question you asked:

Is it okay to become a student with low grades?

Yes it is. You attend a school to learn - some learn better, some worse.

You attend a school in Germany where tuition is either free or (for non-EU citizens) cheap compared to countries such as the US. There is no miracle, money has to come from somewhere and it comes straight from my pocket in the form of taxes.

But this is fine: I strongly believe that any amount of education one receives is good and helps to wider one's mind. This is why I happily pay for others to study.

The grades have zero impact on your future life - do not forget that school is just a step towards something you will be doing for the next 40 years (this can be academia, but also industry, ...). So learn and have fun.

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  • ;-) Best spent tax money (with healthcare) by far. +1 – Rmano Jul 23 at 10:21
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Been there, done that.

First years are a mess for the most coming from middle east, I had seen people with highest distinction scholarships crush and burn fairly regularly. Some of them quit due to financial instability, personal life problems, severe depression etc.

I was never 'top grades', 'highest distinction' student, I was mostly passing and above average in one or two courses etc.

My motto when I came to europe was to study 3 times more than what an average student would. For me the language was also problematic, so you might get away with less. The gap might seem large from time to time, but hey, they are human, just like you are, if they managed, you can manage as well.

I can give you some tips for improving your grades that have a high chance to work from experience:

  • Focus more on improving your quality of life than your grades. Two tips:

    • Try not to think about currency difference when doing life expenses, which includes socialising. It is not wasted money on unrelated stuff of your hard working parents or your hard working self, or your hard earned scholarship (because it is never easy in middle east for the most). You are networking, and you need that social network for days when you don't know how to do more for an exam or not quite sure how to write to a professor etc.

    • Try doing some sports. Contrary to intellectual stuff, most sports have fairly clear logic: You do them regularly and get better at them by doing so. This would build up your confidence and your initial failures would be less traumatic.

  • Ask your peers what they think the professor is expecting, and how they study to respond to it.

  • Pick an undergraduate text book from the library and try to understand what an average student is expected to know.

  • For written assignments, read your peers' work after the grading session is done. For good papers, this should make clear what you are expected to do with the knowledge presented in class.

  • If you know seniors from your country who did the same program, get in touch with them. They can help a lot in terms of what the program is expecting or how one should study for a particular topic. If you don't know anyone, try looking at online thesis repositories and get in touch with those who are pursuing phds. I had never seen a collegue refusing to share their educational experience with his/her compatriot. Do not be afraid to ask them, you might be surprised by their willingness to offer help.

Don't worry it gets better after awhile. Grades are just grades, improve your life , be patient and study regularly, you will see that your grades improve as well. As for "low grade student", as long as you pass, don't concern yourself over it. When all of this is over, you remember what you've learnt during the program and not your grades.

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I understand your predicament. Things do not go as expected, more often than not. And when things are on the decline it is disappointing.

If I were in your shoes and were feeling really down, I would take a very short break and contemplate.

You say you worked hard. But you did not get results. It means what you consider as studying is probably not the right way. Perhaps, your notion of learning is different than what it should be. You need to figure that out. It is possible that some of the fundamentals which you thought you knew well are not that clear to you and you are not able to build upon those. You need to figure it out and revisit them carefully.

You could revisit your exam and think about each question carefully. Which particular concept's lack of understanding rendered you unable to answer the question effectively? What was the ideal solution and what thought process was required to arrive at it, but your mind could not help you? What steps must be taken to sharpen yourself?

When you say you worked hard, are saying that by considering the amount of time you spent on study table or the amount of time you actually spent concentrating? Think about that.

Do not worry about what your professors think or how good your colleagues are. You can still be the best in the world in what you wish to do.

Something is definitely wrong. Find it out. Fix it. Work harder and you will taste success. Best of luck!

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  • Re "in your shows": Do you mean in your shoes (it could a real typo)? – Peter Mortensen Jul 24 at 15:32
  • yeah it is (was) a typo. Grammarly in auto mode. – kosmos Jul 25 at 1:49
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Most of the answers here are guessing the cause so here is a way for you to see if problem was just a culture shock or new university is just harder:

  • compare your current tests with equivalent graduate tests in your old university(for example could you with your current knowledge ace the equivalent test in your old university)
  • if possible see how other students from your university do in similarly hard universities

With regards if bad grades are OK: that depends on you personally, and you situation, so it is impossible to answer.

  • Do you prefer to be in the bottom 20% of the top university or in top 5% of a weak university?
  • Do you want to continue living in Europe/Germany after university(it might be easier to find a job with German degree)
  • Do bad grades demotivate you, or motivate you?
  • ...

All I can tell you is that it is not uncommon to struggle in graduate school.

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