I am applying for a PhD program abroad. In my application form there is a section saying "we understand that individual, family or community circumstances may have affected your previous academic record or educational experience, and that the materials you submit with your application may not be a full reflection of your potential for success in graduate school. If your education has been affected by such circumstances and you wish to provide a more detailed explanation about them, please respond below and use the space to share more about your experiences".

My previous department environment was not conducive to learning or research. As undergrads, we were encouraged to memorize rather than understanding, developing intuitions or solving problems. Whatever I have learnt, I learnt from the resources available on the internet e.g. OCW, YouTube etc. Only a couple of professors are involved in research. They are not at all helpful or encouraging. They always need to boost their ego, never ready to discuss anything, never ready to accept their mistakes if they made one. The teacher-student relationship is more like, dare I say, a master and slave type of relationship. These events have affected my academics and more importantly, affected me physically and psychologically. I had been suffering from chronic depression, started to fall sick very frequently and even had suicidal thoughts.

If I express my thoughts regarding these things would it affect my application? I can understand that if I bad mouth my department then the LORs that I got from the department become less valuable. I would really appreciate some advice.

  • 3
    I worked in industry before becoming an academic. One of my hiring rules was, "Never hire anyone who badmouths a former employer." A Ph.D. program is effectively hiring you, or someone.
    – Bob Brown
    Commented Nov 14, 2020 at 20:34
  • If you are still experiencing depression, get treatment from a professional. Commented Nov 15, 2020 at 4:05
  • Hi @BobBrown, I understand what you are saying. I think I got the idea. I should focus on what I did to deal with hardships instead of focusing on who/what created those hardships. Thanks for your inputs! I really appreciate it.
    – Noob
    Commented Nov 15, 2020 at 18:48
  • Hey @AnonymousPhysicist, I will take clinical treatment once I get things in order. I understand the importance of mental health but the culture and the surroundings was brought up take these issues lightly and think of these as 'making an excuse' or a sign 'weakness'. Anyways, Thanks!!!
    – Noob
    Commented Nov 15, 2020 at 18:56

2 Answers 2


If you must comment on how your previous academic experiences were "difficult", then try to couch them in language that is not assigning blame. An approach to try is to document what skills and lessons you did learn, and how those hardships (?) informed your growth, as a person and a prospective academic. These attributes are not reflected in grades, and this is the section to explain what you will be able to contribute to this new institution.

The main reason to not speak ill of your previous supervisors is because people at different institutions talk to each other. If you express how your previous supervisors were a bad fit for you, chances are those on the selection committee will contact the previous institution to get "their side". Since the word of a colleague carries more weight than a student, that would not be in your best interests.

Lastly -- and most importantly -- if you are having suicidal thoughts, please please please reach out. I am sorry that I don't know how to frame my advice in a compelling way, but I do know where your head is at. Academia can be very unkind. Just remember that support is always available.

  • 5
    I am deeply touched by your kind words. Thank you so very much! I will definitely keep you advice in mind while writing. I wish you a happy life. Do keep me in your prays.
    – Noob
    Commented Nov 14, 2020 at 15:20
  • 1
    @incrediblesulk : Just want to check in with you, and see how you are doing. I hope that things are going well for you, now.
    – Rrr
    Commented Dec 16, 2020 at 12:46
  • Hi @Rrr, Many thanks for your message. I am applying for fall 2021 now. Just got a decision letter couple of days ago (rejected!) :-)
    – Noob
    Commented Dec 20, 2020 at 6:14

Applications are places to write positive things, not negative ones.

Negative circumstances can paint you in a good light if you can describe how you have overcome those obstacles. Stated as you have here, the descriptions of your previous environment sounds more like blame, especially this part:

They are not at all helpful or encouraging. They always need to boost their ego, never ready to discuss anything, never ready to accept their mistakes if they made one. The teacher-student relationship is more like, dare I say, a master and slave type of relationship.

Maybe the blame is valid, however, when you talk negatively about someone else, people will reflexively wonder whether your complaints are justified, and they may worry you will describe them the same way. If you say your institution only drove you to memorization, how does this demonstrate you've developed skills related to research?

That said, mental health is very important, not for PhD applications but for you. I strongly suggest you seek professional assistance with those concerns - this is much more important than any PhD application.

  • 8
    I completely agree. Negative comments often reflect badly on those who make them.
    – Buffy
    Commented Nov 13, 2020 at 21:57
  • Thank you Bryan for your suggestions. I really appreciate it
    – Noob
    Commented Nov 14, 2020 at 15:22

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