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I am an MS student in machine learning just finished my first semester at a U.S. university, and I plan to apply to PhD programs in computer science in electrical engineering or operations research for next year (also for machine learning and optimization).

I took three STEM advanced graduate courses this semester (two EE, one math course), did well on the engineering courses but only got a B on the math course (measure theory) because of a bad final. Even though B is not exactly a disastrous grade, but it is not good at our school because the graduate courses are heavily curved. My school offers an option this year to get a special Pass/Fail grade, where they will mention something like "pass/fail because of the global pandemic". This past semester was indeed hard for me as I was living in a different time zone because of travel restrictions and the classes usually took place at 1-3 a.m.

I am still thinking whether I should use this option. On one hand, I have heard multiple times that graduate schools frown upon P/F grades, but on the other hand, this course is not directly related to my research area (may be useful one day, though). I would appreciate any advice!

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Grades matter when applying to graduate programs...until they do not. For the most part, a B is never a disqualifier for getting into a PhD program. (Getting a C or D...or F might be more worrisome). As long as you have a 3.8 or higher in your masters program, I usually would not even dig too far into the specifics of your grades if I was reviewing your submission.

When I evaluate graduate student applications, I place much more weight on letters of recommendation and personal statements. Especially where the measure theory class is not a core topic in your field, getting a B should not matter too much. Get strong LORs and write a good personal statement and you should be fine. You even could mention the challenges of COVID in your statement. (Although, I honestly would not even bring up the B. Least said, soonest mended).

I would not recommend changing the grade to a Pass; this looks like you actually are trying to hide something. Move on from the B and focus on building a good resume of experience and connections.

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Especially if the course is not relevant to your research area, leave it. Even then, a B in a graduate course isn't all that bad. As you noted, many schools will understand that some people may have faced difficulties over the past year because of the pandemic as you have mentioned. Just focus on getting more research experience, since that will be better, both for PhD admission and in your long term career.

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