Background: I am a first year PhD student in Math and I am failing my classes miserably. I believe that I am a hard worker, passionate about math and I am definitely committed to the program. However, I have also came to the realization that having these qualities does not necessarily grant you success. I was given a warning the first semester and was put on probation for the second semester. I was told that if I did well in the second semester, the probation would be lifted and nothing bad would happen. On the other hand, if I still couldn't get my grades up, the committee will potentially consider to recommend me to withdraw from the program. I did all I could have done, but I still did not do well in my coursework. I would not be surprised that this is my last semester in the program and will be asked to withdraw sometime soon.

A little bit about myself: I was a double major in Mathematics and Economics back when I was an undergraduate and did relatively well in both fields (Near perfect GPA). I have done a certain amount of research in both disciplines. I have even applied and got accepted to PhD programs for both of them. I eventually chose Math because while I am passionate about both of the fields, doing math felt more rewarding to me than doing Econ as math was more challenging to me (It still feels the same way even after failing my classes). In retrospect, this might not have been the best course of action, but I chose what I chose and I don't regret the decision as I have given it my best try.

The apparent question now is: What next? Is it even possible to get a decent job with a disastrous transcript and a record of failing from the PhD program due to coursework failure? I have a good undergraduate record, perhaps that will help with the case? Moreover, if I failed out of my program in math, is it still possible to apply to a PhD in Economics? I am not sure if I could ask for a good recommendation letter from my Professors in graduate school as I failed their classes. I am also not sure if it is good to ask my Econ Professors from my undergrad to write me the letters again, since they know that I went for Math than Econ the last time around. I am very lost right now and don't know what to do. It might sounds over-dramatic, but I feel like I am a failure right now and don't see a way of remedying my situation. Any advice would be appreciated.

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    What jobs did your fellow math/econ undergraduate students get? Those are unlikely to care about any graduate work at all. Seems likely a variety of finance jobs would respect your transcript.
    – Jon Custer
    Commented May 11, 2022 at 18:15
  • @JonCuster Most of my friends went for graduate school and some got research assistant positions. I know some went for consulting, but I am not sure if that is what I want.. Commented May 11, 2022 at 18:24
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    Well, I'm getting close to 60 and still don't know what I want to be when I grow up. Try it and see!
    – Jon Custer
    Commented May 11, 2022 at 20:52
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    Research mathematics quickly loses its luster for 90% of the people in any applied area of it IMO, you're better served by getting a degree which focuses on the field you want to "apply" math to. But to answer your question, you could try switching to econ right now.. Commented May 11, 2022 at 23:44
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    Briefly, what was the nature of the problem with your graduate coursework? Did it just turn out that your background wasn't as strong as it seemed, or were there other factors that adversely affected you? Or does your department fail a large percentage of their students, and so this is not so unusual?
    – cag51
    Commented May 12, 2022 at 3:54

3 Answers 3


Most employers won't ask to see your college transcripts; if you apply to a job that requires a BS in math or econ or similar, you won't need to let them know you've failed your math PhD. You don't have to make an elaborate story for someone in industry about why you've left academia - every single person they employ will have made that decision at some point. Simply be ready to explain you decided academia wasn't for you, and pivot to why you'd be a good employee for them. A resume that got you into a PhD program will be plenty to get you a job - most other entry level applicants would not have been able to be accepted as a PhD student.

For academia, I think your route is a lot more complicated. Typically schools do expect transcripts of all academic progress, including your failed PhD. The estimates that go in to who will be successful in graduate school are very imperfect. However, you've also had trouble in grad school; that seems like a stronger predictor that you won't do well than all the indirect signals that you would do well, and that's what you're up against. Your best bet is a strong advocate who believes the switch to economics will solve everything and bring you around. I think if you want to go that route it's certainly worth the effort of trying it out, but I'd be prepared with a backup plan.

Most people who get a PhD in math or most any discipline will soon find themselves out of academia - that's not their fault, the numbers of positions simply aren't there to support every PhD being a tenured research professor. If in the end you start on that same path a little earlier, you don't need to consider it a terrible outcome.

  • It is embarrassing to even mention that, as a math grad student, the main problem that I have is with math. However, the math skills that I have does seem to suffice for Econ related activities. I have taken some graduate level courses in proof based Economics and have succeed in them with relatively ease (comparing to when I was doing math). I do not know why there is such a discrepancy. I am not sure if having those As in my undergraduate transcript would help with the case when applying to a PhD in Econ. Commented May 13, 2022 at 1:38
  • The problem is, even if that would help, I have asked the professors last year to write me a letter of recommendation for econ graduate schools. I am not sure if it is appropriate for me to ask them again to write me a letter... Commented May 13, 2022 at 1:41

I have a math Ph.D. degree from a really good American university, and I am doing high-performance computation job, and maybe I can share some of my thoughts about your concern.

First and foremost, your concerns about your GPA and grades are right. I am not sure where you study now, but in the US, it is true that having 'C' on your transcript or GPA < 3.0 is a nightmare for Ph.D. students. In my department, Ph.D. students who get a "C" or GPA < 3.0 would lose Ph.D. support and are recommended to leave. Again, your PhD committee members will question your ability and you may not pass qualify exam.

However, for finding a job, you really don't have to worry at all. Remember this, quit from a PhD program is NORMAL and you don't have to feel shame. PhD is not only about coursework, you also need to do research. Your research has to be 100% original and creative, and you have to publish papers. I can't speak for other university, but for my alma mater, many math PhD students quit or transfered, either because of unsatisfactory GPA or their research ability are not up to PhD level.

You have a perfect undergrad GPA, that's enough for getting a job. Finance, stock market analysis, bank, you name it. In your CV, you can list you attend this PhD program, and say "Unfinish." Nothing to worry this would affect you in a negative way. If your employee really asks why you didn't get your PhD degree, you can just say "I feel I am not cut out for doing a PhD because it is really hard" or "I feel doing PhD is too much for me". Plus Ph.D. is more designed for a research job.


Being hard worker and passionate about math contradicts the fact that you are failing the introductory PhD courses. These are usually pretty elementary. If they are not easy for you, you made a wrong choice by choosing math Similarly, if you do love running but cannot run 100 m in less than 30 sec. you should not try to become a sprinter.

  • TBH there's kind of spectrum, when I took the grad analysis class during my undergrad its difficulty wildly varied depending upon who taught it and the extremes were "review basic analysis" to "abstract integration in the first month". Commented May 12, 2022 at 4:02
  • I was talking about introductory PhD courses which the OP apparently failed. These are for preparations for exams *quals", and contain very basic info. Of course, the presentation depends on the instructor. Undergraduate analyses (say, honors in U. Chicago or in Caltech), may be very challenging.
    – markvs
    Commented May 12, 2022 at 4:06
  • I can't say for other schools, but the PhD courses that I have been taking seem to have assumed many materials that I have not studied for in my undergraduate. Again, I tried to make up for these myself, but things are overwhelming comparing to what I have done in my undergraduate. I am not sure what went exactly wrong. Perhaps it is because of the way that I study, or maybe I am just not smart enough for PhDs. I have been questioning these myself as well. Commented May 13, 2022 at 1:32
  • "seem to have assumed many materials that I have not studied for in my undergraduate". First, it is only "seems". Second, grad school is hard work, you should be able to fill the gaps on your own otherwise you are not ready to do research, Third, most of the grad courses are indeed not of the same difficulty as undergraduate. Still, the introductory courses are elementary comparing to "special topic courses".
    – markvs
    Commented May 13, 2022 at 1:42

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