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I am an undergraduate studying in Australia aiming for a US PhD program. I want to apply for a PhD in statistics. I have good grades in all of my math and stats courses in general.

Unfortunately, the statistics department has quite a few very bad lecturers. And the two lowest grades I got are from two probability and statistical courses. As the discipline I am applying for is statistics, I think I really need to explain them in my materials.

These two courses were organized badly. For one of them, the lecturer was basically incompetent. For the other one, the lecturer might be a good researcher, but horrible at teaching. I am not the only student saying this; numerous complaints were filed for these two courses and many students dropped out during the term. I worked hard on these courses, but the results are still significantly lower than what I would normally achieve.

How could I properly address my lower-than-expected performance in these two courses, and if I should address them at all?

I am afraid if I say something negative towards my lecturers, I might leave a bad impression to people in the admission committee since many of them are lecturers themselves.

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    Are these courses graded on a curve? Was the average grade in these courses significantly lower than in others? May 29 at 8:06
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    Excellent approach : it’s not you fault but the lecturer’s fault. Did you do enough to achieve a better grade? Did you rely solely on the lecturer’s course or did you also study additional material ( of the two courses you want to start a PhD in!)? Did you not realise the problem before the exam? From what you write in your question it seems you are the only person to blame. May 29 at 10:03
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    A PhD is supposed to learn independently. You can't blame the lecturer when you failed to learn. Sorry to to be blunt but... The stink is on you. May 29 at 13:39
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    It rarely comes over well if you blame others. May 29 at 21:59
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    You were at university, not school. It was your job to teach yourself, not your lecturers. Lecturers lecture, they don't teach. If your lecturers weren't good at lecturing then you should have gone off and found other materials. Nobody is going to hold your hand through your PhD either: to be honest, with this attitude, I don't think a PhD is for you. May 30 at 9:46

6 Answers 6

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I recommend you don't mention this at all. Here are some reasons:

  • Variation in the quality of lecturers is already built into the grades and GPAs of all other students, so this does not raise any special issue that differentiates your experience from the experience of other applicants. While cases of lecturing leading to student complaints is unusual, it is not so rare that other students would not also have experienced it. It is rare to meet a university graduate who cannot point to at least one bad lecturer they had, or even one who could reasonably be described as incompetent. (Note: I am not endorsing this situation; just observing that it is the reality of academia at the moment.)

  • Following on from this, reporting bad quality lecturing as a reason for bad performance is likely to sound churlish. Admissions committees want to know that incoming students are professionally generous people who can act in a collegial way in the Department. Ideally they want people who are tolerant of shortcomings in others, don't draw attention to these shortcomings unless absolutely necessary, and are able to work around deficiencies in the work of others without complaint. Over the course of your own career you will probably make some mistakes and do some work that turns out to be of insufficient quality --- learn to tolerate that in others. As Kant said (although he said it in German), "Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made."

  • The explanation you propose to give identifies the problem for your bad performance as being located in someone else. The admissions committee will want to know what deficiencies you can identify in yourself that come out of this experience, and what action you have taken to improve since then. For example, if you can't follow along with certain lecturers (e.g., because they are bad teachers), what alternative sources of learning do you seek out, and what have you done since then to ensure that you can learn material independently?

  • Finally, assuming your report of this is accurate, and even assuming we accept that these were indeed bad teachers, it will indicate that you find it difficult to succeed in statistical learning from independent written resources without lecturer assistance. There is a lot of this type of learning in a PhD program, so anything you say that indicates a difficulty learning independently will count against your application.

If you feel the need to say something about these cases, or if you are asked about them, it would be best simply to say that you had difficulty following the lecturers in those cases. Avoid any criticism of the lecturer and focus on your own inability to follow along, then explain what you have done since this time to put yourself in a better position for learning in cases where you have difficulty following the lecturer. Any experienced academic will read the obvious variation in lecture quality into this without you needing to say it. They will appreciate if you "take the bullet" for the outcome instead of blaming your lecturer.

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    Thank you for your suggestion, Ben. Not mentioning the issue altogether seems to be a better choice. If I do decide to address the results, I think I will blame myself on the lack of enough practice side.
    – zlb
    May 29 at 5:30
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    @zlb Yes, but don't mention it. There are other questions on this site of a similar nature, and the general consensus is that one or two "bad" grades won't kill your application, and you don't want to draw attention to these things.
    – Kimball
    May 29 at 13:21
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    I thought exactly about your last bullet point when I read it. The conversation would go something like: "I had bad lecturers for my course, so I did badly." "Did you read textbooks independently to improve your knowledge of things you didn't understand?" "No, I just went into the exam not understanding it." "Then how will you do in a PhD, where you don't get a lecturer at all?" May 29 at 13:37
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    +1 Ben, you nailed it here. This is the wake-up call for undergraduates, finding crucial courses taught by an incompetent - yet the HoD taking no serious action. Many of us ran into this situation. The OP has to make his application without explicit reference to excuses for the low grades. But he should (1) get a good textbook that explores the courses in a way that's followable; and (2) think expansively about his own approach to the main concepts as we only understand something in the way that our mind sees it. If OP is interviewed, expect questions on core concepts of these courses !
    – Trunk
    May 29 at 16:10
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    While I agree with your recommendation to not blame the lecturer, I feel that your arguments are unfair to the student. Yes, it's pointless to blame the lecturer in the application, since the committee won't take the student at her word, and even if it did, having excuses for bad performance just isn't as valuable as having evidence of good performance. But not all students have to deal with the same number of poor lecturers, some students have it better. And it is not fair that the student is expected to tolerate others' shortcomings when no one will tolerate her own shortcomings.
    – seed
    May 30 at 19:49
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I agree completely with Ben's answer: you should not attempt to blame your lecturers in your application materials, even if your complaints are justified. Most students have to deal with their fair share of poor lecturers; further, even poor lecturers typically give a reasonable proportion of good grades.

One point to add: if there really was an anomalous circumstance that put you in a truly unusual situation, then it would be far better if the person writing your letter of recommendation explained this situation in their letter. The report of an anomalous circumstance will carry much more weight if it comes from a professor, who is more impartial and has more insight into what is usual and unusual. Of course, it would be highly unusual for a letter writer to criticize their colleagues and state that grades were assigned unfairly, so this option will only be available in highly unusual circumstances (which does not appear to be the case here).

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    Upvoted for the statement here that others (letter writers) are much better at explaining anomalies than the candidate themself. A student can't really say "My professor is an idiot", but a professor can say "My colleague has issues that affect this student".
    – Buffy
    May 29 at 12:40
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Your best option is to say nothing, and talk about your strengths rather than weaknesses. Most students have weaknesses, whether it's low grades in some courses or something else. Admission committees know that it's rare to get a student with no flaws, so what's important is whether the student's strengths are worth tolerating those flaws.

This is assuming you're not applying to the very top programs. There, bad grades in a fundamental course are unlikely to fly, unless you have some truly amazing accomplishments to balance it out.

Your plan of excusing the bad grades by citing lecturer incompetence is a bad idea. There are too many students who do poorly in a course and blame the instructor. There's no way to know whether you are one of those. Other students agreeing with you means little: Most students are not good enough for PhD programs, hence a minority of applicants get admitted. Besides, the committee is not going to canvas your classmates or look up your teachers on ratemyprofessors.com, they'll just throw your application in the bottom of the pile, and see if they can find a less complicated application. Moreover, some may very well feel that you should have found a way to teach yourself the topic regardless of poor instruction (such as reading the textbook) - in research, one often must learn things without any instruction at all.

If your grades in statistics are truly bad, I would recommend not applying to PhD programs in statistics right now. This by itself is a very strong reason not to admit you and no amount of skillful rhetoric in the application will save you. If it sounds unfair, it is - students from grade inflated schools absolutely have an advantage over others, but such is life. If you try to apply anyway, you will be fighting an uphill battle. I recommend delaying your application and taking some steps first to even the odds a little:

  • Do an internship, get a job, or find some other way to obtain experience that will make you seem impressive to the program you're applying for regardless of grades - typically you want something where you get research experience, ideally with publication authorship
  • Do a project or take a more advanced course in statistics and do really well, which would show that your understanding of statistics is strong in spite of bad grades in lower level courses - this would be the best way of "excusing" your earlier poor grades

You'd have to separately research what specific topics would impress PhD programs in your field. Usually some kind of short program can tick a lot of the boxes, such as a Master's Degree, or working in a research group. You'd lose 1-2 years but end up qualifying for a much better PhD program.

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    (+1) I totally agree with your 3rd paragraph, especially the well explained rationales for your advice to say nothing. May 29 at 17:44
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One possible idea to alleviate a bad grade is the (heh) statistics. If you have the data on the average grade in your "bad" course, and it is significantly lower than over averages, you might be able to argue that it's not your performance but an especially hard exam or something like that.

Otherwise, I would not "baselessly" blame the lecturers, nobody in the committee knows neither you nor the lecturers, so you are basically badmouthing them without an evidence.

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    Maybe. But either way, OP has to make himself proficient in the courses he did poorly on. That way the interviewers who quiz him on core concepts of these courses can silently draw their own conclusions about the reasons for his low exam grade.
    – Trunk
    May 29 at 16:17
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I'm not sure that the reason for the bad grades is really relevant. If the professors didn't teach the material well, you didn't learn the subject, and that's what the other programs presumably care about. So unless you believe you did learn the material (on your own, presumably), but for some reason the course grade doesn't reflect this, the grades should stand.

Yes, this puts you in a lousy situation if you're applying for positions in this field, but you really should have expertise in the field you plan to work in. If you've tried to remedy the problem by studying independently, you could mention that to mitigate the poor grades.

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In case you have just completed your masters and not in a hurry to enroll into a Ph. D. (I would suggest you not to hurry); do a short course (either from online or from a less competitive environment where people may have good teaching skill regardless of their research skills).

In the mean time; pause and reflect inside - how much concrete is your insight into statistics. Such as are you explain some statistical concept (such as 'randomness' , 'emergence', 'central tendency' etc.) to an absolute novice? how would you explain them to a 7 y/o? Have you skeptically derived each and every formula you use? What strategies you would take to identify 'noise' associated in a phenomenon? What tools you can offer to some other field, such as biology or physics? this will help you identify the gaps in knowledge and prepare you for solving research problems.

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    Pls explain the downvote: I am willing to learn. May 31 at 2:12
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    I have not downvoted your answer, but I can imagine people doing so because it doesn't really answer the question, which is specifically about how to explain this on a PhD application (if at all). While your recommendations make sense in general, they are merely tangential to the question at hand and do not even attempt to address it directly.
    – TooTea
    May 31 at 7:37

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