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My background -

I performed very poorly in my undergraduate CS degree. It was due to a mixture of family circumstances and severe OCD/health anxiety. Anyways, I performed very poorly, graduated two years late with a disgustingly low 65%. I went on to do my masters in a fairly decent UK university (ranking 250-300). Graduated with distinction. Now have about 2 years of research experience in a field I am very passionate about (speech processing). I have published about 3 papers and have good reference letters from the supervisors. Over the past year I have applied to various PhD programs very relevant to me. I tick all the boxes for their requirements. However, I have only got rejections. In fact, I did not even get a single interview. I'm starting to think the admissions committee don't even bother considering the rest of my application after seeing my undergrad scores(I do fulfill their entry requirements though).I am applying for funded places since I'm too broke to afford paying for a PhD.

Should I even bother applying again this year ? Am I doomed forever because of my poor performance in undergrad ? Should I give up ? If not, what can I do to boost my chances ?

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    Welcome to Academia. Where did you get your UG. In the US or Scandinavian, since you mentioned you went on to do Masters in the UK. Jun 6, 2023 at 5:28
  • Is your masters a research or taught masters? Where are you applying for PhD: Studentship in the UK, funded in US/Can, Scandinavian or Europe Jun 6, 2023 at 5:31
  • Being rejected for a PhD positions is unfortunately the norm. You are not especially unlucky or fundamentally less suitable than other candidates.
    – EarlGrey
    Jun 6, 2023 at 8:43
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    Have you published 3 papers or have you published "about 3 papers"? Committees care about these things...
    – Kev C
    Jun 7, 2023 at 21:33

6 Answers 6

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Are you doomed. Nope. Keep calm and keep going at it.

Applying for PhD comes with being proactive. Are you engaging prospective supervisor beforehand. It's not uncommon to turn down doctoral application where there's no one on the committee or in the school/dept willing to take on. (NB: I'm aware in some places, prior engagement/interaction isn't required/mandated).

How are you developing your research proposal.
Even for some funded that don't require research proposal, how enticing and aligning is your (one pager) research brief and/or research statement and/or personal statement?

You indicated you have good references from your supervisors. You can start there.

  • See if they are willing to take you on.
  • See if they can use their network.
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I strongly doubt that admissions staff are going to be influenced much by undergraduate performance when you have since completed a Masters degree with distinction. Performance in the higher-level award is usually the thing that academics would focus on in assessing performance, because it is more recent and because it is with respect to courses that are more advanced. This is the same reason why we typically assess people with an undergraduate degree on their results in that degree, without worrying about their grades in high school.

Based on the accomplishments in your mention in your question, you sound like you would be competitive for entry into a PhD program. Keep applying to programs with funding at universities of interest to you. Entry to a PhD program can be very competitive at some universities, but your background sounds sufficient to warrant putting in applications. Ultimately, you will need to decide if there is a limit to the number of unsuccessful applications you want to make, but I see nothing in the information in your question that would make your application uncompetitive.

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I can assure you that your undergrad performance are well obliterated by your following master degree experience and your research-working experience.

I would go as far as saying as "don't put your Bachelor degree marks, do not discuss them in your cover letter". It's so long ago that who cares. And if someone is so pedantic to care about it ... maybe better not to work with such people so interested in your remote past.

Your undergrad experience may play a role in some individual comitee decisions on which you cannot have a control, but that are not statistically significant and they will not be the cause for the (statistically normal) rejections you are receiving.

Did you check how many Master degree are awarded each year? and how many PhD's positions? Not all master graduated will pursue a PhD, but not all people pursuing a PhD will be given the chance to pursue one.

However, since you are so motivated to pursue a PhD, what can boost your chances of being admitted is not waiting for an open position, but buliding your own. Go after all possible funding chances you can apply to.

ERC, Marie Curie, Scolarships, not-for-profit foundations, consulates and embassies, tech-companies consortium, leave no stones unturned.

Good luck!

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  • From the perspective of the hiring committee, knowing more about the undergrad is helpful apart from the grades, because it shows where the candidate has solid knowledge and in which areas they may be lacking (e.g., whether all your undergrad courses where in software engineering vs theoretical CS vs statistics etc.). So I wouldn't leave it out.
    – morxa
    Jun 7, 2023 at 9:06
  • Also, "leave no stones unturned" is a bit drastic. Applying for a professorship at MIT would be a waste of time (and I would say the same about applying for an ERC).
    – morxa
    Jun 7, 2023 at 9:06
  • @morxa which part of " Go after all possible funding chances you can apply to." is unclear to you? clearly OP cannot apply to a professorship at MIT, because OP has not the prerequisites (I am fairly sure having completed a PhD is a necessary requirement to apply for a professorship at MIT ...)
    – EarlGrey
    Jun 7, 2023 at 10:45
  • @morxa and which part of "don't put your Bachelor degree marks" made you infer that I am suggesting to OP not to show what was their bachelor degree about? Plesae note that a comment should add value to the question or to the answer ... not show the (lack of) reading skills of the commenter ;)
    – EarlGrey
    Jun 7, 2023 at 10:49
  • "Your undergrad experience may play a role in some individual comitee decisions on which you cannot have a control, but that are not statistically significant and they will not be the cause for the (statistically normal) rejections you are receiving." This suggests that the undergrad experience often does not play a role.
    – morxa
    Jun 7, 2023 at 12:34
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I don't know how it works in the UK, but where I'm from, you'd be hard pressed to get into a PhD program with weak undergrad grades unless you

  1. hugely turned things around during your Master's and
  2. somebody at the university you are applying to vouches for you (i.e. expresses interest in supervising you / funding you).

Consider this: most students that apply for PhD programs at halfway decent universities have excellent grades from at least halfway through undergrad. Their Masters also probably went well enough, too. You need to therefore win points in some other way. Use your network; if nobody can take you, ask them to introduce you to somebody that can. And if it doesn't work out, remember that you don't need to do a PhD right out of a Master's. You can go to industry and come back later, and at that point, your CV will stand out for different reasons.

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  • This answer makes a couple of important general points, but they do not answer the question, since OP already did that, see statements I went on to do my masters in a fairly decent UK university (ranking 250-300). Graduated with distinction. Now have about 2 years of research experience in a field I am very passionate about (speech processing).
    – EarlGrey
    Jun 8, 2023 at 7:57
  • True, which is why I perhaps too subtly emphasized that point 2 is more important. I know plenty of people that had an unproductive Master's (i.e. no publications) that got into a PhD program more or less because somebody in the target department vouched for them. OP's mileage may vary, though.
    – Kev C
    Jun 8, 2023 at 21:12
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I take it you are an "international applicant" as per UK norms. That makes things harder, as the funded positions are generally capped at 30% out of all seats for international candidates.

Possibly apply for a RA role at one of the unis then try converting that into a PhD. (A very common path for many candidates in the UK). The RA positions generally pay more than enough for rent/food and living expenses in general.

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No one really cares about your undergrad performance. No one. Not even your supervisor. The only important thing is to get the job done.

Also, most people do not need phds. And it is wiser not to waste your early years trying to get one. It is always possible to get one later down the line as a side hustle thing. But it is much harder to later join the workforce without any prior non-academic experience.

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