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There are a few questions here that discuss whether PhD GPA/grades matter (for example this, this, and this). But I haven't been able to find anything on whether other information on the transcript matters. In particular, I wonder if a specific course and the status of that course on PhD transcript could be something an application reviewer would care about, for academic and industry jobs after completing the PhD, and also internships and fellowships during the PhD.

I have heard "no body looks at your transcript" from so many people, but I doubt if any of them had any issue with their transcript anyway. That makes me skeptical of their assessment of the importance of PhD transcript. Say, there is a course that's relevant to your research (but not absolutely essential). When you go on the (industry or academic) job market at the end of your PhD, would anyone care about whether you had that course or not and whether you got A, B, or a W for that course? If so, between a B and a W, which one is worse, and how bad is it?


To give more context, I'm quite a bit beyond the coursework stage of my PhD (an engineering PhD in the US), have completed all my courseworks, have taken my comprehensive exams, and have just one more step to candidacy/ABD. Almost all of my time should be spent on research, but I took an optional course that's on a topic quite useful for my research (admittedly a mistake to take it as a graded course). Now I'm considering dropping it with a 'W' on my transcript, but I don't know if that could have any consequences. In terms of learning the material, I've already gotten all that I want from the course (I kept it for most of the semester and did the homework, etc.), but I don't know if getting a B on that course is worth slowing down my research to study for the exams, or if it'd be better to just get a 'W' and focus on my research and avoid botching paper deadlines.

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  • Are you in a middle-to-top ranked program where it's generally assumed by default (by society) that everyone in the program (and definitely everyone earning a degree) is competent, or a less well-regarded program where that's not a given? Are you going to be competing for jobs where the employer is hoping to hire someone really good, or jobs where the employer is just trying to not hire someone bad? Nov 8, 2023 at 16:12
  • I am in mod-to-top ranked program. I don't know about the answer to your question about the jobs. In terms of competitiveness, the job market I hear about is quite competitive. For industry jobs, normally PhDs from our lab/program compete for jobs at well-known tech companies, but rarely go for niche and ultra competitive positions in Wall Street. And academic job market is highly competitive anyway as far as I know.
    – gradette
    Nov 8, 2023 at 16:37
  • If you are done with all other courses, mostly the research portion is pending, and still can get a B or better in the course, I suggest completing that course even with a B grade while working on research and graduating. It seems like you are at the end of your PhD journey with the feeling of "Is it worth taking courses" during the end of PhD. All you need is a final push which I am giving you. I had the same feeling and a friend of mine motivated me to finish the course; I did and the rest is history. You'll be proud at the end. Nov 8, 2023 at 20:02

2 Answers 2

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I doubt that courses and grades have any "external" value after you finish your dissertation and it is accepted.

My experience was that the doctoral level coursework (math) was to prepare one to pass comprehensive exams prior to starting on the dissertation. If you couldn't pass the courses with a good grade you probably weren't going to pass comps and might be advised to quit.

They were also, however, the way that the university "guaranteed" to the public that its PhD graduates were broadly prepared in the field. So, while algebra was far from my first love, I had to grok it to be considered a competent mathematician. For my main field, my grades and such in those courses reassured my advisor that he wouldn't be making a mistake in taking me on.

The emphasis on the courses will vary, of course, in different places.

It is unlikely that anyone would care about a withdrawal, or even know about it. There are lots of reasons to drop a course that isn't required.

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    Thanks for the response! This agrees with what I've heard from others. Do you by any chance have/heard of experiences of actually ignoring transcripts when reviewing applications for postdoc positions? Or the experience of not ignoring it and interpreting any specific information on the transcript?
    – gradette
    Nov 8, 2023 at 15:12
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    Nothing specific, but it isn't a question of "ignoring" transcripts but the fact of the granting of a degree implies that the granting institution judged you worthy and it is unlikely to be second guessed other than in odd circumstances such as being hired to do a specific thing and your record implies you are bad at that. But a W is nothing to worry about, especially once you start research, which pushes other things aside.
    – Buffy
    Nov 8, 2023 at 15:16
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Do the courses on your PhD transcript matter, beyond GPA and grades?

If you are applying for US Federal Government job, then the answer is yes. Specifically, different job series require specific numbers of credits. For example, a Mathematical Statistician states:

Basic Requirements:

Degree: that included 24 semester hours of mathematics and statistics, of which at least 12 semester hours were in mathematics and 6 semester hours were in statistics.

or

Combination of education and experience -- at least 24 semester hours of mathematics and statistics, including at least 12 hours in mathematics and 6 hours in statistics, as shown in A above, plus appropriate experience or additional education.

Evaluation of Education: Courses acceptable toward meeting the mathematics course requirement of paragraphs A or B above must have included at least four of the following: differential calculus, integral calculus, advanced calculus, theory of equations, vector analysis, advanced algebra, linear algebra, mathematical logic, differential equations, or any other advanced course in mathematics for which one of these was a prerequisite. Courses in mathematical statistics or probability theory with a prerequisite of elementary calculus or more advanced courses will be accepted toward meeting the mathematics requirements, with the provision that the same course cannot be counted toward both the mathematics and the statistics requirement.

Also, for a federal job, you can list courses on your resume to show they fit the requirements. For example, a biology-type series might require 24 credits of biology courses. You could list "Wildlife 301: Herpetology" as a biologist course so HR would see you have enough credits.

For your second question:

For give more context, I'm quite a bit beyond the coursework stage of my PhD (an engineering PhD in the US), have completed all my courseworks, have taken my comprehensive exams, and have just one more step to candidacy/ABD. Almost all of my time should be spent on research, but I took an optional course that's on a topic quite useful for my research (admittedly a mistake to take it as a graded course). Now I'm considering dropping it with a 'W' on my transcript, but I don't know if that could have any consequences. In terms of learning the material, I've already gotten all that I want from the course (I kept it for most of the semester and did the homework, etc.), but I don't know if getting a B on that course is worth slowing down my research to study for the exams, or if it'd be better to just get a 'W' and focus on my research and avoid botching paper deadlines.

I personally do not think it matters either way. A "W" will not hurt you (I had one or two in grad school too). Ask your advisor or trusted committee member what they think.

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  • The math courses you list seem to be undergraduate level, not doctoral level coursework. Same for statistics.
    – Buffy
    Nov 8, 2023 at 16:00
  • If somebody didn't have the courses at the undergraduate level, they could count graduate-level math courses. Especially for other areas like ecology or for a fish biologist. Nov 8, 2023 at 16:36

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