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I graduated last year with a masters degree in physics from a UK University. Unfortunately, despite my overall grades being good, my thesis had a low grade, and my supervisor didn't want to write me a reference. I was able to secure a reference from a secondary supervisor, but he told me he would have to be honest and that the thesis didn't go well.

I think I mistakenly used this reference in many of my PhD applications (particularly US and UK ones), with the result of me getting rejected. Even for applications where I avoid using this reference, I don't seem to be getting anywhere, especially since I still haven't scored an interview. Should I just give up my PhD search for now and do another masters degree?

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    Why do you want to do a PhD? What would be the goal of another masters? What else are you going to do, have a full-time job making more PhD applications or do you have another plan?
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented May 10 at 16:04
  • @BryanKrause I've been waiting to say this for a while, and you're the one who's lost the lottery and given me the opportunity: isn't a perfectly valid reason - perhaps the most common reason - for doing a PhD "all the other options for a new master's graduate sound awful"? Commented May 10 at 16:09
  • If your MSc thesis didn't go well why would you want to do a PhD? A PhD is essentially a longer, more complicated, and more difficult thesis. I would encourage you to reflect on where you want to be in say 5 years time and take the educational route that gets you there.
    – atom44
    Commented May 10 at 16:18
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    @DanielHatton I think that's a valid reason if you have good reason to think a PhD would provide further options; it might even still be a valid reason if it wouldn't, as long as you're okay with it being just a detour in your life or for the intrinsic purpose of doing it. I'm mostly prompting to see if someone asking what they should do next has given thought to the options and is aware of the likely results.
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented May 10 at 16:22
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    @RicardoCruz Thanks for the tip! I found the list of grants you mentioned, but they seem to mostly be PhD and Postdoc positions. Do the programs you mentioned go under a specific name?
    – Kevin Guo
    Commented May 12 at 22:08

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Only you really know what you should do.

However, the main question to be answered when an advisor (or otherwise) is asked to write a letter of support for a PhD application is in essence "can this person successfully earn a PhD". So if, as you admittedly say, your masters did not go well, that does not leave your advisor (or presumably any committee members associated with the thesis) much leverage to honestly support your candidacy for a PhD program.

If there were some truly mitigating circumstances, then most reasonable faculty would include that in a letter of support, but perhaps your advisor(s) have just not seen you demonstrate enough to feel comfortable recommending you (both for academic integrity, professionalism, and perhaps in their eyes to keep you from setting yourself up to fail).

What you have to ask yourself is, how will it be different next time? If you think it will, then perhaps a PhD at a lower ranked institution with a well-worded letter explaining what went wrong and what you will do to make sure it doesn't happen again may be an option. Alternatively, another masters that you have to excel at, potentially at an institution where you can transition to a PhD if its going well (this is fairly straightforward at North American schools).

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  • Thank you for the advice! About your last paragraph, I've actually been advised to play down my master's thesis and not mention it as much, not even my supervisor's name, as supposedly it would give the impression I'm not a good subordinate. I'm not really sure what to do about that anymore. Are there certain situations where I should send some kind of letter and situations I shouldn't?
    – Kevin Guo
    Commented May 11 at 18:25
  • @KevinGuo as someone who has put his fair share of time on graduate admissions committees, I can tell you that is not the case. First thing we look at is transcripts. We will notice your masters. After that we will expect to see a letter from your masters advisor. If it is missing, we will check the other letters and your statement. Leaving glaring things out will only raise suspicion. Generally your statement is not that important compared to the other factors of your application, but it is a very important place to explain things that deviate from the accepted norms.
    – R1NaNo
    Commented May 13 at 1:53
  • I see, so specifically, should I mention it in my statement of purpose or a separate letter? Are there any guidelines I should follow in writing this kind of explanation?
    – Kevin Guo
    Commented May 13 at 21:34
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In the UK, Research assistant roles pay quite well (in comparison to most other academic salaries). Try spending a year in one of those instead of another master's. Many people I know convert their RA role into a PhD.

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