I'm an undergraduate studying Mathematics & Philosophy in the UK, about to sit my third-year exams. My course is structured as a three-year self-contained BA and a fourth year 'integrated masters' with its own exams, which I automatically progress to as long as I get a 2.i classification from my combined second- and third-year results.

I've not been a good student. My tutors consistently report that I'm clever and engaged but I've suffered real motivation and work ethic problems. My results in second year were poor, and while I'm reasonably confident I can get a 2.i in these exams I'm unlikely to achieve stellar results this year.

I'd like to have a shot at going on to further study. Obviously I would need to do well in my fourth year, and as well as is possible this year; that's a given. I'd like to know if anyone has any advice on other things I could do to 'rehabilitate' a potential application, both from the perspective of being a better candidate and with a view to getting reasonable references from tutors.

While I'd welcome general answers as well, for specificity the most likely further study I'd be applying to would be a masters programme (combination taught/research) in philosophy.

  • It would be helpful to know which are of study you intend to go into. For example, if science it would be helpful to get some research experience, but it depends on what you are doing.
    – Skunkness
    Commented May 24, 2014 at 12:17
  • @Skunkness I've added some salient details.
    – dbmag9
    Commented May 24, 2014 at 12:20

4 Answers 4


I can't speak to Philosophy programs so this may not be terribly useful to you, but in general, if your grades/marks are not stellar, and you exams are not either, then you should probably rely more on the power of recommendations from people who know your good traits well.

There are probably several ways to do this, and though I'm not sure about philosophy, in the sciences for example, a couple of years of volunteering in laboratory with one or two different researchers and making yourself invaluable to them can garner you major points.

I didn't do wonderfully in my studies either, and my exams were not fabulous, but I spent three years after graduating my undergraduate university volunteering in two different labs, and enrolling in evening courses to (a) try and do better in essential courses pertinent to my area and (b) demonstrate that I was serious about graduate studies because of my initiative in taking all these courses.

I ended up with three great letters and job opportunities, and later grad school (PhD) through working with these professors.

However, a word of caution: If your weaknesses really include motivation and work ethic, then post graduate study is not going to be fun for you. It's completely different than undergrad as there is way less structure, and you have to be very self-motivated, make your own deadlines, work all the time without people asking you to, and complete projects on your own. It's really hard. If you do decide that you can do it though, I suggest finding an advisor who will be more hands on.

Hope this helps a little!

  • 2
    Good answer, but I disagree with your second-to-last paragraph about work ethic. I had a terrible work ethic as an undergraduate, though since then it's been improving markedly because I like doing research. I don't think you can fairly judge if someone will enjoy grad school based on their undergraduate experiences.
    – Moriarty
    Commented May 24, 2014 at 12:52
  • 1
    I doubt it's possible to "volunteer in a lab" in the UK for a couple of years. It would be very hard to argue that that wasn't employment and, thus, subject to the minimum wage, among other things. (Also, with very few exceptions, there is no such thing as a "mathematics laboratory".) Commented May 24, 2014 at 14:17
  • 1
    I must admit that my initial reaction was what's pointed out in that last paragraph. If you're having problems with motivation and work ethics as an undergrad, things will only get worse. Motivation is pretty much your only driving force in grad school.
    – Sverre
    Commented May 24, 2014 at 14:18
  • 1
    I strongly disagree with the last paragraph. I know plenty of students (including myself) who had zero motivation for classes and tons of motivation for research.
    – JeffE
    Commented May 24, 2014 at 16:50
  • I would suspect that someone who had zero motivation for classes as an undergraduate could possibly still find graduate studies difficult; for most programs, there is a minimum GPA that students must maintain in order to stay in good academic standing.
    – Mad Jack
    Commented May 24, 2014 at 18:54

I don't know the details about Phylosophy (the large majority of the population of this site seems to be STEM, unfortunately), so I will speak from my experience (first and second hand) in Physics and related fields.

Universities in the UK thrive to be fair and objective. Admissions are regulated by committees that put high weight in objective measurements: that is, your transcript mostly. Even if you had a brilliant last year in your master's, your bachelor record may hinder you to get a position, at least in the better universities. Spain is a more extreme case, where a score function of your academic record and, to a lesser degree, proven research experience (ie, publications, that very few undegrads ever get) is the sole parameter considered for a grant.

In other countries the system allows for a more flexible and subjective evaluation. Good memory and analytic skills may get you high undergraduate marks, but if you lack creativity and good thinking you will not be good at research.

In Sweden, the PhD student is normally chosen by the PI based on whatever criteria he decides. I believe the majority of them put high weight in the projects you have done as an undergrad or master, and how well they think you will be able to work together. Grades are not so important for many because until some time ago, most universities only have "pass" or "fail" marks. I know of cases of PhD students that were hired without their supervisors even looking at the transcripts, but had a very good masters project.

Bottom line: if you were in STEM (as I cannot know if this is extrapolable to you), if you apply yourself in the last year, you could have options in a lower tier (but perfectly reputable) university in the UK; but you would probably have better chances in other academic cultures. Improving your grades will always help (don't let them fall); but the best you can do now to make you show apart from the other candidates is to excel at your thesis.


I can say something about philosophy Postgraduate study in the UK. If you have a 2.1 By, you ought to be welcome onto a whole load of decent MA courses, though to be prepared for a major step up in expectations. Bristol and Edinburgh both have MAs in Philosophy and Mathematics, for instance. If this is where you want to go I'd email their PG contact in Philosophy, say you're on an exit velocity for a 2.1, though nothing spectacular, and would anything stop you applying?

  • The Edinburgh course you mention is actually equivalent to the course I'm on now, as it happens.
    – dbmag9
    Commented May 25, 2014 at 10:06
  • I'm not sure you have much to worry about so, at least from what we have to go on. As an academic working in the postgraduate end of the social sciences - law and governance - I tend to see people very much admiring performance improvements over an undergraduate career. Exit velocity on a degree programme is actually pretty unusual. Most people are more or less consistent in their performance. Easy for me to say of course.
    – ctokelly
    Commented May 25, 2014 at 16:27

Going straight from undergraduate work to graduate is not the only path (not sure what the alternative paths would be in philosophy exactly - but I can imagine they are many and varied). The years between undergrad and grad can certainly be used for reform. Recommendations can weigh very strongly.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .