I've just finished my fourth year (out of 5) of biology studies in one of European universities. I have some experience in research and my grades are quite ok (in US scale it would be 3.75, which means I'm in 5% of the best students in my university). This year I'm starting my master thesis and I expect it to be rather successful - I have interesting topic and good supervisor, with whom I have good contact. This year I'm also starting new studies in electrical engineering and I would love to work in biomedical engineering.

There are several PhD programmes I would like to join abroad (mainly US, UK and Germany). However, I have just got my grade for a research project from spring semester, which is really bad (C+). It is my only grade lower than B, but since it's in research (actually, it's my only grade in research), I'm afraid that it might be a big obstacle in admission process. I'm not a kind of person who blames everyone for my failures, but this time I cannot explain it in any other way than bad supervisor who didn't like me. I've learnt many methods during this project and I've done the worst job for the research group. I've also learn a lot about research in general by seeing my supervisor's mistakes. That is why I'm really happy about this experience, but it doesn't change my grade.

My question is: is there anything I can do to make this grade seem less important or to explain it to admission committee? I'm pretty sure that "Supervisor didn't like me" is not what they want to hear.

  • The admissions committee will still see the grade in the transcript, but the question of whether or not you should spend words in the cover letter on explaining the grade (especially if you're expecting good references from your MSc supervisor) is just as important as what you might say. If you say anything other than admitting it was your fault (even if it wasn't), it could be construed as you making excuses. This would be best answered by someone who has had experience being on an admissions committee, but why not just stay silent on the issue? – Moriarty Aug 25 '14 at 13:26
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    @gman There's plenty of questions here about bad undergrad / lecture course grades, but this is about bad research grades. I think there's enough distinction here to keep the question open. – Moriarty Aug 25 '14 at 13:27
  • @gman: This is what I call a "blemish" question about ONE bad grade. IMHO, it is quite "distinct" from the other question about a bad transcript OVERALL. – Tom Au Aug 25 '14 at 14:37
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    @gman: More importantly, the "subject" in question here is research, and it's widely acknowledged on this board that demonstrated research experience is perhaps the most important factor in graduate admissions. – aeismail Aug 25 '14 at 16:09

If this project is your only experience doing research, you are right that any admissions committee is going to look at it. My advice would be to put a couple of sentences about it in your cover letter. Briefly state what the project was about, and finish with something like "I learned a lot about doing research even though the final result was a bit disappointing." That will show them that you did put actual time and thought into the project, and in the end the grade given to you by one unnamed project supervisor will count for a lot less than a good reference letter from your Masters thesis advisor.

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