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I'm currently an M. Phil student in Math and I failed a course last semester because I was not able to hand in a home work assignment (which was worth 40% of my grade) on time (I was 30 minutes late).

Apart from that I'd say I'm a fairly decent student, I got an upper second class honours bachelors degree, I have a B+ and A's for all my other courses in my current programme and I'm almost finished with my first paper to be published.

I've however been deeply worried about this failure as it would reflect poorly on my transcript if I were to apply to a Ph.D or another Master's programme.

Will my failing grade affect my chances of getting into a competitive programme or greatly lower my chances of getting a scholarship?

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    Possible duplicate of A creepy C in transcript – ff524 Sep 12 '14 at 4:39
  • @ff524 I don't believe so. I only have to do a hand full of courses, roughly 4. So a failure is highlighted – user119264 Sep 12 '14 at 5:02
  • Presumably by the time you finish and will be applying for PhD programs you will have more than 4 courses, though. – ff524 Sep 12 '14 at 5:04
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    @ff524 I just really want to know. How badly is my failure frowned upon in the academic community – user119264 Sep 12 '14 at 5:10
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    I don't think this question is a duplicate of the linked question, because there are no medical issues involved here. Over there, the user was encouraged to go ahead purely because that would be a show of physical and mental strength, and would only add more weight to the application. This is a totally different situation IMO. – 299792458 Sep 12 '14 at 5:22
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It's not a deal breaker. I had awful grades in many courses but I got offers with TA/RA-ship/fellowships from a couple of top 25 US PhD programs in Math. The reason, I think, was that I had very high GRE scores, I had participated in undergraduate/masters "research" projects for a few years with professors at my schools, and I had pretty good recommendations. My research statement was normal and earnest. I didn't have any extraordinary ideas nor some well defined research agenda in it. I think that, overall, the rest of my portfolio made up for my awful grades.

In your case, it's just one course. That does not signal any systematic problem. If you feel particularly insecure, you can address it in your personal statement but don't talk about the professor in question negatively, instead you can focus on how you were tardy once but it does not reflect your work usual work ethic. I cannot speak for top 10 schools. They may have a sufficiently large pool of applicants who may beat you on every metric.

Also, Math departments at large public Universities generally need lots of bodies to TA/grade their numerous remedial and baby-calc type undergraduate courses and generally do the culling at the qualifying exam stage. You may find their standards for an incoming PhD class to be more forgiving.

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Will my failing grade affect my chances of getting into a competitive programme or greatly lower my chances of getting a scholarship?

Unfortunately yes, this is quite possible and, at least in certain contexts, rather likely. Most good graduate programs in mathematics (and presumably elsewhere) see very high grades in general from their applicants. One or two imperfect grades can be easily dismissed (still, better is better...) but a failing grade is a big red flag. In many (American, I don't know how it is elsewhere) graduate programs, the minimum GPA required to maintain good standing is 3.0. Thus a lackluster performance in a graduate course often results in something like a B/B+. There is a lot of variation here and many problems make a de facto distinction between lower level / core courses in which "grades count" and higher level / optional courses in which it may well be expected that everyone gets the highest possible grade more or less automatically. Either way, a failing grade in a graduate course looks especially bad.

The more courses you take, the more one can discount any one grade. But if as you say you will be applying for admission and/or scholarships with one out of four grades a failing grade: well, I'm sorry to say it, but that doesn't sound good at all.

What can you do? First I would look into the prospect of getting the grade changed (though of course it may not be possible and in certain circumstances it may not even be appropriate to ask). If that's not possible, the matter becomes how to explain the grade in a way which makes it minimally alarming to people who are evaluating your application. In this regard I have to be honest again and say that your given explanation is not a great one: there was one problem set that was worth 40% of your grade, you didn't turn it in on time, and there was no way for you and/or the course instructor to rectify the situation? Not good. Your perspective may well be that the course instructor was an extremely unreasonable, ungenerous individual. And you may be right, but that doesn't really fix the fact that you didn't meet the course requirements. Maybe your entire program is somehow off...which is still not great.

I would try to have at least one faculty recommendation letter explicitly address this situation and explain it in a way which somehow allays the above concerns.

  • Will none of the papers I publish before I graduate help them over look this? Are grades weighed more than published papers? Also, there's no GPA for my degree. – user119264 Sep 12 '14 at 16:48
  • Yes, published papers will certainly help, much more so if they are solo papers or if for each coauthored paper you get a letter from a senior coauthor describing your contributions. For most PhD programs in mathematics, applicants simply do not have significant published work, and admissions committees are skeptical that work done by undergraduate students actually represents their own work. No GPA for your degree confuses me (you mention a transcript): do you mean that all your courses are pass/fail? What program are you in? Somewhere in the UK, I presume? – Pete L. Clark Sep 12 '14 at 17:10
  • Also, although good grades are good everywhere, my comments about importance of research over mastery of content is, I have learned, rather particular to pure mathematics. If you are studying applied math, your research may be a more serious part of your application. On the pure math side, most of the people admitted to the top programs are not being admitted because of their research. So research has to be amazingly strong to make a decisive difference. – Pete L. Clark Sep 12 '14 at 17:13
  • I'm in an M.Phil programme (and it's actually in the Caribbean, but the system is UK influenced) meaning that emphasis is placed on research only. In other departments, such as Chemistry and Life Sciences, there's only a technical writing course that grad students are required to do and sometimes they allow M. Phil students to take M. Sc courses to help with their research. So there wasn't any need for a GPA system for that programme specifically. – user119264 Sep 12 '14 at 17:19
  • Well, hmm. I'm afraid I'm not really familiar enough with your situation to provide further advice. Good luck. – Pete L. Clark Sep 12 '14 at 17:29

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