I have BE and MS from the University of Tokyo (a research university in Japan) and I'm planning to study and do research in US as a PhD student.

My questions is: which is more important, GPA at graduate school or GPA at undergraduate school?

I have a GPA of 3.8ish at graduate school and a GPA of 3.4ish at undergraduate school. So this is a very important problem to me.

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    In general, more recent grades are considered more relevant. But in the US, Master's and PhD are often obtained as part of a single continuous program, so many applicants to PhD programs do not have any graduate GPA at all. – BrenBarn Jan 2 '15 at 1:21
  • One data point: My undergrad GPA was 1.5 less than my masters GPA (both out of 4.0) and I got into a top PhD program. – JeffE Jan 3 '15 at 4:57

There are several competing concerns that make this question difficult to answer.

As BrenBarn notes in his comment, more recent information is more indicative of your current skills. Especially if you show significant improvement, which most programs will take into account. Graduate programs will also (hopefully) consist of more difficult classes that are closer to the difficulty level of the material you will be tackling in graduate school.

On the other hand, applications seem to be very comparison-based. Applicants for a year are compared against each other and also against successful (or unsuccessful) candidates from previous years. This is anecdotal, but I know that some programs explicitly group and rank candidates based on their undergraduate institution for their first round of decisions (e.g. the top couple from each top-5 school are always accepted, the bottom third from most schools are rejected). The fact that most applicants to US PhD programs don't have a graduate degree means that your undergraduate GPA may be more convenient for these comparisons, so it might actually get looked at more.

In programs that do this, I suspect that your undergraduate GPA will be more important for getting into the group of applicants that will actually be considered, but that your graduate GPA will become more important after that, as the committee examines the borderline applications more closely. But this is probably dependent on the specific program and their procedures, and I don't think that there is a consistent answer.

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I think the answer is very geographically dependent. If, as brenbarn and Roger suggest, you are applying in the US, the undergraduate grades will be used as a means of comparison, since that's the common "core" that all US students will have. Your additional experience will also be taken into account, and can be useful, particularly if it goes beyond coursework and encompasses research.

If you are applying in most of the rest of the world, where a master's is expected before beginning PhD studies, then I think the rough "pecking order" in terms of importance is given to:

  • Core graduate classes
  • Core undergraduate classes
  • Elective courses in your major
  • Courses outside your major

So courses early on (especially in subjects outside your "main" discipline) will automatically weigh less in an evaluation. Exactly how much less is impossible to say, but most graduate schools will be willing to overlook one or two weak grades that don't directly pertain to your PhD program. A poor grade in a master's level "core" subject, however, would be very damaging to your chances. (As a chemical engineer, I would be reluctant to admit to a PhD program someone who struggled in thermodynamics, for instance.)

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Every university is different in this regard, so it is a good idea to just ask the admissions department directly. I did this when working on my application, as I had a much higher graduate GPA than undergrad. In my case, I was told that they didn't care about the undergrad grades at all, and would only look at graduate (these were urban planning departments at top-tier universities in the U.S.).

However, it might be different if your PhD field matches more closely to your undergraduate field and not your graduate field. It may also make a difference if your graduate work was in another country so that it is harder to compare grades or at a less respected institution.

So, don't be afraid to just ask! But contact admissions, not any of the professors, since they (1) don't usually make those kinds of decisions and (2) wouldn't appreciate being bothered for this type of inquiry.

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