This past spring was the second semester of my PhD program. A professor of a core course refused to grade my final assignment because it was late after deadline had been extended. The professor had read and provided feedback on various drafts of the manuscript throughout the semester.

However, I only missed the deadline because of an emergency. A couple of days before the deadline I had to drop everything I was doing to tend to urgent institutional review board (IRB) issues. On the day the manuscript was due, my old thesis advisor emailed me demanding to withdraw a presentation from a national conference immediately until IRB exemption was granted. This was more urgent than submitting the paper because there were serious legal implications attached.

Thank goodness the Chair of my Doctoral Committee was made aware of the issue. I spoke to the Chair, who suggested I explained to the professor I had an emergency and even told me to drop their name. I did just that, but the professor still refused to accept the paper and gave me a C+ (38.9/50) without counting my final. I also explained the emergency situation, to no avail.

I don't want to push too hard on this matter, but I am very worried that a C+ will prevent me from receiving fellowships and getting a good postdoc position in the future. For those of you out there with first-hand knowledge of the impact PhD-level course grades have on one's career, will a C+ diminish my chances of getting a fellowship and being strongly considered for competitive postdoc positions?


3 Answers 3


In my field (math), nobody looks at your grades, so this will not make any difference.

A personal anecdote: I had a first-year grad course with a tough grader who gave me a B- in a core subject. This did not affect my trajectory in the least; I still passed my quals ahead of time, I wrote a thesis and graduated on time, and I'll be starting my post-doc in the fall.

  • 2
    Yep. Grades aren't a perfect indicator of skill or talent at the PhD level. At least in math anyway. Often times problems take very specific observations or tricks that you might not be aware of. These observations can be the difference between an A or B. I ended up with a high 70 in a course on Banach Algebras. I knew the material pretty alright but there were always a couple of incredibly hard questions on homework assignments I couldn't get. Many others couldn't either. The main focus is research which has a very different skill set than coursework. Commented Jun 23, 2015 at 2:32
  • Thanks! Both your answers were helpful, but you both skipped over the funding issue. My program funds us for the first two-to-three years and then we have to find another funding mechanism. Have either of you had any success with NIH, NSF or Foundation funding? Commented Jun 23, 2015 at 2:45
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    @Octavia Sorry, my answer was meant to include funding agencies. I've only dealt with the NSF, and they didn't ask for my grades. I can't speak on the NIG or Foundation, though.
    – Jeff
    Commented Jun 23, 2015 at 12:09

Grades don't matter. What does matter is good time management and interpersonal relationships and it looks likes you are struggling with both.

  • RoboKaren, you are correct. I have been struggling with time management because it often seems like I don't own my time. Even when I plan things out, a new fire pops up and I feel compelled to run to extinguish it. As for interpersonal skills, for me the two goes together. The time management issues is causing me to over-promise or miss deadlines which is what happened in this situation. Do you have any constructive suggestions or resources someone in my situation can refer to work on these areas? Commented Jun 23, 2015 at 2:40
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    That's a whole another (and quite good) question. I think you should post it here and see what responses you get. I would put the emphasis on time management when formulating the question (as A.SE doesn't like multipart questions).
    – RoboKaren
    Commented Jun 23, 2015 at 2:55

The best way to defuse the poor grade is to understand why it happened and have a plan for preventing it from happening again. This is one plan for preventing late work in the face of firedrills. It is applicable to paper deadlines, preparing a talk etc. as well as turning in coursework.

Pick a date well ahead of the official deadline.

Do the work to whatever standard you can by that date. During this phase, concentrate on essentials. Aim to get the work to a point where submitting it would be better than not submitting it.

Save a copy of the work in submittable form. If you are going to file physical paper, that means having a printout in your backpack. For electronic submissions, it means having a copy on e.g. a thumb drive you keep with you.

Continue to refine and improve the work, periodically replacing the ready-to-submit copy with a better one.

If faced with a drop-everything priority shortly before the actual deadline, first spend a minute submitting the current ready-to-submit copy.

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    This is a very good advice to prevent it from happening, but not really an answer.
    – Davidmh
    Commented Jun 23, 2015 at 8:42
  • @davidmh, what do you suggest? Commented Jun 24, 2015 at 21:08

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