I'm a dedicated person, very passionate about physics and pursuing my PhD at a good school is crucial to my life. I've been preparing my application documents for a while now. GPA is almost 4 and Physics GRE is 980. My general GRE is at the 97 percentile. Good recommendation letters. I have other few decent ranks since high school as well. HOWEVER, I'm from the Middle East, and yes, my name is Mohammed. I can feel how the world is infuriated about the Islamic community in general, though the vast majority of Muslims are vulnerable to (and on daily basis thousands are already subjected to) similar attacks from ISIS. The majority of us, including myself, are terrified by ISIS, sorry for and mortified by these attacks by ISIS.

My question: Will these events perhaps hurt my application? If you were to decide on my application on the admission committee, how would my citizenship, religion and name affect your decision?

So grateful for any attempt to help. In fact, I'm sort of developing anxiety due to this issue.

EDIT: For those wondering, I'm applying only for universities in the USA.

  • 261
    You wouldn't want to be accepted at a department stupid enough to conflate "Islam" and "ISIS."
    – ff524
    Nov 16, 2015 at 17:41
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    If it makes you feel better, let me share my anecdote: I'm a French-Morrocan PhD student in France, and I have an Arabic name. I have never felt once any kind of negative effect from this (before or after the attacks) in academia.
    – user9646
    Nov 16, 2015 at 18:17
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    I think there is a great question buried in here about how wars/political conflicts affect the "availability" of higher education in the affected countries. I would think there is some good scholarly research on this, but I really have no idea.
    – StrongBad
    Nov 16, 2015 at 18:28
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    I have deleted a series of comments not related to graduate admissions. Off-topic comments about the reactions of Muslim individuals to current events do not belong here.
    – ff524
    Nov 17, 2015 at 6:28
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    Let us look at it from a scientific perspective instead of ranting on about it. sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0927537109000451 provides evidence of hiring biases of employers against muslims. There is no evidence why this should not hold for admission committees as well. sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0094119008001137 provides evidence that terrorism indeed has an effect on attitudes towards minorities. Concluding, until further scrutiny, yes, you will be discriminated more because of the ISIS attacks.
    – HRSE
    Nov 20, 2015 at 2:53

9 Answers 9


Will ISIS attacks hurt my PhD application as a Muslim?

Only indirectly.

Admissions committees have good incentive to get the sharpest, most hard working people into their programs. They will care about your excellent results, as they should.

But administrative procedures may hinder people coming from your part of the world more than other applicants. I am basing this on my experience of being a Serb who wanted to study at Western universities, while Serbia was screwing up royally on the political scene, waging wars and making enemies everywhere. Sanctions made it difficult to travel. A friend of mine was denied a visa even after being admitted into an academic program and obtaining funding. Tuition was more expensive for us (to study in the EU), but far less funding was available. Even though I obtained a scholarship that covered the tuition, it was paid to me in monthly installments while the university insisted that I (as opposed to EU students) pay the entire tuition up front. Nobody could employ me without massive administrative hassle, meaning I couldn't just work at a bar a few hours a week if I needed some extra cash. Phone companies would not let me have a contract with them, limiting me to expensive, pre-paid phone cards. And on and on the list goes.

So yes, I think your chances will be smaller, but not because of admissions committees within any given university. It could happen that academic staff are not sufficiently aware of the additional hurdles you're facing, though. On the other side of the equation, professors from your side of the world might be less experienced at writing recommendation letters, for example. So a number of small obstacles will accumulate, many of them stemming from recent and current world politics.

And my heart goes out to you. It sucks to be vilified by outsiders for things being done by people you don't identify with.

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    +1 Absolutely. And banks might not give you credit cards, loans etc. Nov 16, 2015 at 21:04
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    Iranian students in the U.S. have had some similar experiences recently. Another common problem for students in this situation is only being granted a single-entry visa, so that if you want to go to an academic conference in another country you risk not being able to return to your program for an indefinite period of time.
    – ff524
    Nov 16, 2015 at 21:12
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    Yes, this answer is right on target, so far as I know. That is, my R1 math dept's faculty will not care about country-of-origin, etc. There starts to be some push-back from the administrators over-seeing graduate admissions, which seems to be partly just practical concerns about the U.S. and home country's visa complications, but also some suspicion. Then banks, not only for loans, but just for essentials like checking accounts (almost obsolete) and credit cards, will be much more suspicious. Cell-phone companies, relatedly. My sympathies. Nov 16, 2015 at 23:49
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    Fantastic answer (+1). Though these problems are functions of the students' country of origin, not their religion – renouncing the Quran is not likely to help someone overcome any of these obstacles. Muslims from countries that are not facing sanctions (i.e. Saudi Arabia) should be much better off.
    – Moriarty
    Nov 17, 2015 at 15:27
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    Depending on the size of the university, your nationality could be deterring for administrative reasons. When my advisor hired an Iranian student for a PhD, it took more than 6 months to get his papers ready. He had to really push and call regularly to get the papers through all the services. On the other hand, an EU student could have started the next day. I believe if having to choose between 2 students with similar qualifications, the administrative hurdles would play role.
    – electrique
    Nov 17, 2015 at 21:41

Will these events perhaps hurt my application?

No, I don't think you need to worry about this. It's possible in principle that they could, but only if something went terribly wrong. If I were on an admissions committee and detected any signs of religious or cultural bias along these lines, I would be shocked and would intervene, including getting the university administration involved if necessary. This form of prejudice is utterly unacceptable. Fortunately, it also seems to be rare in academia. I've never heard any of my colleagues say anything along these lines, while I've heard a number of them speaking out against such prejudice.

I'd be horrified if any department could put together an entire admissions committee in which bigots had real influence, and I don't think this is a realistic possibility. It's a little more worrisome in departments where individual faculty make admissions decisions. Academia is large enough that every field must contain at least a few bigots, so it's possible that you could send an application to such a person. I wouldn't worry about this, since bigotry is not at all common or accepted: I don't expect you'll run into it at all, and there's no way it could hurt many of your applications.

  • 27
    I think this is too narrow of an answer. While the admissions committee may not care (and I am not sure I would go that far), if the government tightens immigration rules or creates "internment/concentration" camps, I think that will have a big effect.
    – StrongBad
    Nov 16, 2015 at 18:34
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    Adding to what StrongBad said: the main way that this could potentially hurt an application is if the national government makes it more difficult to obtain student visas. We dealt with this problem immediately after 9/11: we had a hard time getting visa for accepted students from certain countries (not in the Middle East, in fact) and thus were more reluctant to take students who would subsequently be disappointed by US immigrations.
    – Corvus
    Nov 16, 2015 at 18:41
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    I agree with this answer. However, one potential problem may be more restrictive visa application process, which, although technically not part of the application process, should perhaps also be taken into consideration.
    – Drecate
    Nov 16, 2015 at 18:47
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    It's worth underlining the point that any visa restrictions will be on people belonging countries and not religions.
    – Dancrumb
    Nov 16, 2015 at 21:16
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    I don't understand this answer. The world is completely filled with racism, bigotry, religionism, countryism, sexism, and so on. This answer seems like a rant on what academia should be and not about the real world. Bigotry and treating each other is the definition of human history. Will the OP be treated different because they are Muslim. Of course!
    – blankip
    Nov 17, 2015 at 18:09

Will they? Yes. Is there anything you can do about it? Not much. Will it matter much? Hopefully not.

It is a fact of life that people are biased about almost everything all the time. Sometimes the biases are small sometimes they are big. That sucks, but it is human nature.

Usually people in most academic positions are able to overcome their silly biases and only rely on the ones that matter, like a bias toward good GPA.

What can you do about it? Exactly what you are doing: being a decent human being and excelling academically, this will hopefully move people's biases in a positive direction instead of the negative direction that well publicised attacks do.


Short answer: No.

Academic programs are normally very diverse and academics will regularly interact with people from different religions, nationalities, and ethnicities. Hence the vast majority of academics know better than to judge an individual like you based on the actions of a few lunatics.

Nationality and religion will not be taken into account in admissions. (Although there is one caveat: some universities will have a preference for students from the country the university is located in for funding reasons.)

  • 4
    I think you're factually mistaken. Academic programs in many countries are not so diverse (although this varies with academic discipline, I suppose); and it's often the case that even if a person from a different language, cultural and religious background is in such a group, s/he is not expected to show it. There is racism in academia; perhaps not the rabid violent racism of riot mobs, but you do see it more than just here-and-there.
    – einpoklum
    Nov 20, 2015 at 15:53

Not a chance.

What admissions people will see and pay close attention to is:

GPA is almost 4 and Physics GRE is 960. My general GRE is at the 97 percentile. Good recommendation letters. I have other few decent ranks since high school as well.

Which is outstanding (congratulations for these results of your hard work , by the way!). A university admissions team will see this and be just as impressed and likely open the doors for you to continue your education.

Another point made in a comment by @ff524:

You wouldn't want to be accepted at a department stupid enough to conflate "Islam" and "ISIS."

If a university admission makes decisions based any similar misconceptions or generalisations due to conflict, pressure or just misunderstanding, then that says more about them and their ignorance (and possible bigotry) - and would not be worth pursuing; however, this is extraordinarily unlikely.

In answer to the other part of your question:

If you were to decide on my application on the admission committee, how would my citizenship, religion and name affect your decision?

If it were me (or any one else from my research team), your nationality, name and religion would not be a factor in our decision - those impressive academic credentials would. (By the way, our admissions officer is also named Mohammed and is my best friend).

  • 1
    Actually, I don't think the cited statement with "conflate" is any more accurate to the question, as it, too, seems to imply the extreme position of thinking all of Islam is like ISIS. Nov 16, 2015 at 19:51
  • hence why I made a generalised statement under the quote
    – user41783
    Nov 16, 2015 at 19:52
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    I'm still trying to find a wording that expresses this better. IMHO, the respective paragraph in this answer is unnecessarily weak because it relies on such an extreme premise, and "any similar misconceptions and generalisations" sounds somewhat vague to really get away from the quoted line. Maybe "If a university admission lets itself pressure into discriminating against large groups on the remote chance that a single one of them might be a part of a current conflict, then that ..." is more to the point, but your mileage may vary. Nov 16, 2015 at 20:09
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    @O.R.Mapper then write your own answer.
    – user41783
    Nov 16, 2015 at 20:11

I'm from India, a country that has borne the brunt of terrorist attacks by different Islamic groups over more than two decades, and even witnessed several Hindu-Muslim riots. However, under normal circumstances, this does not affect recruitment, university admissions, or career progression in any way. When it comes to academics, people are generally more keen on your performance record rather than on religious, cultural, or ethnic background.

However, currently, the world is in a state of shock due to the attacks, and people everywhere are feeling extremely vulnerable. While they might not conflate Islam with ISIS, there might be an unconscious fear leading to momentary hesitation. Obviously, they would definitely not entertain that kind of bias, and would make an effort to ensure that they take a rational decision. But the point is, they might have to make an effort to push this thought out of their minds. However, during normal times, they would probably not even notice that you are a Muslim, as religion would be the last thing to come to their minds during an admission selection.

In your place, I'd wait for things to settle a little, and once normalcy is restored, start the application procedures. Perhaps I am being overly cautious, but I feel that unconscious biases might creep into the minds of even the most rational people in an environment of fear.

However, keep faith. You have been a hard worker and an excellent performer. Things like this cannot and should not come in the way of your academic career. I'm sure, you will get admission in a very good university.

  • 1
    India is a tolerant nation.. It has supported several religions for hundreds of years and still doing that.
    – Amit
    Nov 19, 2015 at 6:46
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    @aProgrammer: You know that there's quite a lot of anti-Muslim racism in India, and the current prime-minister, Modi, is seen by many (?) as partially responsible for the anti-Muslim riots which broke out in Gujarat last decade. And you have areas in India which are sort of in open rebellion against the central government with a host of accusations... so, it's not that simple.
    – einpoklum
    Nov 20, 2015 at 15:58
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    This is certainly not true.. One of the most respected Indian President Kalam (was a muslim), three most successful Bollywood Stars are Khans (Muslims), most respected musician is Rehmaan (Muslim), Most respected writers are Gulzaar, Javed and Saleem (all muslims).. India has more mosques than Pakistan. Most of the Indian muslims love India as their nation. Centuries back the Majority (Hindus) lost several temples and other heritage sites to muslim attackers and muslim rules and still they (Hindus) are struggling to get them back. Isn't that tolerance. Indians hate anti Indians only (.
    – Amit
    Nov 26, 2015 at 7:18

In the US, your religion should not have any impact on admissions. However, there are always random situations in which your nationality may have implications, such as being from Iran - Top U.S. university bans Iranians from studying chemistry or engineering because of sanctions.

While this was reversed shortly after, and in the case of Iran should stay stable as the new talks between USA and Iran have opened borders more, it shows there was at least enough prejudice from an academic university to push it through. I mention this specifically as it was not a government block as the other answers have pointed out in terms of visa.


Definitely not! Political/social events will have little to no importance in your academic life. Your admission will be judged by your test scores and other objective benchmarks.

You have no reason to be anxious, everything depends on how "performant" you are, not on different events that happen in the society.

Keep on the good work, you will do great!

  • 11
    If only this were true.
    – bon
    Nov 18, 2015 at 19:12

Your religion will almost certainly not have a major impact of your chances at a reputable university.

However, students from some countries that happen to be muslim-majority, such as Iran, may have trouble working in some sciences, such as nuclear physics, within some countries.

ISIS, however, does not change this at all.

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