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I'm a rising second-year PhD student at a big state university in the US. I'm seeking advice regarding the possibility of disputing a grade received this past semester in one of my core PhD courses. Here's the background:

The course involved is one of the pre-qualifying exam courses we're expected to take prior to taking the qualifying exam in August. The professor who taught the course is a full professor in the department and one of its lead researchers. However, his teaching record is atrocious. He receives complaints from students pretty much every semester. This largely has to do with the fact that he doesn't like to teach (as he actually told us in class multiple times). He doesn't prepare lectures (because it takes too much work, as he's told us), so typical lectures are just him scribbling random things on the board, then consulting the textbook when (not if) he gets confused. We have no idea what he's even covering in class most of the time because he never says what section of the book he's covering or even what the topic is. Worse, the subject he had to teach us this semester wasn't even his field. He said the department threw the course on him because it was his turn.

The real problem I have, however, is the grading scheme. In his original syllabus, he stated grades would consist of regular homework, a project, a midterm, and an in-class final. However, this wasn't followed at all. We had no homework the whole semester. The project was changed last minute to a one page summary of a section from the book because he didn't bring the topic up until the last class before the final (and he went out of his way to say not more than one page and not to put much effort into it). The midterm turned into a take home exam that consisted of problems assigned from the book (where those problems were determined literally by drawing numbers out of a hat, and we all had different problems often of substantially varying difficulty). The final exam was changed to a take-home exam last minute as well, and consisted of problems that he made up out of his own head (he admitted this). We never received a single graded assignment back once in the course. He also admitted he hadn't graded the midterm yet when he gave us the take-home final.

As frustrating as this is, (especially given this is a qualifier prep class and hence we should really know the material well) neither I nor the other students (around 7 in the class total) said anything to anyone during the semester because our understanding was that we'd all likely receive roughly the same grades anyway in both the class and on the qualifier. However, at the end of the semester this didn't happen. Two got an A, 4 got a B+, and 1 got a B (the B being me).

Now, to me, getting a B in a grad-level class looks really bad, like getting a C or a D in an undergrad class. But what really erks me about it is that based on extensive conversations with others in the course and comparing answers on exams afterwards is that it doesn't appear as of yet that these grades were assigned based on course content at all, but on some other (perhaps even arbitrary) metric (which this professor has been accused of in the past multiple times). I contacted the professor to talk about this, but he brushed me off and said to talk to him about it in a few months when he's back in town.

This leaves me with a real dilemma. What should I do now? Do I just suck it up and let the dispute go? This is a full professor, after all, and he is the one making the qualifying exam in that subject. But on the other hand, I have a very strong reason at this point to believe that something is amiss, and that myself and others are victims of an arbitrary (perhaps even discriminatory) grading scheme. Should we stand for this on principle?

Now, I'm not the type of person who's complained every time I've gotten a bad grade. Usually I know it was my fault and just suck it up and do better next time. But this time really feels different. However, this is obviously complicated by the delicate political situation of grad student vs full professor.

I want to bring this up first with the graduate director. He's a reasonable man who's helped with things like this before with others. But before I did that I wanted to seek advice from you all to see whether this is worth pursuing, and if so, what myself and others in the course should do about this. Thanks for reading this long-winded rant.

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    Unless the B puts your status in the program in jeopardy (e.g. because you no longer meet minimum GPA criteria), making a formal complaint about your grade is probably going to be worse for your standing in the department (by possibly making an enemy) than getting a B. Is it worth it to you to risk this? – ff524 May 16 '16 at 2:35
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    P.S. in a situation like this, an ombudsperson (if your university has them) is a good person to talk over your options with (confidentially). – ff524 May 16 '16 at 2:40
  • To expand upon @ff524's comment look at this this PhD Comic. – Richard Erickson May 16 '16 at 2:49
  • Thanks. I think the only reason I'm even debating this is because there's now a decent chance I'll switch to a sister field for my PhD (because of research). And in that case I worry what grad admissions committees would think when they see that B. Would they just brush it off by saying grad school grades don't matter? I'd hope so, but I'm afraid they wouldn't. – rsk May 16 '16 at 2:56
  • Does your department have any sort of graduate representation for the students to the faculty? Perhaps if you get enough support you can influence the dept. to no longer assigning him that particular course. – Chris C May 16 '16 at 3:04
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There are three basic options with respect to grade disputes that you could pursue:

  1. Pursue through formal channels. You could either appeal to the department by by filing something with the DGS or chair. You could talk the graduate school and complain formally in that way.

  2. Pursue through informal channels. Again, there are several variants. You could talk to the professor and see if s/he is willing to change the grade. You could talk to the DGS, graduate student representative, or some other intermediary and see if they could help sway the professor to change the grade.

  3. You can do nothing about it.

You can also talk to your ombudsman to get general advice (without trying to enlist their assistance in a formal complaint).

Pursuing it formally (and to a lesser extent informally), there may regrettably be negative consequences for you within the department. This might be because not going with the flow can breed animosity, and the additional oversight may annoy powers that be. This is not to say don't consider it, but it is to say that being in graduate school includes a lot more relational management (with your advisor, with your peers, with faculty) than being in undergrad does.


Separately, you're asking about this because you're interested in switching disciplines and worried that they will care about grades. One avenue is changing the grade. Another idea might be to insure that one of your letter writers explains the arbitrariness of the grade. A further and final resort is to explain it yourself in a supplementary note. (If you end up going for the last one, I'd recommend substantially rewriting it and compressing it down so that it sounds like a more professional explanation than bits like "when (not if!)").

Given your goals, I think the ideal thing would (a) to check some of the less formal resources and see if the grade could be changed and in lieu of that (b) have one of your letter writers address this in passing within a stellar recommendation.

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    Talking with an ombudsperson does not make a formal complaint. An ombudsperson keeps your conversation confidential and doesn't act on it, just advises you on what your options for moving forward are, given specific policies at your university. – ff524 May 16 '16 at 3:08
  • @ff524 I've reworded it (it was poorly worded). I am under the perhaps mistaken impression that ombudspersons at some universities can in fact take formal action or help make it happen. Advise if you're sure they never do. – virmaior May 16 '16 at 3:11
  • Thanks. I was a lot more angry about this a couple weeks ago when I first saw this, and was strongly considering a scorched earth policy of provost and deans offices first. But I gave myself some time to simmer down, and you're right, an informal process seems like the smartest initial move. – rsk May 16 '16 at 3:17
  • I obviously can't speak for every single ombuds office out there, but informality is one of the four principles of the International Ombudsman Association code of ethics: "The Ombudsman, as an informal resource, does not participate in any formal adjudicative or administrative procedure related to concerns brought to his/her attention." Every university ombuds office I've come across claims to adhere to the principles of that association. – ff524 May 16 '16 at 3:17
  • @ff524 that's sufficient for me to delete it entirely from the formal process section. Academia.SE is so helpful for my professional development. – virmaior May 16 '16 at 3:29
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I'm not sure what program you are in (I'm in computer science), but I would say just let it go.

First, in grad school, at least in the computer science and computer science-related disciplines I'm familiar with, grades no longer really matter. When you are on the job market nobody is going to ask for your transcript. The factor that is most important, and that individuals will use to hire you, is your research (as well as letters of recommendations, how well you interviewed, how well you fit in with the department, etc.). The point is: grades don't really matter. Don't believe me, then look here, for instance -- searches will turn up more than this.

So, granted that grades aren't such a big thing (a B is fine -- if you get a C people may start to worry), you are really only left with the fact that this professor is was horrible, didn't do what he said, etc. He is, however: (a) a full tenured professor, and (b) a full professor in your department. Regarding (a): there's nothing to be done here. He's tenured. He will continue on one way or another. Regarding (b): your actions regarding this individual could come back on you. That's all I'll say regarding the matter, but I just don't think it's worth stirring things up within your department over a B grade. My two cents though.

  • Thanks. I know this is the case for those going into industry (which in CS I assume is the norm). But I'm still strongly considering the academic route, where they may care a little more about things like this. – rsk May 16 '16 at 3:20
  • @rsk No problem. This is actually the case for academia. I can't honestly speak to industry as I have not been interested in pursuing that route. I'd talk to your adviser or, if you haven't appointed one yet, a professor in your department you admire or look up to. – DMML May 16 '16 at 3:22
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    Having hired four tenure-track CS faculty so far this semester, I can say with some authority that grades do not matter for the academic route, either. I have absolutely no idea what grades any of my department's faculty candidates got in any class, ever. – JeffE May 16 '16 at 5:30

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