I'm a junior hoping to do a PhD. I'm in a graduate level class right now in a different field. I believe almost all the other students are PhD students. The first couple weeks of the course were just barely accessible, though very challenging. Now, however, I really find myself unable to complete the problem sets. There are no office hours either. How bad would it look to pass/fail this class? It's not particularly related to my intended research focus in the PhD. I believe I am a strong candidate aside from this class. Also, I'm really not sure what grade I would get in this class. Probably a B at worst. I'd rather not mess up my GPA though. All of my other technical classes are A's or A minuses.

  • Is the class in question one that covers topics used in machine learning? Feb 28, 2017 at 4:26
  • I'm sure someone could come up with a connection, but it's definitely pretty far from the field.
    – eagle34
    Feb 28, 2017 at 4:27
  • I think pass/fail outside your area is not a disaster. A bad grade would be a disaster. // Please contact the instructor and ask for an appointment to get some help. Just because there are no published office hours doesn't mean you can't ask for help. If the instructor refuses to help, see a department administrator. Perhaps they'd withdraw you from the class without it showing up on your transcript, under the circumstances. Mar 2, 2017 at 6:29
  • Do you consider a B to be a bad grade? I could get a C if the final exam goes horribly. A B is the most likely outcome, it seems.
    – eagle34
    Mar 2, 2017 at 19:34
  • 1
    I don't think a lone B in a graduate-level class outside your target research area would be a disaster, even though that same B might be considered a "bad grade" for a PhD student in the same field as the class.
    – JeffE
    Jun 18, 2017 at 4:37

2 Answers 2


In short, this looks bad.

When I see a "Pass" or "S" grade on a transcript that I'm evaluating, my default assumption is that the student did work equivalent to the lowest passing letter grade (e.g. a "D" in the US system.)

I tell the undergraduate students that I advise that if they want to go on to graduate school they should avoid taking courses on the S/U grading scale.

  • What if those pass or S courses are electives? I have a similar grading system too, but they are only applicable to electives unrelated to my major.
    – User1915
    Feb 28, 2017 at 16:41
  • 1
    "Unrelated" spans a large range. I don't really care if a prospective math graduate student has an "S" in a yoga or music class, but I'd be concerned if the "S" was in a physics class and more concerned if the "S" was in a mathematics class. Feb 28, 2017 at 16:43
  • 3
    At many (most?) US institutions, there's a policy that an S grade should be equivalent to C or better (or maybe C-). A student who would get a D in a letter system is suppose to get a U in the S/U system. Of course, some instructors might stretch this. Jun 18, 2017 at 3:44
  • I just checked, and my undergrad is a C and my grad school is a C- (for undergraduate courses). Mar 18, 2023 at 21:21

No one can predict how an admissions committee or anyone else, such as a potential supervisor, will interpret this, or any particular thing, really.

But, in general, it is the major courses (US system) that most people look at and care about for graduate study. A pass/fail in an upper level major course looks bad. But a pass/fail in an unrelated course, especially an elective, looks much less bad and other things in your application can overwhelm whatever negative aura there might be.

In the case here, dropping the course rather than changing to pass/fail might be another option (or not), and who is to say how a dropped course is viewed.

Elective courses outside the major indicate, to me, at least, that the applicant has a possibly valuable outside interest but didn't want to "risk" GPA. Not a big deal and maybe a positive.

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