I am doing an integrated BS-MS in Biological Science from an Indian university and currently am in the 6th (post-final!) year. In this MS part of the program, I am supposed to take a few grad level classes and mainly focus in research. I also need to pass 8 MS thesis courses (worth 3 credits each), in which my supervisor grades me on my research work that particular semester (I can take as many as 4 of them in one semester). The grade for this course is either S or X i.e. Satisfactory or Fail.

I took one of the 8 courses in the summer following my senior year. I worked very little and met my supervisor only 3 times in the term. As a result, I received the X grade in the thesis course. In the following semester (Fall), I took 3 MS thesis courses. My performance was better, I met him more often but according to him, it was not worth passing all 3 - he said it was only good enough to pass 1 of the 3 thesis courses. But since failing 3 thesis courses would have led to termination of my degree, he gave me pass grade for 2 of the 3 courses and cautioned me that another fail course would mean the end of the program for me.

After this, my performance research-wise has been good, I have been more regular. My relationship with my supervisor has also improved, although it could be much better. I have received a pass grade in all the remaining thesis courses and retook the 2 I had failed. Since I had not made enough progress in the one year, I continued my work further until it reaches a publishable position. I am finishing my second year this summer (6th year overall) and the work seems to be coming to an end.

I applied to for PhD positions at US universities last fall. When I asked my supervisor for recommendation, he said - "Ya, I will write one for you, but it won't be a glorious recommendation. I will mention what you did, your performance in my course...". Anyway, the results came out, and it was not good (1 accept out of 9).

(hope this was enough of a background!)

My question is - How much does an X grade in thesis research course (2 such, in my case) affect my PhD application. Are these thesis credits looked at closely? Such X grades are rare in my department, so I don't know how bad the situation is.

EDIT - I think this question is sufficiently different from others asking about a failed subject course. I am asking about failing thesis credits, which is different because a) these can be easily retaken and one can take as many as 4 of them in a semester and b) they directly corroborate with your research performance as opposed to normal courses.

I would be SINCERELY OBLIGED if someone could help me with this. It has been troubling me for months, and any answer towards this question/situation would be enormous for me!

  • the work seems to be coming to an end So, do you have the written thesis yet? – scaaahu May 21 '17 at 8:48
  • @scaaahu, no. but will have one in about 1-2 months time – devon56 May 21 '17 at 8:49
  • @scaaahu, thank your for the question. could you provide your opinion to my question? – devon56 May 24 '17 at 9:16
  • I suspect that it's not failing the thesis courses that kept you from getting in, but the not-overly-enthusiastic letter from your supervisor. (He did warn you.) An enthusiastic letter from him explaining the failing grades would probably have led to many admissions committees overlooking them. Learning to do research is difficult, and what matters more to admissions committees is your present ability, not how long it too you to get there. – Peter Shor May 24 '17 at 12:27

Let me try to summarize. You took several master's level thesis courses that were graded pass/fail and you failed two of them. Moreover, your supervisor wanted to fail you on one more but refrained from doing so because you would have been dismissed from the program. Then you retook them, passed them, and since then have consistently done passing work, but it is clear from what you say that your advisor is still no more than moderately satisfied with your performance.

Sorry to say, but this sounds bad to me. You have been really struggling in your master's program, and to me it sounds like your advisor does not think your performance warrants admission into a PhD program and probably indicated that in his letter. And then of course there's the fact that you already applied to PhD programs and were not successful -- that's about as strong evidence as you could get.

What should you do? Here is my advice.

First make sure you finish your master's thesis, and that you finish as strong as you can.

If I got the chronology right, you expect to be graduating at the end of this summer. I don't know the Indian academic calendar, but in the US that would mean about two months from now. You say the research "seems to be coming to an end" and that you haven't written your thesis yet but "will have one in 1-2 months time." If I were your master's supervisor, then even disregarding the above considerations I would be a bit concerned about the timely completion of your thesis. Most master's students are very inexperienced when it comes to academic writing, and without substantial help from their supervisor they may not understand the scope of the task. I supervised a master's thesis once. The student was strong, and I think she spent several months just writing (and revising) the thesis. Do you have a clear plan of how you will get from where you are now to the completion of your thesis? If not, talk to your supervisor ASAP.

Do follow through with attempting to publish your work.

My impression is that in the biological sciences, thesis work that is well-regarded and thesis work that has been published in a reputable (I still can't bring myself to say "high impact") journal are pretty close. So if you can publish, then there may be an "all's well that ends well" aspect to your studies.

Consider "laundering yourself" by doing another master's degree, perhaps in the US.

A lot of US programs are more willing to take chances on a master's student than a PhD student. The downside to this is that master's students are often not as well funded as PhD students (or are not funded at all), so you may be putting yourself in a tough financial situation -- please think at least twice about doing that. But if you can find a funded master's degree at even a not-so-great US institution: well, that's your foot in the door.

Good luck.

  • Out of curiosity, why are you averse to the term "high impact"? – astronat May 23 '17 at 20:52
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    @astronat: It infuriates me that in many academic fields people seem to make no distinction between the quality of a journal and its impact factor. Ten years ago I had never heard the term "impact factor"; now it is being used "even in mathematics" to evaluate the quality of people's work. This is very disturbing. – Pete L. Clark May 23 '17 at 23:12
  • @PeteL.Clark , thanks for the answer, (your summary is spot on). However, could you comment about my question regarding the significance of an X grade in thesis courses during phd admissions? Also, i do not understand the meaning of laundering oneself – devon56 May 24 '17 at 9:18
  • @devon: My answer explained how an American faculty member doing graduate admissions would evaluate your application. In the US one does not necessarily take "thesis courses" and we do not have an "X grade". Moreover, because your system is different from ours, we would look that much more to the advisor's letter to explain the situation. So: the significance is up to the faculty member reading the evaluation, but I explained why it is likely that it would be regarded as a rather serious negative. "Launder yourself" means to do something new to remove a stigma from your past. – Pete L. Clark May 24 '17 at 14:13
  • @PeteL.Clark, thanks for the clarification. but I explained why it is likely that it would be regarded as a rather serious negative - I didn't get this impression from the answer, but good to know now – devon56 May 24 '17 at 14:29

To be successful in applying for PhD programmes, you need to demonstrate your ability to perform research.

Unfortunately, failing a thesis research course says rather the opposite to the admissions committee. By the sounds of it, your lukewarm recommendation letter from your supervisor will have done nothing to help matters either.

To improve your chances if you are planning to apply again, I would suggest trying to publish your work (you hint in your question that this may be possible) and, if you can, finding someone else who can write you a much stronger letter of recommendation.

  • were you ever part of a phd admissions commitee? – Rüdiger May 21 '17 at 11:28
  • @Rudiger nope, never. – astronat May 21 '17 at 11:34
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    Well, I've been the chair of a PhD admissions committee and I agree with everything in this answer. (+1) – Pete L. Clark May 23 '17 at 18:47
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    What Pete said. – JeffE May 24 '17 at 2:24
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    What JeffE said. – Mark Meckes May 24 '17 at 10:50

It is understood that not only you're doing well in your thesis courses, but that you get A at least. Being ranked first is even better. Consider taking a course from another advisor and doing extremely well at it. That will demonstrate your competence, put your new advisor in a good mood, which translates into great recommendations letters. I hope this helps.

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