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I was always a distracted kid growing up. I found it difficult to pay attention to anything for more than fifteen minutes. Growing up in Asia, teachers at the school and college levels always put it down to me being a “bad student” and made sure I knew that I would never amount to much.

After moving to the US for my master’s degree in computer science over ten years ago, my distractions and poor academic performance started haunting me again. I was put on academic probation and faced expulsion if I did not bring my GPA up (from 2.5x to 3+). During one of my lectures, the professor noticed my fidgeting and asked me to meet her after class. She told me I exhibited the classic symptoms of ADHD (which I had never heard of before) and asked me to meet the university counselor. The counselor confirmed the diagnosis and referred me to a psychiatrist for medication.

This was probably the biggest turning point in my life as it was only then that I realized that there was something that caused me to behave the way I did. Knowing and understanding what the cause of my distractions made me able to address it and focus my energy and concentration properly. I transferred to a different university (lesser ranked than the first one, but well known for its notoriously rigorous curriculum) and was able to maintain a 3.5+ GPA throughout, in addition to being invited to PhD level research groups and being admitted to highly selective research internships in Europe. I enrolled in classes that were restricted to PhD students after I petitioned the school dean, and ended up topping 2 out of the 3 courses.

In my mid-30’s now, I currently work as a scientist in a reputed firm. I’ve been granted a patent in machine learning and one of my papers has been shortlisted for publication in a top tier conference (I won’t know for sure till next month). I came across a PhD program that pretty much aligns perfectly with my grad school research and social cause and I’m extremely interested in applying for it. The application process involves the regular requirements of GRE/recommendations/statements of purpose and transcripts from ALL universities attended.

My grad advisors and I have maintained good relationships over the years and they have encouraged me on several occasions to apply to a PhD program. However, I’m worried that my academic performance at the first university I attended for my master’s will come back to bite me. While I can just apply and hope for the best, I don’t want to have to ask my professors to invest the time and effort to write recommendation letters for me, only for my application to be thrown into the trash.

On a scale of 1 to 3 stars, (3 requiring the most effort), here are the requirements for the application:

  • Personal Statement (**)
  • Transcripts from all institutions attended (*** - insanely difficult and time consuming to get bachelor degree transcripts from university)
  • 3 letters of recommendation (** - easy enough, but I feel bad about getting my professors to do this for me if there’s no change of getting it)
  • GRE (**)

The PhD program is in a field I'm very passionate about and has world class researchers on the faculty. At a recent graduate open house, I met the director of the program who said they had an 11 percent admit rate over te past few years.

All this said, would it make sense to apply to the program anyway or will the fact that I was nearly expelled due to my academic performance make the risk not worth the effort?

EDIT: I wanted to thank everyone for their thoughtful and supportive responses. I've decided to apply for the PhD but for next year's intake. As an update, the paper that was shortlisted to the conference I mentioned ended up being accepted, so that's sure to build up my profile a little more.

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    If you don't try, you'll never know. – astronat Oct 10 '17 at 19:15
  • Regarding the transcripts issue, do you have any unofficial transcripts? If so, you might want to try just including a photocopy of those and explaining the problem with getting official transcripts. Even if you don't have an unofficial transcript, if you have grade reports for the classes you've taken, maybe you can make copies of your class grade reports, staple them together, and send that in, again with an explanation of the difficulty in getting a transcript. – Dave L Renfro Oct 10 '17 at 21:51
  • You might consider explaining how your ADHD diagnosis turned your academic life around somewhere (personal statement maybe? a cover letter? I'm not sure what US application materials look like exactly) if you want to explain those early grades. But as Dan Romik said, your more recent achievements will count for much more, especially as they are more directly relevant to a PhD than coursework, which is not a good predictor for research ability at all. So you don't need to worry that much about them in the first place. – nengel Oct 11 '17 at 1:45
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You are now in your mid-thirties. You don't give a precise timeline, but based on your description I'll assume that the poor performance from the first university you attended for your master's happened about 10 years ago. In the meantime, you completed a degree elsewhere with much more distinction, and developed a career and a track record of successful achievements.

The logical conclusion is that any sensible admissions committee will look to your recent record as a much better indicator of your potential to succeed in the graduate program than your more ancient school history. The grades from your old school will very likely be seen as largely irrelevant. So, in my opinion this should not be a major concern.

And as @astronat said in a comment, you'll never know what would happen if you don't try. Good luck!

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There is a rule I have for these things: "If you don't apply, the answer is automatically 'No'"

To address some of your concerns:

Transcripts from all institutions attended (*** - insanely difficult and time consuming to get bachelor degree transcripts from university)

Talk to the programs about this requirement - often admissions are written assuming a candidate with a "standard" path through academia, but are more flexible in practice. For example, we recently did some things to help a student coming back after a long period of time because, like in your case, it would be very hard to dig that deep into history.

3 letters of recommendation (** - easy enough, but I feel bad about getting my professors to do this for me if there’s no change of getting it)

There's a chance.

That seems to actually be the core of your question - is there a chance. And I'm going to say the answer to that is yes, despite your difficulties. Now clearly, I can't speak for any particular department's program, but some thoughts:

  • Time has passed, you seem to have built a successful and relevant career, and are doing good work. That counts for quite a bit.
  • You have a reason. Having undiagnosed ADHD is a perfectly credible explanation for having struggled early in your career, and you have actually demonstrated that this was a turning point. Admissions committees understand that people are human beings.

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