I am an undergraduate student on an integrated masters degree, currently getting started on the journey of looking for potential PHD projects/supervisors. I have just written up my academic CV (by the way - this wasn't the point of this question, but one page or two? Do people care?), and I had a thought after putting the year-by-year breakdown of my grades.

My first and second year percentages are mid 60s, whilst my third year percentage is 77. This is due to the fact that during first year I experienced the onset of a relatively severe mental health issue (I hear voices in my head from people who aren't there), in second year I was undergoing treatment and trying to find what was/wasn't working, and by third year things were sorted out and I'm somehow "back on track".

I'm imagining the question "Why are your averages in first and second year so much lower than third year?" being thrown at me. This is a fair question, because third year is really quite significantly harder than the first two years, and I was also just back from a year long work placement which I undertook after second year.

How should I answer? I'm sure the answer "Personal problems" would be acceptable, but what if the question is asked "Would you mind discussing those?"? I have no problem discussing my mental health issues, and I no longer consider myself somebody who "suffers" from them, but I am aware of the possibility that in terms of PHD applications this can somehow be a red flag.

I also have no problem giving the answer "I would rather not discuss those, but they are no longer issues for me" or something along those lines.

I also thought "That is something which I would be happy to discuss with my PHD supervisor, if I get one, but is not something which is easily explicable in the time we have here." could be a reasonable answer. What would be the best way to deal with this potential scenario?

3 Answers 3


Shortly, for your CV: One or two pages is okay where I am from. But if you could put the information on one page, the question is why would you have two? If, on the other hand, there are a lot of accomplishments to be listed, of course do not omit them just to make it fit on one page.

But now to your general question, and to discuss that I would like to quote you.

I have no problem discussing my mental health issues, and I no longer consider myself somebody who "suffers" from them, but I am aware of the possibility that in terms of PHD applications this can somehow be a red flag.

Personal problems could mean anything, not just health issues. If it were me, I would maybe try to inquire how "expertly" you have figured them out, as there is a difference between "I just started to feel better." and "My mom recovered fine from her illness/ I dealt with the problem adequatly/..." Although, if you are fine discussing it in a little more detail anyway, a "red" flag might become a "yellow" flag. For example, if you tell me you had mental health issues, I will try not to judge you, but without further information, I have to face the problem that I am treading on eggshells. I would not want to trigger a trauma in you or something similar. Can I work with this insecurity? I don't know. On the other hand, if I know at least a little about the problem, it will give me a chance to watch out for you, to recognize a reoccurring problem early and be able to warn you, to not trigger said trauma, to generally be able to have an idea how to treat you right.

I don't mean that you have to throw your history at everyone, but if you are in an interview that is going well with a person that you judge to be well-meaning, it might benefit you to be honest about it.


How about "I had some medical issues", or "I was diagnosed with an illness, but things have been going much better since I got treatment for that"? Mental illness is just an illness, you don't have to specify the mental part if you don't want to.


Honestly and truly, you're overthinking things.

I don't think you will be asked about your first and second year percentages- and this is coming from direct personal experience (you don't say, but I'm assuming, like me, you're in the UK, applying for UK PhDs).

I also completed an integrated Master's course. My first year grades were worse than yours, and although my grades did improve over the years, I was still nowhere near a 77 average in my third year. My "low" achievement was also partly due to mental health problems. I never mentioned this once in any of my application materials (CV, personal statement etc) and it was never brought up in interviews.

Provided your grades show an upward trend i.e. they get better over time rather than worse (which yours do) you have nothing to worry about. This is especially true if you do well in a course that has a subject you did badly in as a prerequisite e.g. you got 54 in Calculus I but got 75 in Calculus II.

In the unlikely event that they do ask about your previous low grades, answering that it was due to personal problems or illness is perfectly acceptable. If they press you, just be honest and tell the truth (as you should when answering any interview question!). However, in my experience of PhD interviews, they are much more interested in finding out what your current skills and research interests are, not about some low grades a couple of years ago (quite a long time for a young academic!) which you have since compensated for.

At a tangent to this, I would strongly recommend that you get some research experience before applying- I expect that as part of your Master's you will be doing a final year dissertation. Be ready to talk about all aspects of this project in great detail at interview, as well as your future research interests and how they link to the project (if your Master's and PhD will be in the same field).

Good luck and try not to worry too much about PhD applications- it's a stressful time and you'll be very glad when it's over!

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