Can Bad Grades and Graduate School Go Together?

Someone asked Mark whether getting “bad grades” means for becoming an anthropologist. Every graduate anthropology program is different, of course, and there are no blanket statements possible. But, good grades are always a fantastic idea if you are trying to get into graduate school, in anthropology or any other subject. After all, the professors evaluating your applications mostly had good grades. And since the graduate school admissions process is in large part considered to be about identifying who will be a professor in the future (even if your goal is to be a practitioner), the admissions committee is typically looking for someone who will end up being something like them. Nevertheless, I urge people with not-so-good grades to apply, if that is their dream. Persistence, some life experience, cross-cultural experience, publications etc., can all substitute for the lower grades you may have gotten, and can no longer change. My own experience in the late 1980s is perhaps instructive.

I had a 2.7 gpa in my B.S. undergraduate program at UC Davis in International Agricultural Development in the 1970s. This got me into a M.S. program in Biology at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo where I graduated with a 3.4 g.p.a. Better but I was still not a future Malinowski. But the Peace Corps didn’t care, and neither did my next two employers in Thailand and Tanzania. So I had a great time working in both countries, learning the Thai and Swahili languages, and even doing some academic and professional writing about refugees. But I found I found among the people I respected the most were not only natural scientists (like me), but the two or three anthropologists I met up-country. The anthropologists had the best take on the culture and societies we lived in, and somehow were the best able to assess the frustrations and delights I took in living abroad. Anyway, after six years working in Thailand and Tanzania, I decided to apply for the anthropology program at UC Davis in the general belief that my publications, language skills (Thai and Swahili), and interest in refugees would make up for the less-than-stellar g.p.a. Wrong. I was rejected twice.

Instead, in 1988, I enrolled at California State University, Sacramento, where I took a number of Anthropology and International Affairs courses in a still not completed MA program. Some good grades from Sacramento State, and lots of personal lobbying at UC Davis finally got me admitted to the MA program in Sociology, which in turn led to the Ph.D. in Sociology. And today my professional affiliation is with sociology, not my first choice, anthropology. I am happy as a sociologist, but still admire the anthropologists I continue to come in contact with.

So grades always matter. Now that I have been a professor for ten years, and have given thousands of grades, I know what bad grades measure, more or less. Bad grades are often a measure of a lack of discipline. Failure to take tests seriously, go to class, and a whole range of other things that do not lead to good grades. So are going to too many parties, late night bull sessions with with friends, staying up late etc., etc., are the most common explanation for a less than stellar g.p.a. Do not do these things. However, if it is all a done deal like it was for me, and you still have a passion for academics, do be polite and persistent in your applications to graduate school. Do not take the first no for as the definitive answer, and get a thick skin. Take extra classes to help redefine yourself. And when someone grumbles that you have a “rather peculiar g.p.a.” realize first that they have the power in this situation, and you may need to bite your tongue. And second, find someone who will be more sympathetic. More importantly perhaps, recognize that the comment is as much a reflection of their short-sightedness and lack of “real life” experience during their undergraduate career, and after, than it is about where you are in the application process.

For what it is worth, here is a link to an article I wrote five years ago about students who, like me, get too many C grades, and even a D or two, as an undergraduate. It is called “The Trouble with Valedictorians,” and still reflects my view about people who have never received the insult of a D+ grade.

16 thoughts on “Can Bad Grades and Graduate School Go Together?

  1. This is a great post to read in the midst of studying for midterms (which is what I’ve been doing all weekend long)! I can relate to quite a few of the lessons learned by the humbilitorian, although I’ve managed to keep a pretty high GPA. However, I’ve seen that what you mentioned in the beginning is true. Grades are important for getting admitted to graduate school. I’ve seen some of my friends graduate with not-so-good GPA’s and get denied from the graduate programs they’ve applied to. Now some of them are stuck in limbo on what to do next. On the other hand, I have some friends that have had graduate school in minds their whole college careers and have purposely fought to keep their GPA up for this reason. I wonder if the difference is *when* a person decides they want to go to graduate school?

  2. Hi Tony — new reader (I met Mark D at EPIC and he pointed me to this blog).

    Heh…I very much agree with your essay, including “The Trouble with Valedictorians.” Lived thru it myself. I was a kid with a natural talent for traditional academics. My younger sister, while a solid student (and frankly more disciplined and diligent than I ever was) always struggled harder for her grades.

    But as a result — my sister learned a type of psychological independence early on. She figured out early not to tie her self-esteem or definition of personal success to a specific grade or to the approval of a teacher/authority figure. Meanwhile my academically-talented peer group and I ended up struggling with this issue later in our lives.

  3. Hi Tony,

    I just finished applying to anthropology PhD programs, and I’m currently biting my nails waiting for responses. I loved your article, “The Trouble with Valedictorians,” as it made me feel proud of my accomplishments–even though I don’t have perfect grades.
    All through school I worked at various jobs, participated in clubs and activities, took many academic risks, and experienced life in a way that I’m not sure some of my higher scoring schoolmates did. Those GPA affecting life experiences shaped me into who I am, and I can not regret them.

  4. I have been looking more carefully at what is required for grad school. I thought great grades and GRE’s were enough. They aren’t at the most selective schools and which one’s aren’t in Anthro anyway. I did field schools. The most prestigous ones I could find. I go to conferences and talk to people with whom I think I might want to work. I have a thesis/doctoral topic which is exciting to me. I feel like I am doing now what I will always be doing so admission to a great grad school doesn’t matter as much as it did when I graduated.

  5. 14 years post humbilitorian, and I’m gaining the courage to apply against all odds as a graduate student. I really appreciate your insight and the human element of grades in life.

  6. Grades are really only a snapshot of what you do at one point, one place, and with one person in life. Thankfully, there is much more to life that that!


  7. I entered a Top graduate PhD program in Biology last fall with an overall GPA of 3.56. At the end of my first year I am struggling with a less than stellar gpa of 2.79. I keep asking myself what the hell is going on!? NEVER in my academic career have I sustained a gpa less that 3.30 and now b/c of this I am going through bouts of depression. I know there is more to life than this and I do admit it has made me more humble. Nonetheless, it’s a hard blow to my self-esteem and it is making me question if I want to constinue down the PhD path in Science.

  8. Janice,
    You might check out where the gpas for your classes may be posted. My guess is that they are keeping the “curve” arbitrarily low in the sad belief that insulting students with grades stimulates some kind of excellence. The sciences do this more than other fields.

    As for advice, all I hope is that when you teach in the future that you will not entertain the dubious idea that “they did it to me and I’m good, so I’d better do it to my own students!”

    Good luck, and take solace in the fact that only small minds delight in grading grad students harder than undergrads!

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