Someone asked Ethnography.com founder Mark Dawson 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. This means failure to take tests seriously, go to class, and a whole range of other things that do not lead to good grades. Going to too many parties also leads to bad grades, as do late night bull sessions with with friends, staying up late etc., etc.,All 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, rather than 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.
First published at Ethnography.com in 2007