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International student; trash undergrad GPA. Will be taking an MA first, but should I even bother keeping my hopes up in terms of PhD prospects?


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My lifelong anxiety and spells of depression (I do have documentary evidence-- diagnoses and stuff-- of these conditions now) took a serious toll on my undergrad grades. Was sorta in denial and didn't get help till my third (and final; I studied in the UK) and by then it was too late, especially with covid putting me through some of the worst lows of my life. For numerous reasons (shirked academic responsibilities; large chunks of grades were penalized for late submissions) I ended up graduating with a 3.0 GPA (or a 2:2 in the UK grading system).

I'm now taking a year off to fully address these issues and generally feel like I am at the start of what seems to be an upward trajectory. Now, post-treatment, I know I can get into an MA program in Europe with these scores-- not a great one, but I know I can get in, esp. considering the other app. components required, and I really hope to get stellar grades this time round. Just to alleviate some of the stress about going on to do a PhD afterwards, I've also had a go at a few legit mock GREs, and I know I can easily get a GRE verbal between 166 and 170 (I got either a 169 or a 170 on every attempt so far). My quant score was much worse, around 155, but I honestly haven't used math in years and have plenty of time to bring that up to the mid-high 160s, too. Also, I've been told unprompted by professors that I could make a very good candidate for a PhD in future, so I feel like I have a decent chance at securing good LORs. But a 3.0 gpa, incl. two failed classes, is still an abysmally low score, and frankly, I don't think it's worth it in polsci to get a PhD outside of the T30 programs for my field, even from a plain job satisfaction pov (for me). 

As an international student who's interested in the comparative politics of an entirely different area from where I'm from (am Indian; but want to work on LatAm, while literally every Indian student I have ever seen on a dept website has been a comparativist focused on India), and on top of that a person with abysmal undergrad scores, should I even bother keeping my hopes up? Some gradcafe posts make the applicant pool sound so insanely cutthroat that I fear my app would likely just be laughed off. What if I had good internships/worked in a research/teaching capacity for a couple years before I applied? I'd also be down to get a second masters' at a much more well-known university, using good grades on the first as a stepping stone. My parents are willing to pay, so I wouldn't have to do into debt. This would also allow me to flesh out my academic background further, so I don't think it would just be a credential.

I realize all of this is very hypothetical and conditional on so many factors at this point and that I have time, but I just need to know whether I'll feasibly be able to follow my passion, or should just steel myself and learn to settle for something less than that in life.

Thanks in advance, guys!

Edited by niftydigits
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My tentative understanding is that your GPA/academic performance as a master's student can mitigate a less-than-stellar academic performance as an undergraduate. How substantial, or marginal, the mitigation -- I don't know. But, if this is any hope to you, I had a friend who had a GPA somewhere in the 2's, went to law school for a year or two, then transferred to a terminal master's program, and he ended up going to Michigan for PhD (not going to divulge his field or anything). Point being, that there is hope. Now you really want to have strong letters ready for whenever you make the decision to apply to PhD programs. Hopefully your program is 2 years, instead of one, so you'll be able to form meaningful relationships with professors who have read your work and can assess your suitability for a doctoral program. But I imagine that you'll also have a professor or two who might be able to say something about this too from your undergraduate institution.

TLDR: get into a master's, do very well, figure out what you want to study concretely, and apply to programs that you'd be a good fit at accordingly. Nobody's chances are good, and prophesies in this enterprise are meaningless. Do the things you are passionate about and the road will naturally appear before you.

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I'm only an applicant, so maybe take this with a grain of salt, but I think you'll be fine. Maybe apply to a few PhD programs as well and see what happens. People get into PhD programs with "bad" grades all the time - someone was accepted into Princeton last year with a 3.2 (it's in the results thread). Notably, they had a strong stats/CS background. I would not pursue a second masters - you might not even need one! Graduate admissions committees are well aware that other countries actively practice grade deflation as well - so you have that working for you. 

The main issue, in my opinion, is that people with low GPAs - actually, most applicants regardless of grades - cannot convince the admissions committees that they know what research is about or that they're committed to furthering current, exciting avenues of research. In other words, do not apply and say you want to study a substantive topic using a method that was hashed out and is now considered old - or worse, debunked - in the late 1990s. Read APSR, AJPS, CP, whatever - look at what is being published now and talk about how your research contributes to or furthers current research agendas. Look at the working papers of current ABDs and junior profs. If your writing sample can look sort of like this work, great, you're solid. There are obviously constraints - you won't be able to get original data, for example - but you can certainly structure your paper so that it looks like working paper, with a lit review, methods, results and so on.

You have some time, so you can do this. Make it clear you know what you're getting into. Increase the number of positive signals in your application - for example, if you're in a quant field write your CV in LaTeX.  Learn R, particularly the tidyverse. It probably won't count for much, but it won't hurt. These are weak signs, sure, but there are things you can do that will signal that you know what training in political science entails...

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I think both of the above comments are excellent.  I'm not sure I have much more to add.  As someone who is prone to mental health issues, I think you ought to know that a PhD can be a lonely and sometimes disheartening experience.  It can be hard for me to be alone all day and see my worked picked apart by professors and peers (even if the feedback is very positive and constructive).  I'm sure Covid has a part in this that hopefully won't be a factor by the time you are looking at apply.  That doesn't mean you shouldn't pursue a PhD, you certainly should, but it does mean that you try and select a department (if you have a choice) that seems well-functioning and supportive.  Also, it seems to me that most American PhD programs will give you health insurance that includes free or low-cost therapy and you should absolutely use those services if you feel like you need them.  

I'd also note that I don't think you necessarily need to do a second master's program at a prestigious school like Oxbridge or LSE or wherever if you excel at your first, even if its at a school with less name recognition.  Names matter in this industry, of course, but if you get stellar grades, recs, and research experience at your first program, I don't see any reason to apply for a second master's without giving PhD apps an earnest attempt.  Study hard for your GRE, but understand that it isn't everything.  Make a point when you're in your master's program to write at least one or two strong pieces of writing that are 20+ pages that you can polish later and use as a writing sample.  I'd echo what others have said too, fit matters.  When you are selecting what program to apply to, don't blindly follow rankings, match your fit with faculty members in the program.  Best of luck to you!  

Edited by Mr_Spock2018
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I am less optimistic than some of the other posts.

If you can get a verbal GRE of 168-170 along with a Q in the 160s then that is great. As far as understand a good enough GRE scores gets you in the door but from there you will have to demonstrate your academic potential in other ways. I'm afraid that your undergraduate record will not go away even if you go to an MA program and does well. You say you failed two classes during your undergraduate studies. For reference, an F in a phd course will almost certainly have you expelled from the program and any grade below B+ will cause raised eyebrows among the people who matter. A grade below B- will put you on academic probation and two grades of this kind will expel you from the program. My point is that it isn't possible to succeed in a phd program if you are not able to work at a high level consistently. Strong performance in an MA program may be, as you said yourself, a good way to move forward.

No one will "laugh off" your application, but with your undergraduate record you would need to find several other ways to demonstrate that you're an outstanding student. I disagree (quite strongly) with the post above; people really do not get into phd programs (such as Princeton) with bad grades all the time. Trust me when I say this. On the rarest of occasions a person with less than stellar grades is admitted to a notable phd program, but only because that person was truly outstanding in other respects. Published papers, had a long-term research relationship with a notable person who could vouch for them, etc.

If I was you I would do the following;

1. Get those high GRE scores

2. Apply to some MA program (as you suggested) and do really well. With high GRE scores I think that many MA programs will be within what is possible. At the same time I do not think it matters so much what program you actually go to as long as it is recognized. Get stellar grades while you're there and develop your interests.

3. Make a great writing sample, work on your SoP, and develop relationships with your professors.

4. Apply broadly to phd programs the year you graduate from your MA program. Clearly you should apply to where you want, but it is hard getting admission from anywhere and extremely difficult from a top program (15-20 applicants for each phd spot on average). I don't understand why you are unwilling to apply to a program outside T30. Higher ranked programs and more demanding than lower raked ones even though lower ranking programs are still demanding in an absolute sense. And of course higher ranking programs accept only the very best students. Given your background, everything you have said, and the way adcoms will likely read your application, I think it would be wise to apply in the T15-T50.

It's not my intention to be discouraging - you can do it! But there are several aspects of the application that you can improve upon now (so do that) and then I would also adjust my expectations a bit if I was you. Hope that helps.

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3 hours ago, Theory007 said:

I disagree (quite strongly) with the post above; people really do not get into phd programs (such as Princeton) with bad grades all the time. Trust me when I say this. On the rarest of occasions a person with less than stellar grades is admitted to a notable phd program, but only because that person was truly outstanding in other respects. Published papers, had a long-term research relationship with a notable person who could vouch for them, etc.

True - I should qualify what I meant by 'all the time'. I meant that there are a few applicants per year who are admitted to decent political science programs with weaker GPAs. We see this in the results thread on this forum (assuming these results are 100% true). It is likely that you will probably need to stand out in other ways though, be that by publication, a really good working paper, exceptional LORs from famous scholars, or a strong statistics or computing background. 

The point is that this is entirely doable. It is free to learn R, for example, and if you have time (which you do), you can get really good at it. This kind of stuff helps come application time as you can signal that you will be a good RA, right off the bat.

Look into Essex for a MA - they hire a lot of Americans who are still well connected in American political science.

 

Edited by timeseries
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10 hours ago, timeseries said:

True - I should qualify what I meant by 'all the time'. I meant that there are a few applicants per year who are admitted to decent political science programs with weaker GPAs. We see this in the results thread on this forum (assuming these results are 100% true). It is likely that you will probably need to stand out in other ways though, be that by publication, a really good working paper, exceptional LORs from famous scholars, or a strong statistics or computing background. 

We agree then :) 

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