"I would like to know more about why anything less than an A- is disaster. I am a first-year MA student in English studies at a small, regional public university, and I made one B last semester(we do not have the +/- grading system). Does this mean I'm being gently told to give up?"The above came from a recent comment on an old post. And this is one of those questions that I probably really shouldn't answer, because those kind of answers tend to result in lots of my readers telling me I'm wrong, either in content, or in spirit. I hate that.
But hey, it's a legitimate question. And it's one of those things that it never hurts to know. So I'll answer it, with the caveat that it's based on my experience, and so Your Mileage May Vary: If you're in a program not in the U.S., your experience will likely be different. If you are in a program not in the humanities, your experience may be different. Hells, your experience may differ just because experiences tend to do that. I'm just telling you what I saw in my own mid-tier Ph.D. institution, and what I've heard from other people from other Ph.D. programs in my field. Here goes:
My first semester in grad school, my M.A. advisor laid it out for to me: "If you get a B in a grad school class, you should ask the professor whether you should consider dropping out of the program. If you get a C, don't bother asking."
That sounds harsh, even to my mean-professor ears. But it had the virtue of being an unambiguous and unvarnished introduction to the new reality: in grad school, anything less than demonstrable excellence was not going to cut it.
If you're aiming for a terminal M.A., a couple of B's aren't going to kill you. But a B can hurt your chances of getting into a Ph.D. program, where faculty reviewing files have enough applicants that they can say, "Okay, straight A's, fine... what else have you got?" An M.A. advisor who is sufficiently impressed by your record, talent, and initiative otherwise can help finesse one measly little B. But that B may mean that your margin for error has disappeared.
Now, that's not saying that one B in a grad program means you should get the hell out. But it might be a warning sign, or an indication that you should make an appointment with the professor or the grad advisor to determine how you can do better (and then, of course, you will implement those changes). You will not engage in complaining or grade-grubbing, because this semester is done. Practice saying it this way: "I'm concerned that this grade suggests that I'm not performing up to standard. What do I need to do to improve on this in the future?" By definition, if you got a B, you ought to be interested in improving. Because grad students are aiming for excellence.
If the above paragraph suggests a level of masochism or self-flagellation that you're not comfortable with, that's fine. And it's good you know that early on. Because believe me, this is a large part of the life of most professional academics: we're never satisfied. We're usually worried that we're not doing well enough. And the culture of grad school replicates this. If you can be satisfied with a B (which is, by most objective standards, a perfectly respectable grade), then you have a healthier ego than most academics, and you will likely lead a happier life on a day-to-day basis than those of us who are plagued by intellectual insecurities. But that happier life probably won't be in a Ph.D. program. And there's absolutely nothing wrong with that.
There you go. Let the naysaying begin...
I'm not going to naysay you on this, Notorious. I'll actually go a little further:
Getting a B in the first semester of one's MA program is something from which one can recover (as you suggest, N) but if a student's getting that B at a small, regional, public university, that B may eliminate him/her from a future at a highly ranked PhD program. Are rankings all? No, but the reality of the profession is that going to a top PhD program helps with ending up employed at the end of it. I am going to venture that in my former PhD program, for example, a "B" on a transcript from that type of MA program would have been met not with compassion but with derision, no matter how a recommender tried to smooth it over. "If this person can't make an A at No Name State, they surely will not be able to survive here."
That said, my PhD program was... well, they would respond in that sort of way. Which is exactly why a person from No Name State with a B wouldn't survive.
Now, I would say that one B doesn't mean to give up, but it does mean that the student needs to get his/her shit together really quickly. (I mean, it's nearly the end of the following semester - the time to ask this question was kind of 3 months ago, and not on the internet but rather to a mentor either from one's undergrad program (less preferable) or from one's grad program (more preferable).)
I'd suggest that there are only a handful of things that typically produce a B in grad school in English:
1) Writing that is not up to snuff.
2) Failure to engage with the current conversation in the field in one's writing. Undergrad use of sources won't cut it.
3) "Safe" ideas that are basically repackaging what professional scholars have already said. (If you're guilty of this, you're likely also guilty of 1 and 2.)
4) Failure to hold your own in seminar. If you're not talking, you're basically not present. That said, if you're talking and you say whatever comes into your head (This reminds me of when my grandma was sick, etc.) without filtering it, that's a problem, too.
5) Missing class.
Intersecting with these is, I think, an underlying issue. If this student is asking this question, I'd say that he/she doesn't yet "get" academic culture - those subtle subtextual things that are frequently the only way we as academics get information about how we're being evaluated. In some ways, I feel like that might be the biggest issue, because that acculturation is key to success in the profession.
Or, really, the B could have been a fluke. Or typical for the instructor. Or a host of other things that people on the internet can't know.
I had a longer comment but The Internet swallowed it...
Basically, I messed up my dissertation in my MA, but persevered, was happily accepted by my UG university (the MA university would have taken mt too I think) eventually got PhD funding, and it doesn't matter now I've got my PhD, and I'm really glad I didn't give up after the MA result, though I thought about it.
I guess this may be a difference between the US and the UK, but I'm really glad I didn't go somewhere where one mistake has people saying you should think about quitting.
You and I went to the same school for our grad work. I know personally some of our fellow grad students (very bright people!) who racked up the very occasional B and still got degrees and tenure-track jobs.
I'm reading job applications right now, and I can say with confidence that I would not worry at all about a transcript full of As with one B. A bunch of Bs would be worrisome. Cs would be very bad. But one B? Ah, the semester with the car accident! The semester with the wack-job professor! The semester where someone died unexpectedly the week before everything was due!
Ah, how different the humanities are! I got a MS and PhD in life sciences and was essentially told that if I got an A in a class, I was spending too much time studying and not enough in the lab... I still got A's. Still got a post doc. and just got a tenure track position. :)
To respond to M., I think the bigger "weeding out" place would be at application to PhD programs. In English, I know programs in the past couple of years have shrunk their admissions by half or more (my former program admitted just three people last year; I know of a major public that shrunk its numbers by 10 or 15) and it's not uncommon in English for people with great GREs and straight As to spend 3 application cycles just trying to get in to PhD programs. Obviously each individual's circumstances are different, but that is the state of things in English right now in lit programs, and it's not much better in rhet/comp.
If a person can make it past that gate-keeping point at the level of admission to a PhD program, I do think you're right: on the job market, people aren't scrutinizing transcripts and weeding people out just for a B or two.
In some respects, we don't know enough about the commenter who asked the question to give good individual advice here. All we know is that the person is in English. Based on that info, I think it's worth it to err on the side of being potentially too harsh. We all know of people who beat the odds, but those exceptions are just that - exceptional.
(Sorry, that ended up being really long - and here I am adding to it! I wanted to add that Dr. Crazy and Notorious are more reliable sources than I am at this point, since I'm going off my own experience 15+ years ago and they actually work with students currently in/going to MA programs. But thought I'd throw out my experience anyway.)
This was also my experience in grad school. No one ever sat me down and explained that that was the way things were, but everyone knew that is was get As or get out. In fact, I remember how shocked I was when another grad. student told me s/he had received a straight B from hir main advisor.
On the other hand, we also should keep in mind that faculty grading is not inerrant and objective. A single faculty member might give lower grades regularly "just on principle;" and of course, issues like sexism and racism can be a factor here as well. The student should try to figure out what has gone wrong and address it, of course; but it's also possible that the grade is an outlier.
When you apply for faculty positions in the humanities, is it routine to include grad school grades in the application? In the sciences, this is never done. Even when recent PhDs apply for post-doctoral positions, they are never asked for their grad school grades. The only context in which grad school grades are ever solicited is when applying for post-doctoral fellowships.
I got a MS and PhD in life sciences and was essentially told that if I got an A in a class, I was spending too much time studying and not enough in the lab.
As the newish head of a life sciences lab, I do indeed tell my students this :). Not quite - more that getting a B- is just fine, and that noone will *ever* care what grades they get in grad school. Which is essentially true; in several cases almost all grad classes have been made pass/fail anyway, which I think is a better system.
Getting students out of the classes-grades-success model is a critical step to PhD success, and the sooner it happens the better for them.
In my PhD program, a B was pretty much the kiss of death, and was understood as such.
BUT, I teach at a regional program with a small MA program, and I think there are differences of opinion here. I came in with my grad school attitude, and gave an MA student a B, basically meaning, "it's time to find something else to do." BUT, some of my colleagues don't think of that when they see a B on a grad school transcript. So they give Bs way more regularly.
I think that difference of approach may cause some of our students difficulty should they apply to PhD programs. But most of our MA students shouldn't apply to PhD programs anyway, so I guess I'm not going to get worked up about it.
I completely agree with Dr. Crazy. Getting a B in an MA at a no so prestigious place can jeopardize your chances of getting into a PhD later. My advice to the student would be to go and talk either to that professor or to his/her advisor, and ask what she is doing wrong.
My PhD is in Latin American literature, but I did my undergrad in Argentina. When I started grad school, I saw a lot of American classmates (not all of them, of course), that couldn't understand why the kind of work that gave them stellar As in their undergraduate upper classes were resulting in Bs and Cs in grad school. It's usually a subtle way of a professor trying to tell you that Grad school is not a 400 level undergraduate class.
absolutely true in my experience at MFRU.
A= awesome you are doing what you are supposed to
A- = warning, don't fuck up again
B = start packing
And yes due to high profile fraud cases, many job applications must now include a transcript, although other schools hold off on the indignity until you are hired and you send it straight to HR as "verification" of your qualifications.
Let me answer M. first (Hi! Long time, no see!), since it's someone who knows me, and the place we were:
Honestly, I didn't know that. I never knew the grades that other students got. Which just goes to show the variation that there might be even within a program. Perhaps my professors were more interested in terrifying me than professors in other fields.
But you make a good point: stuff happens in life. I have a grad student (M.A. program) who had a semester tank underneath her because of a very messy thing in her personal life, not of her making. I'm going to go to the wall for her with Ph.D. programs, because I know that she's got a great mind. But it's so competitive right now that I do have my fears about her prospects.
So, I had a grad student (creative writing emphasis) in my Shakespeare class at warm-and-fuzzy school a couple of years ago. Her written responses for the articles I had them read were always way too informal, colloquial, and not really engaging with the material at all. I kept telling her that she needed to take the writing portion of the class more seriously. And she hardly ever spoke in class, too.
I had my grad students write conference-style papers to present to the class. (There were four grad students in there that semester, out of 18 total students.) The other three grad students presented highly engaging, critical and well-researched papers. This student presented about how she wishes Hamlet were her boyfriend. (I gave a very generous B to that paper/presentation.) Then, she asked if she could write her final paper about how Elvis would have made a good Hamlet. I told her no, and said that while I understood that she was a creative writing person, this class was not a creative writing class. It was a literature class with objective more along scholarly lines of, you know, using sources, making an argument, and using critical analysis to understand Shakespeare better. She turned in a final paper on Hamlet that started out, "I didn't really understand Hamlet until I read the Cliff Notes version." WTF? It rambled on from there for 12 pages. There was no analysis. No argument. No sources. Just diddling about Hamlet. (He's the greatest -- did you know that??) The paper was supposed to be an argument-driven, 15-20 page paper. You know, like you do in grad school? I gave her a D on it. But the lowest grade I could give her for the class was a B-. (The graduate student grades on the computer grading system go no lower than that.) I happily gave her a B- for the final grade.
Of course, she protested and contacted every single person imaginable -- chair, dean, etc. Fortunately, all the chair, dean, etc. had to do was read her final paper, and they were immediately on my side. She whined, "But this means I will have SO much trouble getting into a PhD program." My mental response was, "You should NEVER be admitted to a PhD program. Go fly a kite, for god's sake..."
This was the only grad student I ever had in Shakespeare who was a complete nitwit. Everyone else was wonderful, insightful, and smart. This student should never have even been admitted for an MA. I never saw her creative writing, but if her weird attempts in my class spoke to its quality, I have no doubt that she would have to figure out something ELSE to do with her life. Quickly.
Cheers, Ewan. I stopped checking final grades altogether after the second semester in my (not English) PhD program as it became clear that there were other, much more important markers of growth and success. I had enough substantive interaction with my professors and advisor, and was reflective enough, to know where I stood and what I needed to work on. There's something disconcerting about adult grad students who haven't made that transition (and something screwy about programs that aren't structured or run in a way that makes this possible).
Just to throw a little more confusion into the discussion, the options in my grad program were H(igh Pass), P(ass), L(ow Pass), and F. (Many professors also gave grades like H- and P+, off the record, but +/- grades didn't appear on the official transcript.)
I think some professors worked on the "I don't assign anything less than an H except as a clear warning signal" system, but others treated P as the default and H as the exception. In any case, most of us had some Ps on our transcripts, and I know of no one who got into trouble for having too many. (L, on the other hand, was a definite warning signal and pretty rare, although my roommate certainly managed to graduate and get a tenure-track job with at least one.)
I've often wondered whether search committees could make head or tail of our transcripts. I'm not sure I can make head or tail of my transcript, come to think of it.
Ewan & k:
I wonder if the difference here (the difference between undergrad and grad) is what grades *mean.* Let me propose a thesis, to see what y'all think:
For undergrads, the grade is your goal. It's the thing you're working to earn. It's the prize (or not) for all your hard work.
For graduate students, the grade is just a way of communicating to you, in a language you are already trained to recognize, how you are doing in a journey that is much longer than one class or one semester. And lower grades may be a suggestion that you are headed in the wrong direction in that journey, and need to make a course correction.
I think that's what I wanted to say in the original post, but I was too damn tired when I wrote it.
And just to be clear: I agree that a transcript is probably more important in the MA-to-PhD transition than in the PhD-to-job transition. Very few job applications (though more than there used to be) ask for a transcript; they just want proof of degree completion.
Blogger ate New Kid's original comment, and when I tried to repost, it got eaten again, so I think it was too long. So I'll post it for my readers in two installments:
This probably qualifies as ancient history by now, but: I got a B in the first year of my grad program (in a research course with my advisor, no less). I'm quite sure I deserved it, because I had no real idea how to do research based almost entirely in primary sources (I wrote a very good undergrad honors thesis, but it was actually more historiographical than anything else. In the opposite of a lot of undergrads, I think, I totally got historiography and scholarly conversation, but didn't really know how to generate primary research of my own).
I'll also point out that like the OP, my B was from a school that didn't give +/-s, so you got a straight A or you got a straight B. Within the program, I think there was a sense whether a B was more of a B+ rather than a B-. (And the straight As covered a multitude of A- sins.) And like someone else has suggested, one B wasn't a problem as along as the rest of your grades were As.
However, while I did an MA before my PhD, this was also in a program where everyone who wanted to went on from the MA to the PhD, so I never faced the need to explain the B to any outside folk (by the time I finished the program, really, no one cared a jot about one B 9 years earlier). So I can't say the B doesn't have any impact in going on to a PhD, should the OP want to do that. (Though I also know someone who got a few Bs in her first years - she ultimately switched fields, got a t-t job, got a second t-t job, and has published a very good book.)
Part two follows...
Here's part two of New Kid's original comment:
I'll also throw one thing out there, though - there are those wacky faculty out there who pull weird stunts over grades. There was one prof in my program notorious for giving grad students Cs or even Ds - and while they may not have been the most brilliant grad students ever to grace the university, they did fine in their other courses; the dept seemed to recognize that the problem was the prof. Most grad students stayed far, far away from this prof and his classes, except some poor souls who were genuinely interested in the topic and didn't think it could be so bad.
So I would definitely encourage the OP to find out the reasons for getting the B. It might be some weird fluke of some prof who feels zie needs to be "rigorous" and disagrees with the expectation that grad students should get As. Or (and this is probably more likely) it may be an honest criticism of the student's progress. However, I also don't think getting a B in one class in necessarily being told to give up - it may be a recognition of a legitimate weakness, or a moment of weakness, in an otherwise strong student. (Was there something different about this course from other courses? Different methodology? Different kind of final project? Were there personal circumstances affecting the person's performance in this particular class?) And I do think that someone applying to PhD programs can recover from one moment of weakness, IF they succeed in the rest of their courses, produce some really good work they can use to show their abilities, and they can get letters of recommendation that can explain/address the person's true abilities.
But yeah, the OP should go find out what was up with the B, especially if they have no idea what made that class different from the others. If they want to go on to a PhD program, anyway. And if they do, I think *two* Bs is much harder to overcome than one.
I failed statistics the first time I took it in college.
My experience tallies with that most often noted here: a B is a sign, but what it's a sign of varies. For grad students, I would interpret my grades as: A= you're on the right path; A- or B+ = you've made the right turn, but haven't quite figured out how to ride the bicycle and B= I'm not sure you know the way to do this stuff.
Sorry about the length! Thanks for reposting, NPhD!
I got a single B+ in grad school, when I'd rapidly gotten married and separated within 2 months. To say I was in bad shape would be an understatement. I was absolutely terrified what my advisor would say. I still remember sitting in his office, watching him take off his glasses, peer at me, and say: It's ok, you don't have to prove yourself to me any more... in hindsight, that B+ paper was darn good, all things considered... and I did get a job. But I also would have dropped out, had he told me to. I didn't care at the time. What I want to say is, shit happens, but life, and grad school goes on, and sometimes it takes an advisor to put things into perspective.
I got a B (in the intro to history class), a B+ in another class, and over the course of 10 graduate seminars, only one A. The rest were A-minuses. So, not great.
Was it a sign? Yeah. It was a sign that I didn't know what I was doing, but it was also a sign that I'd been abandoned by the faculty. I was taking courses in subjects I knew absolutely nothing about, because my advisor was on leave, there weren't any relevant courses, and nobody bothered to see what could be done to help a student who clearly didn't understand the seriousness of not having courses in her field. (My own advisor said nothing about the courses I chose to take, nor did we ever have a conversation about my grades. And yes, the sole A I got wasn't given to me by her.)
So in theory, yes Bs are bad. But I'd say that sometimes they're signs of the program gone wrong, rather than a hopeless student. Years later, and I'm months away from finishing the diss, and I guess we'll see in the fall how hireable I am (the answer this year was largely no). Now part of the reason I'm still here is b/c my program isn't interested in weeding out students (for the most part) but really I'm here b/c I refused to quit and I was determined to make it work, even though I had no business succeeding--and I can almost guarantee that most people in my shoes, with my personal life, and with the pretty large-scale professorial abdication of any training obligations, would have quit.
So to some degree, not discounting the issue of getting into a PhD program with a B in a masters' program, what you do with a B is up to you.
Oh, absolutely. And I did forget to say, "None of this applies if the professor in question is nuts or the program you're in is totally dysfunctional." You'll need independent corroboration for those, of course.
And, of course, either of those might also be valid reasons to get the hell out.
I'll chime in with the other sciences people here: in my first year of grad school, my adviser told me that she wanted to see me get at least one A (to show I could do it) and also at least one B (to show I could do that, too). She said that if I got straight As then I was not spending enough time on my research. I don't know if it's different in masters programs though.
Yes to this. It's interesting because my school constantly emphasizes that "once you're out of school, no one will care about your grades". Of course not. All they'll care about at that point is if you've got 3+ published articles by the time you're defending your dissertation. But it's a factor in funding and it's a factor in other areas of the department.
But it isn't always (as Dr Crazy noted) just because you're not up to par. Sometimes, definitely. But occasionally, you can pick out patterns among teachers that has nothing, necessarily, to do with performance. I know of someone who took a class where all the first years got B's, and all the second years got A's. I've been told by some profs that they *have* to give half the class A's and the other half B's...even if perhaps more than half do A-level work. (Likewise, I've seen curves the size of the planet's rotation just to give half the class A's.)
What frustrated me was how little my family understood. My first B in grad school was devastating and my mother just did not understand. I was so sure it was the end of my grad school career and explaining to her how a B is (practically) seen as a F in grad school and she just kept repeating, "they can't treat it like that! A B is nothing to be ashamed of and if it hurts you in the department, you bring that up to the Dean". I guess you just don't understand until you've been in academia!
Late to the party here so I don't know if anyone will read this . . .
I teach at a major PhD granting institution. It is explicit departmental policy that anything below a GPA of 3.5 is not considered satisfactory and could result in loss of funding. (Not "will automatically result"--everything is looked at on a case by case basis.
When I give a "B" it doesn't mean "you should leave the program," but it means "if this is the best you can do you should leave the program." It may be true that future employers don't care about the transcript, and some students who did fairly pedestrian coursework write excellent dissertations, but in general, anyone who can't consistently do "A" work in classes is not likely to produce an excellent, job-getting dissertation.
This, I think, is how it's different from the sciences--in my classes most of the course grade depends on the research & writing, it's practice for the dissertation research rather than taking time away from it.
Interesting, Ruth. Yes, departments can set their own floors for grading, so long as they're explicit with their students. We don't have funding here, but we do have something similar, a GPA that constitutes "satisfactory progress" in the program.
And yes: our Grad Director lays this all out in the orientation meeting.
You humanities people are nuts. In physics grad school, you get anywhere between a B- and and A. Doesn't matter at all! As long as you passed, that's good enough. If you fail, you take it again. Now finishing the research project is another matter.
I'm in my first semester of grad school (MA program) in Anthropology, and I plan to continue to a PhD. I got my first midterm paper back today, and I got a B+. I've heard everything can be said about Bs for a class grade in grad school, but what about for a paper grade, especially in your first semester? Please help! Thanks!
Well I am 50 in a Phd program and am happy with a B even a B-. I work a full time jobs, two part time jobs and take full time classes ( 3) So now you are saying that I should just give up and quit. That because there are times that it becomes impossible due to life issues to get 100% on everything. At 50 I have learned that you never give up but keep pushing forward.
Anonymous, don't read more into it than I intended. A B is a respectable grade under any circumstances. And it all depends on the discipline and your professional goals. Getting a graduate degree for enrichment is an excellent thing to do, and doing so while working full time means that something's got to give. And it may be that standards are different in your program.
My best advice is not "give up." Nor is it "be complacent." It's "talk with your adviser." Ask for a frank assessment of how you're doing, and advice for making the most of your time in grad school.
I'm in a dilemma about B's in grad school. I received a B in my supervisor's course, and she was already my supervisor before I enrolled in the course. Now, I'm about to start thesis with her and I'm unsure if I should stick with her as an advisor. I'm afraid that even though I can push to improve and show her that I can do better, that the B may still look bad on me in the long run. She might not write me a strong recommendation letter and then I won't get into any PhD program.
She's the only advisor I want to work with as the other person working in my field is on a leave for a while. Can anyone shed some light on the matter? I
She's "the only person [you] want to work with." She agreed to chair your thesis. Prove to her you can do better than that B.
If you're obsessing over the B, do as Notorious suggests and ask her about it, and what you need to work on, moving forward.
10 years ago I got a B and a B+ as an MA student. Now I'm a doctoral candidate with straight A's. But it doesn't matter. Publishing matters more, and the actual degree matters way more than a few grades.
The discussions that grad students have are always replete with superficiality. If getting a B in a course is such a concern, then maybe staying in the superficial world of grad school is where one should be - insulated from the real world. Success in life does not hinge on getting straight A's. Come on people, get real. If getting a B is cause for such worry, then how will you deal with the endless disappointments that one will invariably be faced with all throughout life. Most of the websites are right: avoid grad school at all costs. Grad school is not synonymous with success in life. Some careers require grad degrees, but for 99% of good careers a grad degree is simply not needed. Too many people want a grad degree for the wrong reasons i.e., an ego stroke. If one needs a grad degree to feel good, then one will never feel good about, no matter how many advanced degrees are hanging on the wall.
I totally agree with the above post.
I have personally met many stupid people with Master's and PhD degrees - I kid you not.
Some think that they can coast easily through life on the coattails of their grad degree/s - they have this grandiose sense of entitlement. They erroneously believe that the possession of a grad degree makes them geniuses. Book smarts and life smarts are two completely different things. It is so sad that PhD students are basically used as slave labour by professor/supervisors who are sitting high on their horses using the free labour. 10 years of grad school equates to 10 years of lost income. And many spend the best years of their lives in grad school. When it comes to education, get the most you can, for the least you can for the career of your choice. And then get out, and get on with life. Progress in life comes from becoming a master in your chosen career, from hands on practical experience, not from a master's degree. In other words, if you want to become a writer, then write. Books don't make you an expert, but actually doing something does. Granted, certain professions like medicine and law require the proper training and credentials. But for 99% of the careers out there - no.
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