"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...