If your academic history is average -- or worse -- you might despair about getting into a Ph.D. program. They tend to be competitive and selective. However, some schools value other aspects of an applicant's portfolio. If you're trying to overcome a low GPA, you aren’t powerless. This isn’t a quick fix, but you can take steps as both an undergrad and a graduate to improve your chances of being accepted into a doctoral program. All aspects of the application process must be approached in a manner that compensates for low grades.
A master's degree can be used as a stepping-stone to a Ph.D. program, and master's programs are easier to get into. A good record at a respected school will help impress a Ph.D. admissions committee. Apply at institutions well-known in your field. To find these, talk to undergraduate faculty and look for experienced rating systems. For example, "U.S. News and World Report” publishes lists of the best graduate schools. Master's level classes are generally more difficult than undergraduate courses, so an excellent GPA will lessen the impact of an earlier poor academic record. Make connections with professors in the program so you can ask for letters of recommendation when you apply to a Ph.D. program. Many master’s degrees require students to complete a thesis at the end. If you do excellent work on this project, you can discuss it in your Ph.D. applications, and your advisor can emphasize the quality of your work in a letter of recommendation.
Results on the GRE admissions test are important to many Ph.D. programs, so make an effort do to well. You can purchase books and on-line materials as study guides, or you can sign up for preparation classes. Go into the test confident and well prepared. Take the GRE Subject Test if there’s one available for your discipline. A good score on it will further highlight your abilities. Admissions offices often indicate the GRE scores of their students, so if your results are not as high as they need to be, you can retake the test.
Since most Ph.D. programs emphasize research, get research experience before you apply. If you are currently in school, look at the website for the discipline you’re interested in. If you’ve graduated, you can still touch base with staff from your former school. Check out the faculty pages to see what research they’re doing and what articles they’ve written. Read some of the work, and meet with professors you’d like to work for. Mention their previous work and inquire about current projects, and ask if you can assist in some way. Be flexible about the number of hours and type of work because you’re trying to get your foot in the door. If you’re accepted, be punctual, hardworking and precise.
If you're still in school, double down on your efforts to get As in your remaining courses. You can’t magically erase low scores, but some schools let you replace poor grades if you retake classes. This is especially important with courses that are important to your field. If you're given this opportunity, do everything you can to ace the class. Not only will this improve your GPA, but graduate admissions offices will notice the dramatic improvement. Don’t be shy about mentioning this progress in your personal statement for the application. Let the admission committee know that you're making a real effort to change.
A top-tier Ph.D. program doesn’t have to accept a student with a poor academic record since so many students are trying to get in. However, a good program at a lower-tier school might look beyond grades and be willing to take someone who has other impressive credentials. Therefore, be realistic about where you send your application. Check out the department websites at lesser-known schools. Some of them offer advice to students interested in applying.
Living in upstate New York, Susan Sherwood is a researcher who has been writing within educational settings for more than 10 years. She has co-authored papers for Horizons Research, Inc. and the Capital Region Science Education Partnership. Sherwood has a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction from the University at Albany.