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students celebrating good grades

094: Do Grades Matter in Grad School?

We got an email from a first-year student who seems to love everything about grad school… except the tests.  He’s wondering: Do grades matter?

Dear Josh and Daniel,

I am a first year chemical engineering PhD student and am currently working through a class-filled semester. For two of my classes, my midterm grades were much less than desirable for me. Now, I’m not the quickest when it comes to math, so a lower score in classes like transport compared to other students has been the norm, but these scores are even lower than what I usually expect.

Nerves have been a typical part of my exam state of mind, but past experience has shown I can usually overcome them. I feel like I understand the concepts, and my homework and quiz grades for the class would seem to indicate that. However, the tests have gotten the best of me both times.

I have to maintain a certain GPA and while I don’t know what the final grades will be yet, I feel like I should be doing better.

I guess my real question is, are class grades indicative of whether or not a PhD is right for me?

I have a master’s and have done research for more than 3 years, so I feel that the actual research portion of the program will not be the issue. And every time I get to talk research with my lab group and new advisor, I love it. For now, it just seems like my grades aren’t indicating that I’m a good enough student for the program, and I really don’t want that to be the case. I plan on talking to my advisor about it all soon as well as older grad students.

Thanks for listening and thanks for your show,



We unpack Zachary’s email and recognize that he seems to love everything that matters about a career in science – understanding the concepts, a passion for the research question, and an ability to collaborate with peers. Ultimately, we think Zachary is in the right place, and that test grades probably don’t predict whether he’ll be successful in science.

That said, his issue seems to surround the tests themselves, and the nervous feelings he has to manage during exam time.  To improve his scores, he can speak with the professor about setting up an alternative testing strategy.  That sometimes means receiving more time, or being allowed to finish the exam in a less distracting location.

His professors are probably more concerned about ensuring Zachary learns the content than they are about the room in which he takes the exam.

A Drink A Day

Science in the News is just a bit late this week.  We’re discussing a very expensive, 10-year study into the health benefits of light-to-moderate drinking funded by the NIH.

As interesting as that sounds, the plot thickened when the New York Times reported that the money to fund this alcohol study was provided by some of the largest players in the alcohol industry! That raised questions of scientific bias, and resulted in the director of the NIH halting the study in March 2018 pending review. 

It’s a story about the sometimes tangled interests of scientists, corporations, and society at large.

And just because it’s relevant, we also sample a novel and somewhat unorthodox brew.  It’s the Wisconsin Brewing Company RE: FRESH Radler – a surprising mix of grapefruit soda and beer that tastes WAY better than it sounds. It’s doubly exciting because it was created in partnership with the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Department of Food Science.

And don’t worry, we won’t make you look up the definition of “Radler!”

One thought to “094: Do Grades Matter in Grad School?”

  1. Just supported this PodCast and gave my pledge.

    Hello there! William Soo here from Singapore, I am a full time HR practitioner and doing my doctoral part-time (Doctor of Business Administration).

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