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Ph.D Physics (UK) with a potentially bad reference

  1. Aug 22, 2014 #1
    Hey guys, I finished my MSci degree (Physics with Theoretical Physics from the University of Nottingham) back in June achieving an average of 67% over the entire 4 years. My grades in 2nd year were extremely high (78%) and my grades dipped in 3rd and 4th year (though I did get some nice grades like a 95% in the 3rd year Quantum Dynamics module). My grades dipped due to a severe lack in motivation which I attribute to a loss of friends during this time. I basically had no one to hang around with as they all graduated before me and I made no attempt to immerse myself in other social groups. I feel like I fell into a depression, nothing too severe, but enough for me to just want my degree to be over with.

    This feeling spilled over to my work and I felt like I was done with pursuing a Ph.D. I just wanted to get away from the people I lived with (I didn't get on with them) and just get a job. These feelings have changed though and I'm now considering my Ph.D options for a 2015 start. As I mentioned before I achieved an average of 67%: 78% 2nd year, 64/65% ish in the 3rd and 4th years. I believe that I stand a chance with most non top-tier universities however I think that my 4th year project supervisor is going to slate me in any kind of reference she gives.

    The truth is, my supervisor and I didn't get on well. This came about due to me missing a couple of meetings (I emailed ahead and said I wasn't going to make them 1-2 hours before, but apparently this wasn't giving an adequate amount of time). Aside from her constantly putting me down, making my work out to be sub-par and generally giving up on how well me and my partner did we managed to make the most out of our project scoring 68% in the process. For a while I was worried if I'd even score 50% in my final project and I began to feel like I was letting my partner down... these feelings made everything worse for me and I was losing sleep towards the end. My partner and I were actually my supervisors first set of undergraduates to be under her supervision which my personal tutor at the time said that her expectations of us might be a bit askew... however I feel like she isn't in the wrong to be disappointed in me for missing those meetings.

    All in all I feel like I actually put in a lot of effort and did try my best at the time but I feel like these little issues will be the highlight of any kind of reference from my supervisor... even though I did well in my 4th year project. So what can I do in such a situation? Should I speak to her and try and explain myself? Can I just not use her as a reference for my own personal reasons and instead use my 3rd year project supervisor, my tutor etc?

    TL;DR: Im interested in a Ph.D starting in 2015. I scored a high 2:1 though I believe I could've achieved a first but due to personal issues and turning from a social person to a depressed recluse I lossed motivation and interest (in literally everything). In turn I struggled to attend meetings with my supervisor, missing a few (though I did email ahead) and angering my supervisor in the process. In turn she gave up on me and probably believed I didn't care AT ALL about doing well. What can I do about references from this person?
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 22, 2014 #2


    Staff: Mentor

    I'd speak with her about the issue. It sounds to me like a maturity issue of not thinking about the consequences of not getting along with her. You will run into this from time to time at work and there will be little you can do about it. So the best advice is not to walk down that street.

    As far as references go, I'd get one from your third year supervisor because even if she wrote a letter there's a good chance she will not recommend you on professional grounds. Remember there is some responsibility for writers to be honest in their recommendations and describe what they believe is truthful. In your case, it could be very damaging and without seeing what she wrote, it'd be real tough to explain it away in your own application letter and you'll probably get rejected before that.

    Your grades are another matter, I'd suggest taking some related courses at least one to two semesters worth to show that you have what it takes to do the work and then apply to the PhD program. In addition, you may have to explain the reason for the grades and perhaps the best way is maturity and depression at the changing environment and the stress of studying and thats why you may want to show them you can do it. Programming courses might be the thing to take.

    These are my two cents worth from reading what you wrote.

    Lastly, this my help when you talk with your supervisor:


    Dale Carnegie was real popular during my Dad's time and he always referred me to his book:

    How to Win Friends and Influence People

    when I had to deal with difficult people. Some of the books ideas are summarized in the link reference.
    Last edited: Aug 22, 2014
  4. Aug 22, 2014 #3

    George Jones

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    Gold Member

    Are you familiar with marks in the UK system?

    Code (Text):

    UK Class        UK Percentage   US Grade   US GPA
    First               70-100         A        4.0
    Upper second        60-69         B+/B    3.0-3.33
    Lower second        54-59         B/B-    2.67-3.0
    Third               42-53          C        2.0
    Pass                38-41          D        1.0
    A 2:1 is Upper Second, so Thomas1991 scored on the high end of the second rwo.
  5. Aug 23, 2014 #4


    Staff: Mentor

    My apologies, no, I didn't realize they were so different. Here grades like 65 are considered D or F whereas 70 is a C.

    Okay so his grades aren't so bad, thats good.

    The only remaining problem is the supervisor whom we hope doesn't read PF.
    Last edited: Aug 23, 2014
  6. Aug 23, 2014 #5
    That is strange, I always think US grade of A or A+ is equivalent to 80-100%. But this I think still becomes unfair for any excellent students who can do 90-100% all of the tests throughout the years.
  7. Aug 23, 2014 #6
    I wouldn't read Carnegie, I don't think he translates well into British culture. In fact, ignore most of waht jedishrfu is saying. As George Jones points out, your grade is excellent and you don't need to worry about redoing any courses, just get on and apply for PhDs. Also don't worry about "maturity issues", you seem mature enough to me.

    If your supervisor reads PF, then you'll be giving her good feedback :). At worst, she might complain to your personal supervisor and head of department, and word might go around the staff room about you. But don't panic! The result will be mostly positive. The reaction from most other members of staff will be "Good on you!" for calling out someone for being nasty. As she's a new member of staff her nastiness might not be a permanent feature, and your post might lead to her reforming her character, and hundreds of students will benefit!

    Your idea to get references from other people seems to be a good one. Some people here seem to be implying the bad relations with your supervisor are somehow your fault. But it seems, to me, that it isn't your fault at all. It looks like your tutor just isn't a nice person, best avoided, and definitely not to be used for a reference. "Constantly putting someone down" is inexcusable. My personal tutor wasn't a nice person, "putting someone down" seemed to be his main "motivational" technique. I avoided him completely in my final year, and obtained references from other people. That 95% in Quantum Dynamics looks extremely good, can you get the lecturer to give you a reference?
    Last edited: Aug 23, 2014
  8. Aug 23, 2014 #7
    Thanks for the responses so far fellow Physics enthusiasts!

    As jedishrfu pointed out my attitude at the time might've been down to maturity issues but I don't think that's strictly the case. My third year project went well for me and I had no trouble in any other aspect at University until my fourth year. It does sound like a cop out to just say that depression was the reason for my failure to apply myself at that time but for me University wasn't just a 4 year course. I was actually in my 5th year at the time due to completing a foundation science year due to a lack of Physics A level (I never studied it, my interest in Physics purely came around from self interest during my time at A levels). This is why all my friends graduated away during my final year (think about those that graduate on 3 year courses and those on 4 year courses and by the end, my 5th and final year at Uni, I'm stuck with people who already have concreted their social groups over the course of 3 years at Uni... I just felt like I didn't fit in with them and so I didn't even try). Of course... 6 months into my 4th (total 5th year at Uni) year in a reclusive mindset I really had trouble going in to Uni to meet with someone I really didn't get on all that well with. I just wanted to sit at home at study on my own terms most of the time and for the most part I was self teaching myself a lot of material I could've gotten help with.

    As for the suggestion of taking programming courses I studied the theoretical "Scientific Computing" module offered by the University and scored a 69% in it which was also a really strong grade (comparative to my class). My fourth year project was entirely centred around simulating quantum systems as well so I feel extremely capable at programming in Matlab.

    I believe I could contact my third year Quantum Dynamics lecturer as I also worked with him in 4th year for a smaller project. I also tried to do a summer placement with him but someone with a higher grade took that spot instead so he is at least aware who I am more than just some random student.

    Finally as for my supervisor reading the PF... well, I don't think I'm doing anything wrong here about seeking advice. I didn't name my supervisor nor did I say anything abusive about the aforementioned person. I only explained my feelings at the time and discussed my worry of a potentially bad reference. I believe I can seek other references for my studies that would look good but as there is a lot of emphasis on the 4th year project in the MSci course in the UK I was wondering if it was compulsory to use my 4th year supervisor as a referee. If, as it seems, I can choose my referees, then there are plenty of options open to me. My personal tutor was always supportive of me throughout my time at Uni and was extremely disappointed to hear that I wasn't applying for a Ph.D so I think he would really sell me as the person I know I can be and the person I was for 90% of my time at University.

    Thanks again for all of the responses.
  9. Aug 23, 2014 #8


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    Homework Helper

    You can't rewrite history. If you annoyed your supervisor by only giving an hour's notice of not turning up for a meetings, without some good "emergency" reason (and doing it more than once), I'm not surprised she got annoyed. If somebody working for me in industry repeatedly did the same thing, I would get annoyed as well (except in industry I would probably phone their immediate boss and ask him/her what was going on, if I was supposed to be mentoring the guy).

    As for grades, comparing with the US is irrelevant unless you want to do research in the US. (But the majority of PF members are from the US, and keep that in mind when reading their comments). The bottom line is, everybody with a first is ahead of you in the PhD queue. That doesn't mean you can't find somewhere to do research, but it won't improve your chances of doing it at a top-ranked university.
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