View Full Version : Would bad grades in good econ PhD courses hurt chances in applying to PhD pub policy

10-31-2010, 06:03 AM
Hi guys,

I posted a thread before, but unforunately noone answered. :(

I want to get into top PhD programs in public policy. Harvard KSG is my dream school. After looking at some of their works, I love their approaches which seem to be very empirical based and not overly mathematical (... but please tell me if I'm wrong!)

I have tried to rethink about what I really want to ask. And, I found that there is one thing that is really bothering me as I plan to apply for those programs.

I choose to post my question in this forum because there exists no forum, which directly tackle queries on public policy courses, and I think approaches pursued by public policy school is quite similar those of economic department.

So this is the thing that is really bothering me.

Basically, I am forunate enough to obtain MSc Economics (with distinction) from the LSE, even though my undergraduate college does not provide a lot of mathematical training. During my time at the LSE, I follow pretty much my intuition (rather than mathematics) when I tackle problem sets. My result was pretty good. 70+% in all courses. (.. and as some may know, you need only 70%+ in 2 out of 4 courses to graduate with a distinction)

At that time, I think I want to do PhD in economics at the LSE. However, unfortunately, my performance in phd core courses deem unsatisfactory to proceed. I know there is no excuse, but I had to carry myself back home (10 hr from the UK) to go through an operation a few weeks before the examination.

So I go back home to find job. Fortunate enough, I get to work as an analyst in a team led back an eminent economist back in my home country (a decade of experience in world bank research department, also used to work alongside with some of the ex-world bank economists in Harvard KSG). While we serve pretty much business community and investors, we also communicate with policy makers.

It has been 2-3 years since I joined the team and my fond for fact-based research has grown ever since. In my opinion, "good striking facts" are more important than fancy mathematics when it comes to analyzing the reality. If these facts are striking enough, logically inferred conclusion can be pretty much inevitable.

However, there is one thing I dislike about my job and that is there is no intellectual autonomy. I cannot say everything I would like to say. After all, we need to take care of the interests of our clients.

That's what urged me to apply for PhD in public policy. After the program I would like to work in the academia as I would be free to follow my intellectual curiosity.

My question is that.. would bad grades in good econ PhD courses hurt my chances in applying to top PhD programs in public policy?

Thank you very much for all of the kind responses.

10-31-2010, 04:12 PM
Well, the short answer is that yes, on the margin, grades low enough that you were asked to leave the PhD program at LSE will hurt your chance of being admitted to top public policy programs. Places like the Kennedy School, the Woodrow Wilson School, or the Harris School won't simply ignore those bad grades. But what matters is how much weight they place on them, and what they assume those grades predict about your future performance.

Part of that will depend on what you intend to study as a public policy PhD student. If you want to do political economy or economics and policy, those grades will probably carry more weight than if, say, you wanted to do international relations and policy. Also, what your references say about your potential as a PhD student and how they think your performance in LSE's core classes reflects on your potential will matter. Will you have a reference from a professor at LSE? If someone there says that he/she believes you have strong potential and that your exam scores were not indicative of your true ability, that would probably help considerably. (My instinct is that a letter from the instructor of a class whose exam you failed would be especially useful, if that person is willing to write that your performance on the exam was an aberration due to your illness.) Finally, what you've done since your experience at LSE will matter. Is there anything you've done in the last few years that will show admissions committees that you are better-positioned to handle first year classes now then you were at LSE?

Since you already have the bad grades in economics PhD classes and can't change them, you should focus on what you can do to make your application as strong as possible. In your case, I think this includes selecting your LOR writers carefully to make sure that you have support for your ability in the classroom despite your exam performances; writing a well-reasoned statement of purpose that explains your situation without sounding like you are whining or making excuses and makes a good case for why you are prepared to succeed in a policy school program; and possibly considering taking an econ PhD course as a non-degree student to demonstrate that you can do well in such a class, if you aren't admitted this cycle. Be aware that policy schools don't like to be considered "back ups" for students who can't get into economics programs. You need to make the case that you really want to get a PhD in public policy, and that your research interests are best served by what policy schools can offer.