Your heart is set on a particular job. Could an F on your transcript lock you out of it? What should you do? What should you say?

(I was not intending to take a two-week hiatus, but apparently, a hiatus decided to take me! Darned winter illnesses that strike family members back to back–but fortunately, not Mom. I’ve missed interacting with everyone and wanted to continue on our theme from a couple of weeks ago: When college is supposed to help dreams come true, but then something in college actually threatens that dream. Here we have yet another letter to that end. What do you think about this situation?)

Dear Ellen,

I read your blog about failing a class. I am a graduate student. I took a course last semester and failed it. I am feeling very depressed. I wanted to pursue a career as a professor, but I think failing this class has ruined it. I don’t see any hope. You mentioned that you failed a class, as well. How has this affected your employment as a professor? Did anyone look at your GPA and ask you why it happened? If so, what was your answer?



Dear Student,

I am really sorry about the failed course. I definitely know how that feels–awful!

You are remembering correctly, but I only told part of the story. I actually failed two courses. They were when my father died and I blogged about fading out of school. One of the courses, I retook because I had to (Public Speaking). The other course, I never retook. It was a History course, and for whatever reason, I just decided that I didn’t want that particular course again. I was an undergrad at the time and I feared those F’s on my transcript would keep me out of graduate school. So, due to my circumstances (the death of my father), six years later, I petitioned to have them stricken and turned into W’s. It was not an easy process at all, but I want you to have full disclosure that I actually was able to take care of those failing grades. I don’t want to give the impression that my situation would be universal.

Beyond that, I did have a C on my transcript from my community college, but I didn’t really worry about it. In my graduate school, had I gotten any less than a B in my courses, I would have had to retake them. That didn’t happen, but believe me, I could have easily failed my Stats course without extra help. Math is not my strong suit.

In many graduate schools, there is a similar policy. So my first question is, are you truly going to “fail” if you have to retake your course? My next question: Can you retake the course? Before we tap into the career issue, I would try to figure out what went wrong. The lessons you take away that led to the failure are going to be critical for you in becoming a professor. You’ll want to figure out why the problem happened and see what you can do differently. Again, I really think that the exercise of doing this, rather than leaving the F alone, are going to be monumental for you in the future. I draw upon my own academic experiences all the time–the good and the ugly. I bet many of my colleagues would say the same.

Now let’s get to the heart of the matter: I don’t believe that getting one “F” is going to sink you on becoming a professor, but this is going to depend on a couple of things that I’ll explain. I do think that a professor failing a course or having a poor grade in a class makes that person a) human; and b) able to connect to the struggles that actual students have. I’m going to put a huge qualifier on this, though. If the failing grade is in a main teaching area for you, a college would likely squint on that. Another reason to retake the class.

If you failed a course in, say, statistics (required for many graduate degrees), but you won’t be teaching statistics, hiring committees or HR Departments often review transcripts more to prove that you actually hold the degrees that you claim (yes, some people fake their credentials!), rather than to pore over every single individual grade. But it wouldn’t be inconceivable to have a series of low GPA’s on your transcripts questioned.

If everything else looks strong, then a bad grade (not in your primary teaching area) should not be a deal-breaker for you becoming a professor. Many students have a blip at some point–some blips are worse than others. Mine happened to be a “C” and had I not been able to turn those “F’s” into W’s after my father died, I would have had the two “F’s” on my transcript and I would have likely had to put a note with my transcript explaining why they were there.

I think it is definitely time to go back to that professor with whom you failed the course. Say, “Professor, I really need to discuss my performance in our class that just ended. I failed the course and I am very worried about how this is going to affect not only my academic standing, but also my future career. I have plans to become a professor and am concerned about how this is going to look on my transcript. What advice do you have so this does not adversely affect me?” You may also want to have this same discussion with the adviser of your program.

Bottom line, I would do everything you possibly can to turn things around now before you start applying for jobs. If you cannot reverse that F, be prepared to speak to it candidly. If it is the only “F” on your graduate school transcript, I would position it as, “I struggled tremendously in X class as a graduate student. What I took away from the course were these valuable lessons and I feel I am going to be a lot more empathetic to my own students when they face these same struggles.”

You can also say, “Based on the issues I faced in this course as a student, I researched and devised these teaching strategies so other students won’t face the same problems I did.”

I think those answers would show that you were extremely reflective about your experience and forward-thinking about other students’ experiences.

I wish you well!

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