An F on Your Transcript and Your Dream Job: What Do You Say About That?

Posted by on Feb 12, 2013 in General, General College Success/Responses to Other College Entities | 13 comments

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, is 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!




  1. As always, this is good, and empathetic, advice. It is so important to value this mistakes that we make and the failures that we have. They sometimes mark the most important lessons that we will learn. To be able to point to this failure and talk about how this will help you identify with your students may be what sets you apart from everyone else who simply knows the subject, but not the students and their potential struggles.

    Also, as a bit of reassurance, I have served on several faculty search committees. I know that it is different in each institution, but the individual grades on a transcript carry much less weight than your resume and a strong interview. Keep this one grade in context.

    • Hi, Vicki,

      Thank you so much for your comments, as always. I appreciate your perspective. I really remember those F’s and even my C’s so much. I definitely empathize with my own students who struggle and this is why it pains me when students aren’t more proactive and can save themselves!

      I have not had a lot of search committee experience, so this advice is particularly valuable.

      I look forward to your next assistance. I have a tricky one coming up.

  2. Ellen,

    As you stated, in the interest of full disclosure, I have a degree in Social Work (now a stay-at-home dad). I did not obtain that degree until I was in my 30′s. However, I did attend college a decade prior. When I attended college the first time I was not prepared for my new freedom and young adulthood. I played far more than I studied. It cost me a great deal but I did not see it that way at the time.

    As I matured and life circumstances changed I realized I wanted a degree. The problem was my first trial at college left me with an entire semester of F’s (not one… but five). I believed in myself and retook the course and passed them all with some help. I continued bringing my grade point average up to the point where I graduated college with a 3.3 (it would have been much higher if not for my semester of failing and immaturity)

    My point is never give up and stop believing that you can something. I am a firm believer in the only true failures in life are when we stop trying and allow other people to dictate to us what they say we “will” believe. Just my two cents….

    Aaron Brinker aka DadBlunders

    • Hi, Aaron,

      Wow, how many faculty out there can relate to THAT picture? I bet so many! Also, a lot of non traditional students, as well. A bunch of students go to school early, don’t do as well as anyone would like, and then return when they are more “serious.” I think this is an extremely important perspective. This student is hardly alone and from what I’m hearing, the situation doesn’t sound like a deal-breaker in terms of being a professor.

      By the way, I didn’t finish my education until I was 30 either. There are a lot of us out there!

      I appreciate your thoughts. Thank you so much!


  3. Really great examples. Grad school seems so far away now. Unfortunately, I don’t have any of my own advice to offer. I am really glad there are professors like you out there Ellen who speak so candidly!

    • Hi, Susan,
      I am behind on my commenting since I haven’t blogged in a month! Thank you! Your comments always mean so much to me.

  4. Hello Ellen I was wondering I am graduating in the summer but for right now i think i am going to have to F’s on my transcript can i still graduate with those F’s

  5. I’m an undergrad and I have a double major in Bio and Psych. I plan to carry on with psych but i failed chemistry in first year. Because it isn’t a prereq for anything I’m doing and because my school won’t remove it I didn’t retake it. But I want to apply to clinical psych programs and i’m so scared that it will affect me from getting accepted to grad school. I also have a few Cs and Bs but a ton of As and one A+. I’m going into my 3rd year now with a 3.66 degree GPA but a 3.1 cumulative and I’m so worried. Not sure what to do :/

  6. I’m a graduate student. I have an F on my transcript for a History due to a plagiarism issue. I was rather stupid/depressed at that particular time. My record won’t be purged until 5 years but I still want to be an English professor. Do you think that I have any chance or is it time to start thinking about something completely different?

  7. I am so depressed about my undergrad GPA that I feel like ending my life. I am graduating from college with my Bachelor’s degree in Anthropology next semester. Unfortunately, my cumulative GPA is only 2.5 because I had below a 2.0 during my freshman and sophomore years. However, I had a 3.8 during my senior year. Unfortunately, there is nothing I can do now to change the past. I wish that I could go back in time and study harder my first two years of college. I lost interest in everything, stay alone in my room all the time, and didn’t go out in like six months. I am passionate about human and primate evolution, osteology, population genetics, forensic anthropology, Mesoamerican archaeology, and Viking archaeology. I live in NYC. I would be interested in working for a museum, a historical society, an archaeological research center, a primate conservation center, or a national park. I think that I ruined my future and I will never be able to get an entry-level job or get into a Masters program. Most employers ask for transcripts and no one will hire someone who graduated with a 2.5. Do you think that my life is over because of bad grades in the past? I am planning to jump off a bridge. Should I kill myself this weekend or wait until after I graduate?

    • Anna, it is so important to keep things in perspective. There are many ways to enter into the job/profession that you want and many ways that employers look at potential candidates. Your transcript and GPA are just two avenues. Get out of your room and get some experience in addition to your formal studies. Do an internship. Volunteer. Network and meet people who are working in the field that you want to enter. Once you have graduated and are ready to look for work, persevere because it isn’t easy starting out. Don’t be too fussy. Take anything that will give you experience. Once you begin to build experience, that becomes so much more important that your GPA. When you go to interviews, talk about the lessons you learned in your last two years and point out the difference in your grades. Employers were students once, too. They will be interested in the lessons that you’ve learned. Be flexible, be persistent, be patient, and most of all, create a positive attitude. Don’t let go of your goals, and begin now to take some positive steps. The more you do and have to offer, the less important that GPA becomes.

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