Applying for a job abroad? Explain your degree grading system

Hermione Granger: “So top grade’s O for ‘Outstanding,’ and then there’s A —”
George Weasley: “No, E. E for ‘Exceeds Expectations.’ And I’ve always thought Fred and I should’ve got E in everything, because we exceeded expectations just by turning up for the exams.”

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

When you have spent years in a university system and are proud (hopefully) of the grade you have achieved, it is easy to forget that people reading your job applications in another country may find your grading system as obvious as that at Hogwarts.

I’m currently evaluating three dozen applicants for a PhD position. The candidates are from over twenty countries, and several have degrees from more than one country. There are a lot of different grading systems, some I am familiar with, others not.

Should I be impressed by your GPA of 18.02? If it is a percentage, it looks awfully low!

One university uses a Latin scale for grading theses:

  • Approbatur
  • Lubenter approbatur
  • Non sine laude approbatur
  • Cum laude approbatur
  • Magna cum laude approbatur
  • Eximia cum laude approbatur
  • Laudatur

Ego autem non intellego Latin. Is Approbatur equivalent  to Outstanding or Troll? Without checking Google Translate, I have to assume (initially at least) that a candidate applying for a PhD position with a thesis graded Eximia cum laude approbatur has Exceeded Expectations rather than been labelled Dreadful.

Another university awards a grade between 6.0 and 10.0, without specifying whether high or low ends of the scale are more praiseworthy. You can be sure that another university will have the scale in the opposite direction.

The University of Bergen now has a A (high) – F (low) scale. It used to be much more interesting, with a 1 (high) – 4 (low) scale, except in the Law faculty 2.15 (high) – 3.15 (low) and Medical faculty 12 (high) – 6 (low). No scope for confusing students taking joint degrees then.

Even percent can be complicated, as different systems have different expectations for 70%.

I’ve seen other systems that rival the O-E-A-P-D-T from Hogwarts in terms of weirdness. Of course, graduates from these systems don’t realise that their grading scheme is unusual.

It is simply not possible to remember all these schemes, so applicants should help the evaluator by including an explanation of the grading system. Some universities, including Bergen, do a good job here, appending a description of the grades to the transcript. The most recent graduates even get a small barplot next to the grade for each course showing the distribution of grades. If you don’t have an official description (or maybe even if you do), please put a short comment in your CV to explain the grading system.

Note, when I evaluate applications, I do not slavishly follow the grades, but I do need to check that shortlisted candidates meet the University of Bergen criteria, and am not necessarily that interested in a student awarded a Desmond.






About richard telford

Ecologist with interests in quantitative methods and palaeoenvironments
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5 Responses to Applying for a job abroad? Explain your degree grading system

  1. Yvan Dutil says:

    Been there, done that 😉

    Hopefully, your candidate are produced by the occidental educational system. Otherwise, you will have also to double check the true value of their grade.

  2. Even knowing the system is not enough. In The Netherlands 1 is lowest, 10 is highest, 6 is just sufficient. But a perfect thesis in Groningen would be an 8, whereas a very good thesis in Delft would be a 9. I hope that more universities will give the distribution; that also helps against grade inflation (while some professors will still have an higher average than others at the same university, thus the statistical model should be even more complex).

    I graduated in Groningen, but my supervisor was from Delft and gave me a 9. That made me look like Nobel price material to employers calling their colleagues in Groningen to ask what a 9 means. 🙂

    • Completely crazy. It means that the grades are almost useless without insider knowledge.

      • Next to being arbitrary. 🙂 Maybe I am a case of bad luck, but I did a second small graduation thesis. My supervisor thought he had an interesting problem that needed to be investigated, but I could show that the effect is small. That was the end of his hope of writing a research proposal and I got a bad grade. I would still say that thesis was at least as good as the big one. Later he hired a student help to write a report that it was very complicated.

  3. jyyh says:

    teehee, and there’s a difference in saying 4th lowest or 4th highest 😀 , not that sort of grade would qualify to anything but a science hobby.

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