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Grade Point Average – A Guide for PhD Students

Written by Sarah Hastings-Woodhouse

Grade Point Average (GPA) is one of the most widely used grading systems in the world. Universities in many countries use GPA to assess student attainment, at both the undergraduate and postgraduate level.

If you’re considering doctoral study, your GPA could be an important part of your PhD application. In countries that use GPA, many universities take a student’s Bachelors and/ or Masters GPA into account when deciding whether to accept them for PhD study.

In this guide, we’ll cover what GPA is and when it matters for prospective PhD students. We’ll also compare it to some other international grading systems.

What is GPA?

GPA is a method of assessing student attainment. Its defining feature is that it is continuous. This means that it can fluctuate throughout your programme. If you want to maintain a strong GPA, your grades will need to be consistently high!

Your GPA is calculated by dividing the total sum of your grades by the number of credits you’ve taken. To do this, each letter grade is given a numerical value. In the USA (and in many other countries) GPA is calculated on a 4-point scale:

  • A - 4
  • B - 3
  • C - 2
  • D - 1
  • F - 0

This will give you a number between 0 and 4, which is your GPA. 4.0 is normally the highest GPA you can achieve, though some ‘weighted’ GPA systems use a 5.0 scale which award students 5 points if they achieve an A in an especially challenging course. If your university uses a weighted system, you could come out with a GPA of higher than 4.0.

Does GPA matter for a PhD application?

If you’re planning to apply for a PhD in a country that uses GPA, your university may calculate a GPA equivalent for you, based on academic transcripts from your previous degree(s). It is common for graduate programmes in the USA to do this.

US universities are unlikely to set a minimum GPA requirement for PhD courses – but this doesn’t mean that your GPA is not an important aspect of your application. As a very general rule, a GPA or 3.0 or higher is considered roughly equivalent to UK 2.1 at undergraduate level, or Merit at Masters level. This is often considered the minimum GPA necessary to demonstrate that you’re capable of academic work at the doctoral level. Though it won’t automatically disqualify you, a GPA lower than 3.0 is likely to be a disadvantage.

If you plan on applying to a more competitive university, such as a member of the famous Ivy League, you may need a higher GPA. At the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Engineering, for example, the average GPA amongst successful PhD applicants in 2021 was 3.8. Stanford University strongly recommends that those applying for a PhD programme have a GPA of at least 3.5.

If you studied more than one subject for your previous degree (may US-based PhD applicants will have graduated from a multidisciplinary undergraduate programme) universities may also be interested in your discipline-specific GPA. For example, a university may accept a 3.0 GPA across your entire degree, but except a 3.5 average in the subject you plan to study for your PhD.

If you do have a lower GPA, don’t worry, you can compensate for this through your personal statement, CV and letters of recommendation. You shouldn’t be discouraged from applying to your dream programme by a less-than-perfect score, especially if you feel you can stand out from the crowd in other ways.

GPA conversions

If you’re planning to study your PhD abroad, working out what your qualifications will be worth in another country can certainly complicate the application process! We’ve put together a rough guide to international grade conversions below, comparing the US 4-point GPA scale to the grading systems used in some popular PhD study abroad destinations.

Please note that these conversions are intended as guidelines only. Each university will calculate international equivalences differently. If you’re not sure whether your grades are sufficient for entry onto a particular PhD programme, it’s best to contact your chosen university directly.

USA vs UK

Overall grades for degree programmes in the UK are calculated at the end of your course based on the results of your exams and coursework.

We’ve adapted information supplied by the Fulbright Commission to give you an idea of US/ UK grade conversions for Masters degrees:

US GPA UK module marks UK classification
4.0 70+ Distinction
3.7 65 - 69 Merit
3.3 60 - 64 Pass
3.0 55 - 59 Pass
2.7 50 - 54 Pass
2.3 or below 49 or below Fail

Conversions will vary between universities. Many will accept a GPA of 3.7 or more as the equivalent of a distinction grade.

USA vs Australia

Postgraduate students in Australia are awarded grades ranging from ‘High Distinction’ (HD) to ‘Fail’ (F). The table below shows the grading scale used at Monash University, but the exact score range required to achieve each grade varies between universities.

US GPA Percentage Australian grade
4.0 80 - 100 High Distinction (HD)
4.0 70 - 79 Distinction (D)
3.0 60 - 69 Credit (C)
2.0 50 - 59 Pass (P)
0.0 Below 49 Fail (F)

USA vs Canada

Many universities in Canada use the same 4-point GPA scale as in the USA. However, there is considerable variation across the country, and universities in some provinces use scales with up to 9 points.

Some universities will use a 4.3-point scale, where the top score is awarded to the highest-achieving students at the tutor’s discretion:

Canadian 4.3-point GPA scale US letter grade US GPA scale
4.3 A+ 4.0
4.0 A 4.0
3.7 A- 3.7
3.3 B+ 3.3
3.0 B 3.0
2.7 B- 2.7
2.3 C+ 2.3
2.0 C 2.0
1.0 D 1.0
0.0 E/ F 0.0

USA vs Germany

Masters degrees in Germany are normally graded using a 5-point scale, where 1.0 is the highest grade you can achieve and 4.0 is the minimum passing grade:


German grade US letter grade US GPA points
1.0 - 1.3 A 4.0
1.7 - 2.3 A- 3.7
2.7 B+ 3.3
3.0 B 3.0
3.3 B- 2.7
3.7 C+ 2.3
4.0 C 2.0
5.0 C- or below 1.7 or below

USA vs the Netherlands

Dutch degrees are graded using a 10-point scale. 10 is the highest mark and 5.5 is usually the minimum needed to pass. It’s very unusual for grades of 9 and 10 to be awarded, which is why a grade of 8 or higher is roughly equivalent to a US GPA of 4.0.


Dutch grade US letter grade US GPA points
10 A+ 4.0
9.5 A+ 4.0
9 A+ 4.0
8.5 A+ 4.0
8 A 4.0
7.5 A- 3.7
7 B+ 3.3
6.5 B 3.0
6 B- / C 1.7 - 2.7
5.5 D 1.0
5 F 0.0

USA vs Norway

Norwegian universities assess students using letter grades from A to F. E is the minimum passing grade. Some institutions translate these letter grades into numerical values between 1 and 5 in order to calculate GPA equivalences.

Norwegian letter grade Norwegian numerical grade US GPA points
A 5 4.0
B 4 3.5 - 3.9
C 3 2.8 - 3.4
D 2 2.0 - 2.7
E 1 1.0 - 1.9
F Fail 0.0 - 0.9

Grading systems vary hugely between countries and even between universities, so make sure to check the requirements of your chosen university carefully before applying for a PhD. You can find out more about PhD study as an international student in our study abroad section.

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Last Updated: 16 December 2022