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Some time ago I contacted a professor at another university and, after some discussions, he agreed to supervise me and told me to make a formal application to the department. Unfortunately, the admission committee rejected my application. I asked that professor why, and he said he had no idea and I don't know if he tried to follow my application.

I am sure I meet the program's minimum requirements, submitted all necessary documents and even indicated that professor as a supervisor in a dedicated field. I would like to ask if I can do something, like making an appeal (although the department has no such thing), or keeping on sending email to the professor? Is this situation common?

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I have had this experience about five years ago. Agreeing to advise pre-admission seemed to me more about the advisor saying they will take you as a student if you procure funding and acceptance. A few I asked pre-grad school said no due to other obligations (e.g., being chair), so it told me if they were available, nothing more. That said, usually the issue is funding when it comes to acceptance. If you procure external funding, they may reverse an admissions decision. That's the only case where they did it for me. I would not go after a decision reversal without your own funding. –  T K May 5 at 14:19

4 Answers 4

up vote 25 down vote accepted

No PhD program that I am aware of guarantees admission to every candidate who meets the minimum requirements for admission. Moreover, an agreement to supervise you is not a guarantee of admission, either.

Most likely what happened is the usual in such circumstances—there were enough other qualified candidates that the admissions committee did not choose to extend you an offer. I'm afraid that there's not really much you can do here. Writing the professor will be a waste of your time, and filing an appeal isn't likely to get you anywhere, either.

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Of course I do not mean everybody met the minimun requirement will be admitted, but I just wonder if prior agreement between me and a professor should be a major plus. In other words, why should the department bother if there is a professor who promise to supervise a student? –  bingung May 5 at 9:43
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This answer seems factually correct, though I don't know that it would always be a waste of time to contact the professor. It really depends on the level of interaction you've had. In my past experiences, the professors who have agreed to advise me were also professors who wanted me to work for them in their labs. In these cases, they may very well be interested in advocating for you. If this is the case, I'd just write an email to the professor seeking advice on the next steps if you still want to work in the lab. It's to your benefit to maintain contact and I see no downside. –  Eric Marsh May 5 at 9:45
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why should the department bother if there is a professor who promise to supervise a student? — Because you are not just the advisor's student; you are also the department's student. What if you quickly realize that you and your advisor aren't a good match, and you start looking around for a different advisor? What if your advisor has a track record of taking on too many students and not effectively mentoring them? What if your application was far enough below average admitted student to raise doubts about your ability to thrive in the required courses? –  JeffE May 5 at 11:10
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@EricMarsh: "Keep contacting the professor" seems more like pestering than polite inquiries. –  aeismail May 5 at 11:32
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Right, I wouldn't do it repeatedly. But I would probably send a single follow-up email and make sure not to burn that bridge. Maybe the professor will have some insight on the current climate in the department and maybe he'll say to try again in 6 months. Or maybe not. –  Eric Marsh May 5 at 11:46

Try again next time

Technically, you can try various things right now. In practice, most of those things will simply harm your chances of admission in the next session, so IMHO you shouldn't do anything about this particular rejection.

Instead, work on making sure that your application is more attractive next time, keep in touch with that professor, work on research in your spare time, look for relevant seminars/workshops/etc there that are open to general public and not only to students, perhaps study some relevant topics in MOOCs like Coursera.

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Selection can sometimes be very political. I sat in on a board meeting recently while selection was being discussed. I was really surprised at the "selection process". The selection committee is not allowed to use a quantitative assessment, it has to be qualitative, which seemed absurd to me, especially considering grades and GRE scores are quantitative measures. Additionally, although my department is comprised of a majority of international students, none of them count as minorities, because they're not US citizens. Taking that into consideration, we have a very low minority student body (in this case, minority is anyone that is not a white male). Therefore, our department has received less funding from the college (which also seemed absurd, if not discrimination)... to increase funding from the college, we need more minority students. So I was not surprised when the minority students were accepted into the program.

I don't believe you have many options. I would at least follow up with the professor, he may know of other opportunities.

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Grades and scores are quantitative measures but they don't necessarily quantify the right thing. Student A having better grades than student B does not guarantee that A will do better on a PhD programme so it wouldn't be wise to base admissions solely on grades. (To take a strawman example, it would be ludicrous to base admissions on the students' height, even though that is a quantitative measure.) –  David Richerby May 5 at 18:58
    
If I were hiring people for a private company, I would make use of all available data to ensure I hired the right person. It would be both quantitative and qualitative. Height would likely not play a role in my decision. –  SoilSciGuy May 6 at 13:25

One of the possibility is that the professor is not that keen on having you on board. Otherwise, as far as I know, professors have some influence on the selection process if he really needs you to carry out his project and you meet the minimal requirements.

In this case, it makes no difference you send an SOS to the professor.

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Just wonder if he is not keen on supervising me, why should he tell me to apply anyway? He can just tell me 'I don't want to supervise you'. –  bingung May 6 at 5:07
    
probably the professor is just lazy or he has got another candidate, there can be hundreds of reasons. you can try asking help from the professor, it's no harm after all. –  Jhz832 May 6 at 8:04

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