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Say a prospective PhD has a high reply rate (90-95%) to first contact emails with potential superviors. He/She has a well thought out e-mail, but a particular professor (here: USA) that is in the top preferences does not reply after two to three e-mails that were sent within a time frame of three months. I also followed the instructions on the professor personal website in the section "prospective PhD students". The student has already contacted some of the advisor students and has received positive feedback about the professor.

Should the student just give up and move on? Should the student keep trying?

Aside from the obvious "I have too many incoming e-mails to answer" or "I am out in the field", what could create a no response behavior from the professor?

I have seen the simplistic answer "move on, bad advisor, doesn't have time, etc". But this seems a contradiction in this case. The PhD students like the professor and say he/she is personable and no e-mail response after a few well written emails.

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What is the time windows for your 2-3 mails ? If this is 1 week or so you should wait that the backlog reaches one of the emails you sent. BTW, even if I know this is unfortunate, I don't answer to prospective students if I know I will not "take" them, because I receive too many emails from prospective students (I mean several each day while I am certainly not a "top preference", so imagine for famous profs). But if a student insists, I will probably end up answering after 2 or 3 weeks. –  Sylvain Peyronnet Nov 19 '12 at 16:44
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Some more background might be helpful here. Are you looking at applications in the US or overseas? –  aeismail Nov 19 '12 at 17:31
    
I am not sure if locations matters too much. I am specifically referring to a US scholar, the only that has not replied after a few e-mails sent over a 3 months period. Another person in the UK responded after the second e-mail. I know for a fact that the former person is highly sought after but I don't think it would be more sought after than many other people I emailed. –  user4050 Nov 19 '12 at 17:50
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Was there a procedure set out on the department's website, for prospective PhD students? Did you follow it? –  EnergyNumbers Nov 19 '12 at 21:40
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Yes I did! I also followed the instructions on the professor personal website in the section "prospective phd students". As a matter of fact I successfully implemented some of those strategies in contacting other profs. –  user4050 Nov 19 '12 at 22:23

4 Answers 4

up vote 8 down vote accepted

I would say MOVE ON .. Some professors are full of students. They are not looking for new prospective students in the next year or so.
Therefore, the simple action to do is ignoring prospective students emails.

The best to do is to phone him/her if s/he didn't answer in 3 months after 2 or 3 emails. Try to meet him in conference and try to contact his/her current PhD students..

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I am not sure how cold calls are taken. I don't want to seem desperate, but a one sentence email doesn't cost long. –  user4050 Nov 19 '12 at 22:25
    
Yes you are right.. but at the same time if the professor worth it, why not?.. Simply introduce yourself and the fact that you are interested in his research and has sent him several emails with no respond.. He might look again to his inbox. –  seteropere Nov 19 '12 at 22:41
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I would consider a cold call very intrusive. (See my reply to @Raphael's comment on a different answer.) –  JeffE Nov 20 '12 at 15:09
    
I definitely agree with you Jeff.. That's why I suggested the OP to move on and look for another supervisor. –  seteropere Nov 20 '12 at 19:17

To try to make a clear point: there is a range of opinions about how to respond to "cold calls" from people I don't know, etc. I myself find it easy to make a one-or-two-sentence response politely thanking an inquirer for their interest, but (if so...) that I "have no open positions in my group at this time" or whatever is suitable. For me, although I get a good number of these of various sorts, it takes less than 5 minutes a day, and I take the viewpoint that it is a good professional-social gesture to make that quick response (perhaps more worthwhile than yelling over the phone at phone-solicitors on old no-caller-id phones).

At the same time, at the other end, I know many people who take the viewpoint that sending them email no more obligates them to a response than do credit-card offers and other advertisements. And, indeed, given the ease with which we can mass-email, even with customizations, this is a fair, not unethical, not harsh reaction. Perhaps if my in-mails of this sort reached 10+ per day, I'd give up "trying to be polite", but my own current scale of "spam on behalf of earnest beginner in the business" is pretty low, so I can easily afford to be (superficially) "gracious" enough to respond.

In case people don't reply, I'm afraid you can't hold it against them, even while we admit that it would be great if they did respond, ... because there just isn't a general social principle that demands a response to all possible inquiries one may receive. Yes, it'd be nice, but it is simply not required.

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+1 for "It'd be nice, but it is simply not required".. –  seteropere Nov 20 '12 at 1:16
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Maybe it should be required. Having grown up with email, it holds a similar weight as phone calls for me. Ignoring (polite and reasonable) emails is similar to picking up the phone, listening to the caller's introduction, and immediately hanging up. So yea, it's rude, not to mention unprofessional. Sending back a canned response does literally take only seconds, and at least gives the inquirer the feedback they need. If your time is so valuable and the number of wannabe-students so high that you can't manage, you are surely in a position where you can have your secretary handle things. –  Raphael Nov 20 '12 at 10:06
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@Raphael: No, it's closer to just not picking up the phone. –  JeffE Nov 20 '12 at 15:07
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That depends. As a general rule, I only pick up the phone when my office door is open. If I'm in a meeting, I don't pick up the phone. If I'm in the middle of a task that requires uninterrupted attention (research, writing, preparing for class), I only pick up the phone for a few people (like my wife). So basically, that means if you want to call me, we should arrange a time by email first. –  JeffE Nov 20 '12 at 15:43
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@Raphael I guess that most people don't pick up the phone while at the office (at least it's my case). Concerning emails, I cannot answer within the day to those that require an answer, so I'm far from answering to unsolicited emails like that. And let me add that I spend more than 1 hour a day answering emails (it's closer to 2 hrs I guess). –  Sylvain Peyronnet Nov 20 '12 at 18:03

I am going to assume we're talking about a student who plans to apply to the PhD program that the faculty is affiliated with, but has not yet been admitted. (You didn't say explicitly, but reading between the lines, that is my assumption.)

If that's the case then the student should not expect a response and should not read anything into the lack of a response from the faculty member. Many faculty do not have time to respond personally to all enquiries from prospective applicants.

Please understand that some faculty receive dozens or hundreds of enquiries from prospective students. For example, my understanding is that many Indian or Chinese students are under the mistaken impression that they should contact faculty, or think it will help their case for admission somehow (not true; but they don't know, or have been given bad advice, so they write). Anyway, as a result, many faculty cannot possibly reply to all such contacts. I've even seen a few faculty post a FAQ on their web page which explains why they cannot respond to such inquiries from prospective PhD students who are interested in applying. In many cases, it is likely that few or none of those who contact the professor will be admitted, so professors may understandable decide that they cannot afford to to spend time responding to such contacts until after admission, in most cases.

To learn more about this, I can recommend some additional reading:


If I have misunderstood the status of this student:

If the student has already been admitted into the PhD program where the faculty is affiliated with, but has not yet accepted the offer of admission, the lack of response probably indicates lack of interest or lack of time on the part of the faculty member. In this case, my advice would be to move on. As far as I can tell, though, this response would be a bit unusual: if the student has been admitted, it typically means that at least some quorum of faculty think highly of the student.

Finally, if the student is current enrolled in the faculty's PhD program, the student should go visit the faculty member in person. Faculty have office hours; go use them.

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  • Consider the possibitity of ending up in the spam filter. (I know a professor whos emails were regularly considered spam by his own university)

  • (As students of the supervisor are known: could any of those ask the prof whether any of the emails arrived?)

  • Students of the supervisor are known: this points to the group not being far away. Drop by in person?

  • One may use other communication channels ("just wanted to make sure, my emails didn't get caught in the spam")

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I don't think any of these are useful. I think the most likely explanation is that the professor is busy, gets dozens of emails like this, and they are almost invariably a waste of his/her time. See paul garrett's answer. If that is the explanation, none of these is going to be helpful (they will just seem stalk-y). The best angle is to figure out why you are trying to contact the faculty member, and then figure how to make it worth his/her time (if indeed it is; probably it isn't). –  D.W. Nov 20 '12 at 5:35
    
@D.W.: reading yours and other answers, I think this has a strong geographic/cultural component. And, I may have gotten it wrong, but I ended up with the impression that the student is closeby, i.e. either same university or a neighbour university (knowing people of the other group). Here (Germany) you often don't apply for a PhD program with a certain university, it's more like you apply for a topic with a professor. –  cbeleites Nov 23 '12 at 19:57
    
Certainly possible, cbeleites! I'm most familiar with US culture. Do you want to elaborate in your answer on how the culture works in Germany or other areas you are familiar with? That might helpful to many readers. –  D.W. Nov 23 '12 at 22:31

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