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I would like to ask about a reasonable interpretation that can be made in the case that an aerospace engineering faculty member of a high-level US university, like Caltech or MIT, directly talks to my current university professor about my backgrounds and preparations before my formal submission of application.

Actually, I have been in contact with a faculty member since two years ago and I provided him periodically with updates regarding my work, master's dissertation and publications etc. The professor constantly expressed his interest in my background and even wrote in his last email that "I very much look forward to read your PhD application". A few weeks after this last email, there was a conference that my thesis advisors, one of whom is prominent in my field, were attending and the faculty member talked to them in person, said that he will certainly read my paper, which was published in that same conference, and that he is indeed interested in supervising my PhD.

Of course, I applied to the program and I am now waiting to hear back from the admissions committee and I read in some other questions that in top-rank institutions, the decisions are typically made by a group of faculty members, not necessarily the potential supervisor alone.

As such, I thought to ask this question so that it would be possible to find out how common this kind of situation is and what can be reasonably understood out of it.

  • You may want to rephrase your title or your question: asking what it means that they should talk together is not the same as asking how common it is. – everyone Feb 7 '18 at 14:49
  • @everyone I updated the title as my main question is about possible implications of such a situation for a PhD application. – Far.Far Feb 7 '18 at 15:08
  • The only thing I think you can infer is that you're in with a chance: they wouldn't be talking about you if they had already decided to turn you down. They might be talking about you to help them decide whether to accept you, or they might be talking about you to help them decide which specific role would be best suited to you. – Michael Kay Feb 7 '18 at 17:58
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Sounds like a polite chat. Professors are humans. They go to a conference and meet all kinds of people they don't know well and they need a topic to talk about, and a common acquaintance is a good topic for small talk. It is a bit tricky in the sense that there is an application involved here, but overall I would not over-interpret this.

If you want to interpret this, then you can see this as a slightly positive sign: (S)he is also signaling that (s)he is interested in supervising you. That helps: if one committee member says that (s)he wants to supervise a potential students, then there needs to be a good reason not to go along with that (e.g. lack of funding).

  • While I agree to some extent, I would like to emphasize that one of my professors is indeed well-known in the field, actually recognized by the whole community for years of his contribution, and as my professor told me, the topic of the talk was primarily about my application, not so much like an ice breaker. – Far.Far Feb 7 '18 at 11:27
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    The fact that a professor is well known means that (s)he is well known professionally. That does not necessarily mean that (s)he is well known socially. A conference is just a collection of people who have seen each other a couple of times, who know each other by reputation, but few are close friends. That limits the scope of social interaction. So what you told me does not change my answer. – Maarten Buis Feb 7 '18 at 12:11
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It's similar to the "calling your references" stage of a regular job application. Anyone who's considering taking you on would want to know more about other people's experiences with you. You can probably infer that you are under serious consideration as a candidate (but not precisely how likely you are to get the job, because people vary in their practices of how soon they check references).

This gives you no additional information, though: the Prof in question already told you he was interested in taking you on as a PhD student! There's no need to second-guess anything here.

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I think that it's quite normal that faculty members ask people who have already worked with potential PhD students about their experience with the student, especially if they know the other person already or have an opportunity for some small-talk - if the other information they have makes the candidate interesting for further consideration. That seems to be the case in your situation, as your potential PhD advisor even mentioned that he's interested in supervising you for a PhD.

Even in a situation with sufficient positive evidence about a candidate, one would still try to base the decision about taking someone as a PhD student on multiple factors - not only how an applicant presents him-/herself in an application or another interaction, but also trying to ask other people about how their interaction with the applicant went.

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