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During PhD admissions, our department assigns each admitted PhD student both a faculty and grad student contact, and we make every effort to express our excitement and enthusiasm about the student joining our program; often the faculty contact is a prospective advisor. Usually there are some nice conversations, which provide a nice prelude to the on-campus visit.

In one or two cases, I've had a student simply stop responding to email. In this instance, a student I admitted who was initially glad to talk to me quickly cut off contact with both me and the grad student contact (even before the visit). I am trying to understand if this is a bad sign, or if I'm just reading too much into it. It's been a long time since I was a PhD student, and I suppose there are a lot of reasons for this behavior. Still, during my own PhD visits I was sure to be very polite and timely with everyone who contacted me.

Question for current prospective PhD students: Why would you give a faculty member the cold shoulder, rather than just replying politely and briefly to their email?

I can come up with lots of hypotheses (busy with classes, overwhelmed with contacts from faculty, or simply not interested in the program), but all I can do is guess. I want to hear from the latest generation of students: what makes these interactions with prospective advisors tough?

  • I wrote a more extended response below, but I wanted to add that it is not necessarily true that you are scaring them away. It is a behavior that occurs in multiple departments, multiple fields, to multiple faculty (some of them really nice human beings). – Anna SdTC Feb 17 '18 at 5:23
  • What field are you in? – Ben Crowell Feb 18 '18 at 1:41
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I am not a prospective PhD student but a current one, and I am not in the mind of every PhD applicant, but my best guess is that some are not really interested in your department, some don't know how to say "I actually accepted an offer at a different school" with good manners, some are not fully sure if the e-mails come from a human or from an automated system (especially those who come from countries with a strong culture of professors ignoring or being mean to students, especially undergraduate - I wouldn't have imagined I'd receive personalized e-mails either!), and some are just rude. Or maybe it's just generational: in the same way it's starting to be considered more polite to never reply a text again than to politely decline a second date, and that many prospective employers say "we'll call you" after a job interview and they never ever call, there might be some perception among some people that it's better to be silent than to reply negatively? I don't know. Do they get interviewed before receiving an admission offer? Are they aware of how many offers you make out of a larger applicant pool? Emphasizing that might entice some of them to continue the conversation, or at least it might dissipate the question on whether they were not aware of things or, instead, they were plainly impolite.

  • Continuing in a similar vein, it appears that there is not a widespread culture of "acknowledge emails", regardless of the sender. Although I seem to have successfully convinced my own research students (who of course were sensible all along) that I do like confirmation of my email-proposed schedule changes and such, it does not appear that grad students (in math, in the U.S.) think that confirmation emails or acknowledgement emails are absolutely necessary. – paul garrett Feb 17 '18 at 1:08
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If I am understand the situation correctly, your department has made an offer and the student has not accepted it yet. Here are my guesses from my own experience (current phd student):

  • The student does not want to make it seems like he is committed to the program. If he showed too much excitement it would be awkward for him to turn down the offer later on.

  • The student is not sure if he or she should reply to the email, especially if the email does not end with questions. Sometimes when people send me emails about some information, I am not sure if it is a good idea to send an email saying that I am grateful and I have received the email.

  • At least in some/many situations, a return email acknowledging that you've received and read the email is a good thing. Even though it is not so easy for email to truly be lost, there is no guarantee that it is read... – paul garrett Feb 17 '18 at 2:16
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Why would you give a faculty member the cold shoulder, rather than just replying politely and briefly to their email?

Emailing faculty is a touchy subject for students. A student who doesn't email you back and ends up cutting off all contact most likely was thinking of the "best" way to tell you why it just wasn't "working out" but couldn't quite figure out how to do that.

Looking for a citation with that?

Have a look at this question, the questions that are related or are linked to it, and the questions with the "email" tag, for starters.

Your titular question is not something that we can possibly know, but I would guess that it's probably not you, specifically, that is the root cause of the problem. Some people click and some don't.

  • 4
    Or, alternatively, they were trying to think of a way to phrase a response, started over-thinking it and turned the whole thing into a series of ineluctable doom scenarios, decided to put it aside a little bit, went back to it, over thought it again, repeat until now they're trying to figure out how to also apologize and explain how their mind just does this shit to them sometimes (aka: all the time), started overthinking that, and repeat until eventually it's best to just slink through the hallways and hope you never make eye contact again. Not that I speak from personal experience... – zibadawa timmy Nov 30 '18 at 1:51

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