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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? – user1482 Feb 18 '18 at 1:41
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    Maybe, you are such an awesome genius that students feel mediocre with you and feel intimidated too. I am just saying. – Rita Geraghty Apr 5 at 21:28
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    You can probably use the same reasoning for 'speed dating'. :) A student is more likely to pick you if they have taken a class from you, and you're a great teacher. Also, word of mouth is very important. If a student is not interested, then he/she may recommend friends who may be interested in joining your group. – Prof. Santa Claus Apr 5 at 21:56
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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.

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  • 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.

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  • 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.

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    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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As Mad Jack pointed out, for students, Emailing faculty is not all that easy.

I'm a (relatively) new grad student and have been through the process more than once. At least for three of the PhD programs I got offers from, I responded very late and very minimally, even though a few faculty did reach out to me. I wish I was more responsive and honestly, I was quite displeased with myself for how I was handling those emails, but I was just going through a hard time (as many grad school applicants do when they're in decision making process) and responding to their emails was not easy. Two of those programs were those I knew I'm not going to choose, but one was actually one of my top choices. So, I can tell you, although probably "the cold shoulder" means the applicant is more likely to decline your offer than to accept it, it may very well be the case that you're their top choice. That being said, if they're seriously considering your program, I'd expect that they'll eventually send you a somewhat positive email, but perhaps with a delay.

Even out of application context, emailing faculty could take a substantial amount of energy from a student. Especially if they're emailing someone they don't know very well. I often feel quite anxious when writing an email to a professor. Sometimes the email rests for days in my Drafts folder and eventually when I'm fully convinced that further proof reading and editing does not lead to any meaningful changes, I'll send it. Just the burden of the unanswered emails in my inbox itself feels quite heavy on my shoulders and some significant amount of energy is required to get started with answering them. This is terrible, and I'm sure there are a lot of students out there who are a lot better at handling this, but I also know there are some who are struggling even more.

Some tips for making it easier for the students to respond, especially when dealing with new admits:

  • Make sure you have a very friendly tone and avoid sounding so sophisticated. Make them feel like you may very well make a typo in your email, and would be totally cool with them having one.
  • Sign with your first name ONLY! And even better, let them know in a very cool and friendly way how they should address you. For grad school recruiting, the best experience I've had was when a professor told me something along the line of them being my near future colleagues and asked me to go by their first name. The worst thing is if you receive an email with a full name signature! I wouldn't know for the life of me whether I should start my email with "Hi Grigori" or "Hi Professor Rasputin"!
  • Write a short email and suggest to have a chat over a Skype call with them. Although this works very well for me, for some, it may even put more pressure on them, so it may be better if you write something like "I'd be happy to have a short Skype chat and discuss whatever you'd wish to discuss. We can also always discuss any questions/concerns via email". Make sure they would feel like it's totally fine to go with the email option.
  • If there's any time constraints or some sort of "expiry date" for responding to your email, make sure to clarify that. Also, if there's none, try to communicate to them that you're ok with a delayed reply. Often a student may think it's already too late to respond to your email, and that makes them delay it even further once it's past when they perceive to be the "deadline" for a reply. I'd say it's important not to sound imperative or as if you're demanding a reply, but that you're helping them manage the timing of your email communication. You should always sound like you're on their side, not like someone who's assessing their performance.

Needless to say, these are my views and influenced by my personal experience and that of people around me that I know of. Obviously, there are differences between different people and a different remedy may work better for some students.

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