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It's like the response to my PhD application usually includes something like "The number of the applications we've received is so high that we can't accommodate all of the qualified applicants." It's like outnumbering applicants is the general reason of rejection.

Besides that, they seldom address other reasons. Some responses of this kind were due to my enquiry after application, rather than on their own initiative. Some of them didn't bother to respond even after my enquiry.

So I wonder whether a research group or school actually reviews every applicant's documents if they receive an overwhelming number of applications compared to the vacancy number. Maybe they have a way to pick some among the large number of applications — like using the filter function of a computer to pick documents containing some kind of keywords, which may not be completely faithful — to actually review to consider who to admit and that's why they don't bother to reply to all the applicants they don't admit.

For example, recently I found the reason I was not admitted for an application to a fundamental physics research group in Europe four months ago is eventually the funding is only available for a research project which is not my research interest; thus probably they even didn't review my application as they, saying they received an extraordinary number of applications, only picked those whose research interests involve that research project to review.

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    thus probably they even didn't review my application as they only picked those whose research interests involve that research project to review 1) The only way they could know if you were interested in the project is if they reviewed your materials to learn about your interest. 2) Once they learned your interests don't line up with their funding, why would they go any further? That's a totally legitimate reason to be rejected. – Azor Ahai Oct 29 '18 at 17:42
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    Besides that, they seldom address other reasons. Some responses of this kind were due to my enquiry after application, rather than on their own initiative. Some of them didn't bother to respond even after my enquiry. Departments in my field regularly receive ~150 applications and accept <10. They are not going to take the time to respond to 100s of people and offering specific reasons just means people will argue with them and opens them up to suits. – Azor Ahai Oct 29 '18 at 17:44
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    From the last paragraph it sounds like you're "mass applying" for PhD positions, since you didn't seem to care/know that the project advertised wasn't related to your own interests and expertise. When we recruit in my university these applications are the first ones to get redflagged since a) there are plenty of actually qualified applicants to waste time with those who aren't and b) it denotes lack of diligence by the applicant (e.g., applicant didn't even read the list of requirements). We even got a biology major apply for a PhD position in physics (these come from India/Pakistan). 1/2 – Miguel Oct 29 '18 at 20:19
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    So it's a better use of yours and everyone's time to only apply for positions for which you have the expertise. It will help your chances if your application shows that you are a good fit for the project and took the time to go through the requirements and so on. It usually pays out to apply for less positions but making sure you're the right fit for them. 2/2 – Miguel Oct 29 '18 at 20:24
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    @Miguel The statement of rejection implies that funding was cut for a project that "was their research interest". Regardless being "outside of their research interest" does not imply that the research was outside of their expertise and that they were not aware of this. It's possible that the number of research positions in their exact area of interest is very narrow and so they are looking for jobs that may be outside of that in order to broaden that area of interest. For instance, an intern studying physics might do research slightly outside of their AOI because it's what they could find. – The Great Duck Oct 30 '18 at 3:54
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When I get applications to review, I usually do a pre-pass on every application. I look for GPA, test scores, and compliance with requested application materials (i.e. did they even have anyone write them letters of recommendation?). We usually have explicitly stated bottom line cutoffs for GPA and test scores. Those falling below these marks are automatically set to the side.

I next try to scan the research statements / statements of purpose. This eliminates a large amount of the candidates usually.

I then cut the remaining applications into about half. I select who I want to accept from this half stack and order them roughly from strongest to weakest. I then do a spot check to see if anyone in the other half stack is clearly superior to the weaker candidates in the already selected stack. If so, I do an insertion of the new candidate and the weakest person is dropped from the list.

In the end, yes, I've looked at everyone's application, and no, I have not given heartfelt and deep thought to each applicant.

We then send out an accept/reject form email to every applicant. I very rarely even reply at length to students who fight their rejection.

  • In applications to European PhD programs, I have never seen stated bottom line cutoffs for GPA and test scores. Some of them even don't require any grade transcript. So they should not have pre-passed applicants based on grades. – Captain Bohemian Oct 29 '18 at 19:39
  • @CaptainBohemian I've also seen European PhD programs with entire websites written in German. I adjust accordingly to the specific situation in these cases. – Vladhagen Oct 29 '18 at 19:45
  • Before application, I always check the requirement and research conducted in the group. I only make application to a research group, school, or institute if I find there are research themes which actually interest me or if the research projects for which they recruit applicants are actually what I want to work on. I usually write explicitly in my application which themes in their group are what I hope to work on. But I don't know if that's a big factor for their selection. – Captain Bohemian Oct 29 '18 at 19:57
  • "I then cut the remaining applications into about half ... " Do you mean you divide the remaining applications into two portions randomly, rather than by some kind of qualification-based criteria? If that's the case, then in your way of selecting applicants, among the qualified applicants, only the strongest are certain to be accepted while whether those with qualifications between the strongest and the weakest would be accepted partly depends on which portion their documents happen to be placed in, that is to say, partly depends on their luck! – Captain Bohemian Nov 1 '18 at 13:20
  • @CaptainBohemian Looking at only half of the stack gives me a bootstrap sample of what applicants there are. And it's sort of based on luck as to whether the middle tier candidates will pan out if accepted. If there were a perfectly fair algorithm, we would write it into a computer and make the computer choose. – Vladhagen Nov 1 '18 at 14:57
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You shouldn't read such a phrase as the reason for the rejection. It is there for you to feel less bad, because you were not (necessarily) rejected because of a problem with your application or background; there simply were so many applicants that also good candidates had to be rejected.

That said, the absence of a clear rejection reason means nothing, so you cannot deduce from this that you were one of those good candidates (which is why I put "necessarily" in parentheses above).

  • I once received a response "The number of applications has been very high, and many highly qualified applicants, such as yourself, had to be turned down." I wonder if they say this due to actually thinking so and whether this mail is specially for me, rather than a bulk mail, since it should be unlikely that they think every applicant they turn down is highly qualified. In that mail they referred to my name, rather than "Dear applicant", which is most rejection mails I got, so maybe they wrote that specifically for me, but maybe they can send bulk mails with each only different in name. – Captain Bohemian Oct 29 '18 at 19:09
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    @CaptainBohemian They are definitely capable of doing this. – indigochild Oct 29 '18 at 21:22
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    @CaptainBohemian most likely it’s still an automated email. Truth is, in academia most times the applicant are good enough, it’s simply that the number of position at next stage is always much smaller than at the previous one. If you want real feedback you should be looking at the winners profiles ( what do they have that you don’t?) and contact directly the members of the selection committee you feel – famargar Oct 30 '18 at 14:54
  • @famargar The reason I doubt this mail is a bulk mail is this school I applied to has no stipulated application period and deadline—the applications can be submitted to them anytime and their website states once your application including recommendations are completed the selection committee would start to review your application and it takes 3 months to finish. Then to my surprise, they sent me the mail exactly 3 months after the final recommendation was submitted. – Captain Bohemian Oct 30 '18 at 16:47
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    @CaptainBohemian my point is that regardless of whether that email is automated or not, what you want is not an ego boost, but an actionable feedback – famargar Oct 30 '18 at 16:57
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Besides all the correct answers (that you should not read too much into a standard rejection letter), let me also answer your actual question:

So I wonder whether a research group or school actually reviews every applicant's documents if they receive an overwhelming number of applications compared to the vacancy number.

In general, yes - for some definition of "review". Let me clarify: the number of applicants is typically overwhelming compared to the vacancy numbers. If I announce a PhD student position (usually a single position), I get somewhere between 10 and 100 applications. This is not unusual - all my colleagues report similar numbers. And yes, we do actually look at all applications that come in, but for most applicants we do so only very, very briefly. I have a number of knockout criteria that I use to do a first cursory assessment.

My (non-complete) list of knockout criteria includes: Does the candidate fulfill the necessary formal requirements? Are they in the right field? Is there some semblance of a research statement? Did they graduate from a school I know, or have they worked with somebody I know and respect? Are there any obvious red flags?

At least 3/4 of applicants do not pass this stage. For the remaining ones I typically take more time to review their application (i.e., I actually read their application material), and for a further subset (usually between 3 and 5) I schedule telephone interviews. The applicants I had a phone interview with I usually mail a (slightly) personalized response if I decide against them. Everybody else gets a standard email from HR.

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    This is exactly the same as reviewing CVs for "commercial" job applications. You are presented with way too many applicants and have to look for reasons to reject quickly so that you can concentrate on those that may be most suitable. Good candidates can often be rejected at the first scan just because their application is poorly presented or they miss out on some detail. – uɐɪ Oct 30 '18 at 12:02
  • I hope the (un)known school / (un)known previous advisor are not your absolute knockout criteria (or rather, that you consider a known school/advisor a plus, but don't reject people flat out if you do not know it/them). I'd like to think that well-written, well-presented applications written by people with good research profiles would not be completely overlooked just because they happen to come from a lesser-known institution. Other than you stating that "known school/advisor" is a knockout criterion, I really do like this answer. – penelope Oct 31 '18 at 14:31
  • @penelope I thought this would raise some objections. To be entirely honest, my bar for students where I don't know the school or anything else about the quality of their previous education is very high, to the extent that it might as well be considered a knock-out criterion. I would certainly further consider such a student if the rest of the application was extremely strong, but I have not yet had such a case. – xLeitix Oct 31 '18 at 15:23
  • @penelope It's a complex topic. I understand that I probably "lose" a certain amount of very good people in this way, but the risk I accept whenever I take on a PhD student is quite high. Basically, if I take on a student in Sweden it will cost me multiple 100k USD in funding, there is virtually no way to kick out an underperforming student, and I will have to work with them for 5 years. If this student ends up not graduating it will reflect extremely badly on me. In consequence, I, and most of my colleagues tend to be very risk-averse in hiring. – xLeitix Oct 31 '18 at 15:27
  • I'm surprised it didn't raise more objections. I'm glad you say "you'd certainly further consider such a student if the rest of the application was extremely strong", and I don't find it too hard to believe that you haven't seen any (yet). I get that it's complex, and that you observe a strong correlation between people from unknown advisor/institutions submitting not-as-strong applications. But I still hope that the decision is finally made based on the criteria measuring application quality, and not fame. – penelope Nov 1 '18 at 13:52
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You encountered a standard phrase which is used to reject applications. This is useful for the institution, because

  • noone wants to write dozens of individual letters
  • you might get into legal trouble if you wrote something which might not be true in the eyes of the recipient of the letter.

Usually all applications are checked, some institutions might have automated systems to support the process (e.g. check for grades etc.), but most will do it manually.

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If you saw how crammed the average professors calendar and how full their email inbox is... I would guess most groups simply don't have that kind of time.

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