I am applying for PhD this Fall. Came across one of my referees today, had a great conversation and then he asked if I had a plan B if I would not be admitted. Does it mean he thinks I'm not good enough?

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    When in doubt, someone probably meant what they said and no more. – Thomas Dec 6 at 21:59
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    @Thomas That's also great advice for infuriating passive-aggressive, sarcastic people. "Wow, you're clearly familiar with basic geometry." "Thanks!" "It wasn't a compliment." "Sure sounded like one. Thanks!" – Nic Hartley Dec 7 at 0:54
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    I wonder whether your referee wanted to offer a Plan B, but that's wild speculation! As answered below: Don't overthink this. – user2768 Dec 7 at 10:35
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    Maybe this referee is actually looking for someone themselves and were interested to know if you might be interested if your other PhD application falls through. Who knows? – J... Dec 7 at 12:55
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    Just to be clear, you're not applying to a single place for a PhD, are you? I suppose that's unlikely, but just checking. – Faheem Mitha Dec 9 at 9:08

Don't overthink this. It sounds like he's just showing a friendly interest in your plans. No matter how "good" you are, graduate admissions always has some degree of uncertainty, and so everybody should consider what they will do if they don't get admitted. He just wants to know what that would be for you.

If he really didn't think you were good enough, he wouldn't have agreed to be a reference for you.

Probably not. I had a really similar conversation recently with one of my referees for an MA that I'm applying for in the fall. He elaborated by saying that he wants to see me succeed, and wondered if I would continue to try and bolster my skills for reapplication in the event that I did not make it in. The road to success in academia is paved with failure, and I'm sure your referee is genuinely looking out for your best interest and not implying anything negative.

It's unlikely this is any reflection on your ability, but more on the lottery of postgraduate admissions.

Personally, when I'd decided on my research interests, there were literally three people in the entire country who would have made suitable supervisors. The year I applied none of them had grants available to fund a PhD student. I decided to go into a different field instead, rather than waiting, which was a colossal mistake but that's a whole different story.

I only mention my personal circumstances to illustrate one of the many reasons that you can fail to get a PhD place which have nothing to do with your learning or skill.

In science we often have to consider "Plan B". In fact, when you apply for a grant and aim to achieve several connected things, you often required to discuss what would happen if one of them won't work out.

There is no reason to assume that your referee is questioning your ability. I think they want to know one of these things:

  • what other school you are applying
  • have you thought about alternatives (non-academic career)
  • do you want to get PhD to stay in academia or move to industry after getting degree (both are legit goals)
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    The question was not really about science but rather about OP's career, IMHO. – einpoklum Dec 8 at 10:06
  • @einpoklum i was trying to point where PI might be coming from – aaaaaa Dec 8 at 17:07

The PhD program I graduated from typically had about twice as many strong candidates who they would love to have in the program as they had spots available.

Some of those people would end up choosing to go elsewhere anyways so that's no problem, but ultimately some of those people have to be denied just because of space and not because any of them were not good enough; the decisions on the most borderline of those cases might be simply tossups.

In summary, I think it's most likely this was just a polite question and didn't mean anything beyond that, but it most definitely doesn't mean that you are unqualified or not good enough.

If you do not have a Plan B, that would indicate that you are 100% committed and fully invested into your doctoral studies should you be granted admission.

Personally, I would hope and very much love it if a person seeking admission with hopes of becoming my advisee answered the question with a negative on a plan b.

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