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I usually reply to e-mails from students asking for PhD positions to let them know if I am interested or if they are competitive / up to standards for continuing with an application but this tends to be more on the admin / funding and suitability to my lab. Yesterday, I received one such PhD application and the project / research proposal was so outside the "state-of-the-art" (effectively the proposal was to research something that already exists as a commercial product) that I think I should also comment on that.

Should I let the student know and give him some feedback (which is going to be on the harsh side) about his proposal. Is it common or should I not bother at all? To be clear, I have no intention of considering the application.

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    Is it common and expected in your field that students come up with their own projects? In some fields it would be extremely rare, in others it would be the norm. I think the answer to your query might depend. – Buffy Feb 1 at 1:39
  • @Buffy students send proposals anyways, however premature or unexpected these proposals are, if only to signal they have read some papers by the PI. Of course those who send random thoughts one just ignores. – ZeroTheHero Feb 2 at 3:16
  • @Buffy my (little) experience so far shows that it is a field and student "origin" combination - I mean that candidates from certain countries tend to send what they think are detailed proposals with applications while others don't. – o4tlulz Feb 2 at 5:31
  • There is nothing gained by being harsh. I know that this is a method in some places to discourage people, but politeness never goes amiss. – Captain Emacs Feb 2 at 13:57
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You will do the student a kindness if you send feedback. Try not to be harsh. Perhaps something like, "Did you know that company X already makes product Y that appears to incorporate what you have proposed as research? That being the case, I'm sorry but your proposal is not suitable for my lab."

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    This. Give him a one time, gentle, feedback. Then wash hands. – guest Feb 1 at 0:32
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    Further to Vladhagen's answer, with which I sympathize, you may want to add, "I accept only students whose initial proposals suit my requirements. I wish you the best as you apply elsewhere." That ought to firmly slam the door, while still not being crushingly harsh. – Bob Brown Feb 1 at 0:49
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    Think it is tougher than needed. Plus it's not really true. People take students all the time that don't even have proposals. If the kid were a superstar, you would work with him and change the topic. – guest Feb 1 at 0:54
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    Students are not necessarily good at coming up with good proposals, and yet they can be brilliant. If the proposal is indeed the criterium, this is indeed the answer. There is no necessity of you to indicate that you will accept corrected proposals. I have different criteria to evaluate applicants, and, in fact, having a too detailed proposals often tends to work against the student, as I get the impression that this is specifically what they want to do rather than a topic that fits my group's profile. Of course, I try to correct for that, if I think they are interesting candidates. – Captain Emacs Feb 2 at 13:53
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    Agreed @CaptainEmacs and I did go through the CV before I had a look at the proposal. However, in this case, the proposal was so off that simply looking at what was written there, you could tell (again personal opinion) that this person was not PhD material (already had a Master's). – o4tlulz Feb 3 at 1:41
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I think you will have to balance the fact that the student's proposal is entirely unfit as a research project and the fact that telling the student how to "fix" his/her proposal may come across as soliciting a re-application.

If you have no intention of considering the application, I would maybe actually shy away from telling the student how to fix their proposal. I have found that too often such suggestions are taken to mean "please fix this and re-apply." And it could sound strange to say "This is already a commercial product. I am not interested in your application regardless." If the student comes back with a new proposal, then you are faced with the dilemma of twice (thrice) rejecting the student for yet another reason.

If you believe that the student could actually become a strong candidate by fixing his/her proposal, then telling him/her how to actually fix their proposal may turn out okay. But this may be a rabbit hole you do not want to go down.


I will admit that it pains me to answer in this way. As someone who has gone through the graduate school and job application process, I wish that I could always know the reason for being rejected. But having also had to deal with students trying 3 or 4 times to get into a my department's grad program after being rejected multiple times, I have sadly found it necessary to be pretty vague as to why I am rejecting a student, but pretty direct about the fact that I am indeed rejecting them.

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Well, your feedback is something to make them do better. You could probably say it less harshly though. And reject it nice and slow. But either way, it will hurt. But well, that's life, at least they learned something from you.

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