I am an international student from an Asian country. I recently emailed one PhD supervisor at a well-ranked university in London with my CV attached to see if there are any PhD opportunities for me. The supervisor replied to me very quickly and invited me to have a Skype conversation with her.

She only asked about my research interests but nothing else during the Skype chat , which I actually considered as an informal interview (she even didn’t introduce her lab to me). After the Skype chat, she asked me to write my own proposal and proceed with the formal application, which made me to think at least she was happy with my application. After that, I drafted a few research ideas and sent them to her. She finally agreed with the ideas and edited the proposal for me for a few times.

From sending her the first email to finishing the research proposal, it took me around three months. We had more than 20 emails and one more Skype chat during that time. As it was an extremely complicated and tiring process, I think the reason why she continued to help me with the proposal was because she wanted to take me as a student. Otherwise, she can say no in any stages during this process.

The requirement of the university is to have a formal interview for all prospective phd student. The interviewer was the phd supervisor. However, I was rejected by her after the formal interview, which I couldn’t understand at all. If you want to reject me, why did you spend so much time on me and give me false hope? I just think this is not very ethical, as if you said no earlier, I would have had chances of finding other supervisors in the same university (I really wanted to get into this uni, the supervisor was actually less important).

So I am wondering here how you think about this supervisor (i.e why she rejected me in the end while writing the proposal with me during the past three months) and if this is normal in Western/UK culture?

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    No, it is not normal. Did you ask her for an explanation? Could something have happened which was outside the supervisor's control? Mar 14, 2019 at 23:32
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    In her rejection email, she said the reason was because I didn’t understand some basic concepts in conducting an experiment, such as alternative hypothesis. Firstly, I didn’t remember that was part of the interview questions. Secondly, even if I demonstrated some misunderstanding for that, I don’t think that’s a big deal, given that I have a lot of strengths in my application...
    – Xiao
    Mar 14, 2019 at 23:39
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    @Xiao "I didn’t understand some basic concepts in conducting an experiment, such as alternative hypothesis." That's a good reason to reject a PhD student if the PhD is in science. Mar 15, 2019 at 4:53
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    Maybe it took her that long to realize that you were more interested in having shiny prestigious university name X listed on your CV than actually doing research with her (just like you stated at the end of your question!). That's a deal breaker in many cases because it's a huge pain to supervise students who are not motivated by the actual research but by secondary factors. "I really wanted to get into this uni, the supervisor was actually less important" says a lot... Mar 15, 2019 at 12:03
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    I suppose alternative hypothesis is from statistics 101, which is a mandatory subject in most Chinese universities. See binary hypothesis testing.
    – Lei Zhao
    Feb 28, 2021 at 12:13

4 Answers 4


Here is another perspective: a professor offered you substantial help with your application and you end up complaining that they wasted your time. Trying to figure out whether you’d be a good fit, they discussed research with you at length and help you draft a research proposal (which you hopefully use to improve your acceptance chances in other applications). After several days (or weeks) of discussion they decided that you’re ultimately not a good fit.

There can be a million reasons: another student was a better fit, funding was denied, research needs changed and so on. Rejection sucks, and I do sympathize, but it sounds like the professor went waaaaay out of their way to help a stranger; their reward? Getting trashed online for it.

Your lesson from this should be to not place all your chips on one advisor so to speak. When I interview candidates I implicitly assume they’ve applied to at least 10 other places and discussed their work with others. I had prospective students and research fellows rescind my offers after I had invested a ton of time and effort into getting them admitted. It sucks, but that’s life.

Edit: seeing the discussion in the comments regarding foul play, I don’t think that’s likely. While there might be a chance of that, think about it - why would anyone not want to hire someone who has great ideas? I don’t see the causal relation here. Coming into research with a non-cooperative mindset won’t help you in the future.


I have seen this pattern play out quite often, and there never was any foul play involved.

Two things to keep in mind here are: First, assessing someone's potential for doing a PhD in general, and fit with a particular supervisor, is difficult. Doing this based on a short proposal and a transcript from a university in a system you are not familiar with becomes near impossible. Second, taking on a PhD student is a huge commitment (at least in the UK). Just getting rid of a student if they underperform is rarely an option.

The prospective supervisor here gave the OP a chance to convince her of their suitability as a PhD candidate, and clearly invested significant effort into this. After the formal interview however she was still unconvinced, and thus did the right thing in rejecting the application. Rejecting a student you have invested significant time into, and interacted quite a bit, is not an easy thing to do - so while it might have been possible for the prospective supervisor to reject already after 18 emails exchanged, I really can't fault her for wanting to give OP yet another chance.


It doesn't matter what we think about this person. We are not their judges. You will meet many people who act extremly unethical (and get very far in their career by this strategy). The best for you is to forget this person and move on with your life -- this case is just over and you cannot do anything about this. Don't get unhappy by constantly thinking about some toxic person. Talk to some friends and make sure you get mental support from them.

If there was a bit of useful critism (you mention something about some hypothesis), take this to your heart and if you come into a similar situation, try to learn from these thinfs (e. g. find out to effectively communicate your knowledge about those hypothesis).

While there is a lot of unethical behaviour in academia, for what it's worth, this kind of behaviour I've never ever seen before.

  • Thanks for your suggestions! I will move on and also learn from this in my future applications!
    – Xiao
    Mar 15, 2019 at 0:31
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    I find this a rather unhelpful answer. All the answer is saying "that person acted unethically, get over it". Mar 15, 2019 at 1:51
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    And that's the only important thing for the OP. Life is full of bad people, don't get a victim of them.
    – user105595
    Mar 15, 2019 at 6:22
  • It doesn’t answer the question, just says what to do if there’s unethical behavior, and offers no support to the hypothesis of unethical behavior
    – Spark
    Feb 28, 2021 at 14:15

Yes, the story as related by you reflects poorly on the person. But there are details missing, such as where the funding would be coming from. As an academic, I've often poured time and effort into a prospective student who had indicated that they would be self-funding or able to secure funding, which then turned out to be false. If it was going to be up to the supervisor, her likelihood of securing the funding should have been discussed: was she sitting on some money, would she have to apply and if so, within the institute or outside of it? All of which shifts the balance. (BTW many academics habitually exaggerate their ability access money.) This should have been discussed during the first conversation. Another matter that should have been brought up is what the formal requirements were going to be.

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