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Background:

I have been applying for a PhD in the last three years to more than 150 positions, very much specific to my skills and background. I only applied when I found positions' requirements matching my skills and experience.

I got the same response for all those positions. I almost gave up and went offline. After few months, I noticed a couple of emails from a professor, who liked my profile very much and was very interested in contacting me. I responded and got interviewed. However, he didn't find me suitable for position and advertised again for the very same position.

After a couple of months I applied to another project/position of the same Research Centre, thinking I may have chance in this group, but as usual they rejected but they said I came second.

After a couple of months, they said they are advertising again and I should apply since I was in top three. However, as usual, they got better candidate this time as well.


In a nutshell, I have been rejected for more than 150 positions and only one group who found me very suitable candidate rejected three times. While I cannot describe how I am feeling I also don't know whether to take it as positive that they interviewed me three times or that even they didn't find me suitable for something which I was very much capable of.

My question Is if it's all normal, or should I give up on looking for PhD positions.

With every day I am not getting any younger and my chances are decreasing. It has been around 3.5 years since I have done my master's. With every rejection, I have been trying to rectify errors and mistakes and improvements but all in vain so far.

Thanks in advance.

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  • 6
    Have you talked to one of them or to a friendly academic who you do not want to apply to? Perhaps they can identify problems in your application? Do you go to conferences? – Captain Emacs Apr 19 '19 at 11:41
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    Fifty positions a year is crazy high for where I'm from. I can't imagine they're all "very much specific to [your] skills and background." Where are you applying to? Is that a typical number? – Azor Ahai Apr 19 '19 at 16:16
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    OP, can you clarify which of the following is the case? Do you have a PhD and you are applying to positions that require one, or you do not have a PhD and you are applying to get into a PhD program of study? – shoover Apr 19 '19 at 16:23
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    could you please add some personal info: your country of citizenship, your undergrad country, and the country where you apply for PhD. Also it might be useful if you mention your field – aaaaa says reinstate Monica Apr 19 '19 at 16:45
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    @ASimpleAlgorithm i am not convinced that OP really have tried their best. 0/150 is really unsual – aaaaa says reinstate Monica Apr 19 '19 at 18:52
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You say you have been rejected a lot, but give no indication whatever of why that is. It isn't random, I suspect. I can suggest two possible scenarios and from them you can, perhaps, devise a strategy.

The first situation is that you are just applying to places that are so off the scale that no one is actually likely to be admitted. The top institutions normally have tremendous competition for slots and some of them have very few slots available. Dartmouth, in CS, for example is a great institution, but its doctoral program is very small. If they get hundreds of applications for any available position, then the likelihood of any particular person gaining admission is pretty miniscule. So perhaps you are just aiming too high. Since you have come close a few times, perhaps not impossibly high, but there are probably other options.

The second is that you are deficient in some way and need to improve either your technical or personal skills or both. That isn't criticism, since I don't know anything about you, but perceived issues are probably apparent to people once you get into the application process. Arrogant people don't find easy acceptance, to name just one personal "flaw" that some folks exhibit. At the other end of the scale, people who project extreme introversion often come off as less able than they are.

As for the technical side, you can work on that without formally being in a program. You can study and write in your field, for example. If you have the time and can expend the effort to do it effectively, you will improve the skills that others may feel you lack.

But, it is important, I think, that you also find a way to learn at least a bit about why you haven't made the cut. Perhaps someone you have corresponded with in the past can point you in the direction you need to go. Feedback can be valuable, not just about your final position in the ranking, but why you weren't higher. Find a way to ask.

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9

I am an international US-based PhD student, so have bias in experience and what I've heard. Still, 150 applications and rejections seems pretty high to me to suspect that there might be some systematic error. I think that's a good news for you!

Unfortunately, you don't get a lot of feedback when PhD program rejects you (nor do we usually explain ourselves when reject PhD program :)

There are few ways to make sure that your applications are not lacking something fundamental:

  • Ask your home undergrad institution to review your application and package and your target program. Your college is interested in your employment and success, that is one of their key metrics. Go talk to the Employment office or whatever your school provides. You can always start with the Undergraduate Adviser.
  • Ask other experiences people inside the graduate programs. Find a professor that knows your field (doesn't have to be exactly in your field) to review your package and plan. They might not be experts in paperwork that is involved in admission but will surely advise you. Send nice email asking precise question and admitting that you might not understand something.
  • Find a graduate student or a post-doc who went through the process, especially inside program you want to apply to. Social media here is your friend, you can address them directly or by posting something with hashtag like #academia or #PhDchat (on Twitter). Chances are you'll find a nice student to review your application (I have helped at least once to review cover letter and it is very rewarding)
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  • I may be in a minority here, but I would rather someone e-mail me than find me on Twitter to ask for professional advice. I would also recommend finding someone who has completed or is near to completing a PhD program to review the application. – user108403 Jan 26 at 10:43
  • @artificial_moonlet my impression that academic twitter is pretty friendly, and usually people will follow up with "here is my email, let's move it there or schedule a video call" – aaaaa says reinstate Monica Jan 26 at 16:17
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Some big things that would generally affect your PhD applications are briefed below. These will definitely impact your application if you are applying to a US university, however, I still think that these can be applicable across different countries.

  • Your GPA (or grades/percentage). It doesn't have to be extremely high, but should be above the institution's threshold.
  • MS research (I am assuming you have an MS). What you did in your masters might also have an impact on your PhD acceptance. For instance, if you have an undergrad in English, but are looking to pursue higher education in molecular biology, you will have hard time. This is not an exaggeration because I know someone who just did that, but it was hard for that person to get admitted. This might not apply to you though.
  • Your statement of purpose (SOP). Some also call it statement of intent. This is very important. It is an opportunity for you to stitch your past, present, and future together in your own words. How well you do at it, might actually have an impact on how your interviewer perceive you for a PhD.
  • Communication skills. This generally applies to international students where language can be a barrier. Even though language can be improved, this might be another factor that initially can make recruiter think twice before hiring someone. If you can't understand what other person is saying then it is going to be a problem. Another thing, during interview, your confidence also shows somewhat how likely are you to succeed in PhD. The way you present yourself in the interview will be the proxy for your hiring faculty to test your presentation skills.
  • Minimum supervision. Even though a PhD is still an education program where you learn things, most supervisors expect you to be somewhat independent during your PhD. If you show them, verbally or otherwise, that you will be requiring a constant supervision, then that is discouraging for the hiring faculty. On the flip side, if you can show you can not only work under minimum supervision, but can also supervise other undergrads or your peers, then that makes your application stronger.
  • Finally, the letters of recommendation (LOR). To some, this might seem somewhat trivial. Some might think, if they have wonderful GPA, bunch of publication, and good lab experience, so nobody can stop them. But if referees wrote a bad LOR, then it is unlikely that your potential supervisor will hire you. My MS supervisor told me once that he interviewed 3-4 students for a position he hired me for, and one of other applicant's LOR from his supervisor said something like "he is good in lab, is punctual, and is goal oriented, but is arrogant and does not work well with others". So this is a red flag. Even if you are a good researcher, your future supervisor doesn't want to be your social coach. Science can be taught, but social behavior is a life-learning endeavor.

Good luck!

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  • One question I had to your letters of recommendation portion - isn’t it routine to have an individual decline to write a letter of recommendation if they can not write a good one? I don’t see why anyone would agree to write a letter and then just throw in there that the student is arrogant. – H5159 Apr 23 '19 at 13:29
  • I don’t see why anyone would agree to write a letter and then just throw in there that the student is arrogant. Because it is their responsibility, to be honest in the letters as per academic policy. Now I am not saying that it happens or it does not on a regular basis but things do happen. Some professors ask their students to draft a letter then they edit and sign it. But some write themselves and it is confidential and you have no control. – cropgen Apr 23 '19 at 14:13
  • I believe some universities in the US allow you to see your recommendation letters unless you waive your right. However, I’ve always been under the impression that individuals will refuse to write a letter if they can not write a positive one. I was under the impression that that was the normal policy for such things. – H5159 Apr 23 '19 at 14:16
  • Maybe there is. But unless it is a written guideline, then it is subjective. – cropgen Apr 23 '19 at 14:19
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Since most of the answers given have addressed only how to improve your application, I'm going to address the other part of your question: whether you should keep trying for a Ph.D. program.

Three and a half years is a long time to be applying consistently to programs without acceptance. It may be time to ask yourself some tough questions:

  • Why do you want a Ph.D.?
  • What do you plan to do after the Ph.D.?
  • What do you want for yourself overall in life, and can you achieve that without a Ph.D.?

It may be that in answering these questions for yourself, you also figure out how to strengthen your applications; oftentimes applicants don't have enough clarity with their research and long-term goals and are rejected for that reason. Or it may be that you realize you don't actually want or need a Ph.D. If you've spent any time on this forum, then you're already aware that academia is a tough path to follow, and it gets narrower the longer you stay on it. I know more people who have quit academia and are doing something else that makes them happy, than people who stayed on the path and remained happy.

Depending on what else is going on in your life, it may be also be helpful to meet with a counselor, career coach, or older mentor. Try also talking to people with different careers you find interesting, not just academics, to get a fuller sense of what options you have in life. Everyone has an important role to play in society, and it's ok if yours isn't in academia.

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