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I applied to a funded advertised PhD position about 7 weeks ago... I heard nothing between then and a few days ago when I got an email from them saying that they “wondered” whether I would be willing to self-fund my research. I let them know that I wouldn’t be able to do that and have heard nothing back from them since... The issue here is that I don’t know how to take this.

I’m under the impression that my application was well above average (I had it looked over by several academics I know) and I’m pretty sure that I was one of the first people who applied, if not the first.

I just want to know if I should take their question to mean that they are not willing to fund my research. Is this standard practice? And if it is, what does it mean?

  • If only done by a single professor, I wouldn't put much weight into this. There are many strange people out there. I know a (famous) math prof, whose students are usually funded, but he says that he does not want students who do not love maths enough that they would work for free. Silly, if you ask me.(I don't know if and how he finds out whether his students would work for free...) – user114084 Sep 15 '19 at 19:19
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    If you applied to a possition (as opposite to a school), your application being well above average becomes irrelevant. The only thing which matters is if there is ONE application better than yours or not. And in some situations even exceptional applications end up second....If that is the case, it is possible that they want another candidate yet your application is strong enough that they don't want to miss you, but they may not have funding. – Nick S Sep 15 '19 at 19:48
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    If this is the sciences, you should laugh in their face and frankly I wouldn't even answer them. – Azor Ahai Sep 15 '19 at 23:31
  • It seems pretty obvious the way to take it. They want you if free, but not if they have to pay for you. Your next step is to look for other options and not worry about the one that passed. As my mother said, there are a lot of fish in the sea. – guest Sep 16 '19 at 4:52
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Answering for the UK and for not-STEM: YMMV in other locations or subjects.

In such a situation it is very likely that you have not been given the funded position. If I were to speculate here, the internal decision about the funded position was likely made and whoever contacted you assumed you had already been notified that you did not get it. However, it is certainly acceptable and appropriate for you to ask about the status of that application and you need not hesitate.

However, to put things in perspective, my subject area recently had over 100 applicants for 4 funded PhD positions (and 86 applicants for a single post doc position). It certainly didn't matter at all who applied first as no one looks at the applications until the closing date, and we don't look at them in the order they come in. While you might believe your application was strong, and it might be strong, if you are facing a similar applicant to award ratio, your prospects aren't good.

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Only they know the meaning and implication of what they said. You will have to ask to know if you are in contention or not. Perhaps, since the position was intended to be funded, that they are thinking of bringing in more than one person with only one funded.

My response would be to simply ask them what are the next steps you should take to complete your application and what is the time scale for them to make a decision.

But I would also not give up on any other opportunities that you have or that you could explore.

The question asked of you was a bit strange, even a bit improper. Maybe it was just awkwardness on their part and maybe something worse. But don't make assumptions or take actions that might be wrong and that might disadvantage yourself.

  • In the UK it is a pretty common question we have to ask. When a student has not been given a funded PhD place, but has been accepted to the PhD programme because acceptance was a requirement of the funding application, we have to contact them to ask if they are planning on showing up anyway. – GrotesqueSI Sep 16 '19 at 12:59

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