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I'm a PhD student in the US and am looking for a postdoc position for the next year. I'm reaching out to a few PIs I've been interested in working with.

There's one PI I'm really interested. This PI is in the field A, while I'm in the field B. But I saw the potential of common interests and thought that this person would help me gain a new perspective and skills during my postdoc training. I also asked if she would be willing to support grant writing or fellowship application which is due in a month. (I know this is a short deadline, but this is the only fellowship I’d be eligible for and I was desperate..)

The PI replied to my email saying that we share a lot of common research interests, and she has always been interested in my field B and think that my PhD training in field B could contribute to her lab.

However, she wrote that she's not available for co-writing a grant or my application for a postdoctoral fellowship this year (listing other tasks that will keep her busy). And she mentioned that "with earlier preparation, we could apply for the fellowship next year".

In addition, she suggested an alternative option. She recommended co-writing a grant with an assistant professor in the field B who has been recently hired in their department. Her suggestion is that once the new professor and I secure a grant, she can collaborate with me.

However, the thing is that I'm not super interested in working with the new assistant professor whose research interests don't align with me very well.

My question: Do you think that the PI I contacted is not interested in working with me? Based on my impression from the email, I feel that she's not enthusiastic about having me in her lab even though she said some nice things to be polite. Overall, I think that she doesn't want to invest much (either her time or resources) on getting me involved in her lab. Can I consider her response as a polite rejection?

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    This is one of those situations were a (scheduled) phone call might help clear things up. – henning -- reinstate Monica Aug 5 '20 at 12:11
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It depends on what you mean by rejection. It's pretty clear that they are not willing to take you into the lab at this moment, but it's not a firm no. My read is that it's politely interested without being committal. I read it as follows:

  1. The professor gave you specific feedback about your e-mail, suggesting they took the time to actually read what you wrote to them and consider you seriously as a candidate.

  2. The professor says that they'd be interested in putting together a proposal with a longer deadline - this could be honesty on their part that they simply don't have the bandwidth to co-write a proposal with a short deadline.

  3. They also suggest you contact a young faculty in their department. Depending on the department, this new faculty could be in the "orbit" of the bigger name, meaning that the big professor could see this as a way to keep you on the hook even though they don't have the funds to commit to you at this exact moment.

  4. The professor didn't ask you for an interview or any follow-up. This suggests that they don't see it as even a remote possibility that they could take you on at this moment. They're then putting the ball back in your court. If you respond that you'd be interested to work on finding a fellowship with a more distant deadline, they sound like they'd be willing to move to the next step.

Whether you're in a position to wait a year (and probably two, since it will take time for your fellowship proposal to be reviewed), and whether it would be worth it for a shot to work together with this professor is something only you or those with more specific knowledge of your situation can answer. But, if you're interested in following-up, I agree with @henning that a suggestion of a phone call or video chat would be very instructive. Either you will get a good or bad vibe from them on the call, or their reaction to the suggestion ("sorry, i don't have time") will help you clear things up.

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