How do you refuse to work with graduate students when they come to you and explain they want to work with you without necessarily being offered a job (e.g. a project that pays).

My advisor was very selective, he had conditions - students would need to take a course, Ace it, be in a percentage, then take a personality test, volunteer etc etc. He had many projects and million dollar fundings so it was just easy for him to have the authority and the department would be okay with this.

I am only starting and I have realized that I have been kind of soft about this, especially with international students knocking on my door and saying they want to work with me I accepted to be their supervisor. They have their scholarships too so I suppose that shows they have gone through a selection process, and it could be good for me. However, I noticed that it is actually very slow and time consuming to get them to a point where they start working on their own, and if ever happens, work academically (not just applications).

So I decided to be more selective. Then this student comes in and wants to work with me for all the wrong reasons. they have worked in field X for more than 5 years but wants to do their thesis on a new topic just so they will learn it, they didn't bother to take any related courses either. This is a student who deserted their MS some years ago and came back to finish somehow, sees literature review credits as "some checkbox". They signed up for the credits without talking to me (I didn't approve it, but the course is opened without a lecturer on paper, but students are expected to work towards their thesis with their supervisors)

When I explained them they don't have the necessary background, and I really don't have the time to start with a student who doesn't have the necessary beackground. They have insisted which would make me reconsider but the way they insist, using an authoritative language which is outright forceful, and it rubs me off the wrong way really, if I am a couple days late on reply, they send me emails (copy paste) repeatedly to my non work related emails as well (I don't know how they got it btw). Nothing shows up about the student btw as they are super secretive using initials only even for the email, basically a bit intimidating. Their motivation is again a combination of wrong reasons imho. I don't want to waste my time and also their time. It is obvious that it isn't the right fit, I don't want to take up more students because I feel responsable for the ones I have, besides there will potentially be personal problems as well, my students are respectful and they are motivated by their topic, but I am not sure how to handle a student who thinks an alpha language is going to change my mind. but how to send this message across?

  • 11
    What about sorry, I'm not taking students right now? Nov 5, 2020 at 22:35
  • 15
    A personality test? What the hell? Nov 5, 2020 at 22:46
  • 4
    Also, signing off with only their initials? Sending emails to your personal email? What the hell? Is this real? Nov 5, 2020 at 22:50
  • 15
    Just say no. You don’t owe the student any explanations. No is a complete sentence.
    – Dan Romik
    Nov 5, 2020 at 22:56
  • 6
    I think this is not really a question, it is a complaint. Just say "No, please stop asking." If this does not work, maybe it is stalking behavior. Contact campus security. Nov 5, 2020 at 23:27

2 Answers 2


Assuming you really do not want to work with them and not even check them out if they are suitable candidates, the response is simply: "I do not currently have available slots for grad students." Not funding, but "slots". It means time, nerves, energy, whatever else could come into their mind.

If they have no funding, you say you have no funding for them and you do not accept students without funding.

However, if it is simply a case of you not being sure whether you should take them on, then I recommend preparing a few tasks that are relevant to the work you like to do. These should be pieces of homework that are introductory, but relevant to your field and take about 2-4 weeks of time to cover the entry literature and carry out. If they manage to do it, then you may want to reconsider not taking them. You may have a catch on your hand. Alternatively, you can set conditions of your choice.

Yes, if they want to work with you, you can set the conditions, no apologies. There is a reason for the classic "reluctant sensei" trope. It is a real technique to deal with this.

However, a student that thinks they can bully you is an absolute no-no, no matter how good they are. They are going to be nothing but trouble. So, here the answer is simple. First time: "Unfortunately, I cannot take you on as a student. Thank you for your interest." Don't give reasons. Second time: "As mentioned in my last mail from ..., I cannot take you on." Third time: silence. If they continue bugging you, divert their mails to spam or block them. If you cannot or are not allowed to do that, simply archive their mails without opening. Don't open them or you will be tempted to answer them.

You do not need to be outright rude yourself, but if they are, they have deserved the silent treatment. Keep in mind: if you know you will not change your mind, no matter how insistive they are, that will shine through and most of them will desist. If they believe to smell insecurity, they will pounce on it.

  • 2
    I suppose giving reasons and putting them nicely made my message a bit open for brute force attemps, or like you said "they smelled insecurity". I thought a simple no might discourage the student, so I felt like I should have given a reason. Because you never know how they take it, they may feel insufficient. I didn't think I would get a reaction like this.I think I should define some ground rules and stop explaining myself. Thanks.
    – dusa
    Nov 9, 2020 at 17:07
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    @dusa If you know your "clients", you can afford to be nice. However, in the face of the unknown, you need to assume that overly friendliness will be abused. You do not need to discourage them. Your declining to supervise them is a decision about your resources, not theirs. The student tries to establish authority over you which they have no business doing. Your position should be polite, but firm and consistent. No need to be authoritarian, but you do not need to let yourself be treaded on, either. If the student is nice, you can advise them also what to do instead. Nov 9, 2020 at 18:36

"I only take students with a lot of experience in my field, because I don't have the resources to train them adequately". I don't think there's a reason or need to come up with some excuse that may not hold up to scrutiny, or look bad when students in different situations start comparing notes. In this case, I don't see any real problem with the truth.

  • 5
    OP should not give reasons, unless they are combined with practical evidence (see my suggestion about homework). Otherwise, they are open to be verbally challenged. Nov 6, 2020 at 11:43

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