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So, I'm on the dreaded waitlist (PoI says I am "near the very top" of the list) for my top choice PhD program and naturally I've spent the past couple days driving myself nuts trying to game the process out.

As I understand it there are two general approaches a grad adcom might take: 1) making more offers than the program has spots available, expecting a certain yield which will produce the desired cohort size or 2) making as many offers as there are spots, and moving to the waitlist to achieve desired cohort size if necessary.

My intuition tells me that #1 is more common, but in that case I don't quite understand the purpose of a waitlist--it seems that there would have to be an anomalously low yield in a given year for the program to ever have to move to the waitlist. So, do you find that #1 or #2 is more common?

I have two offers in hand, but my heart is really set on this program. Adding to the stress is of course the cascading nature of the PhD waitlist (i.e. someone is probably holding off on declining their offer at my top choice program because they're waitlisted at some other school; the same goes for someone waitlisted at one of the programs I have an offer from, and so on and so on). Basically it seems like we're all waiting for someone to get into their top choice program, and set in motion the chain reaction of declined offers.

Intuition would also tell me that this all basically happens on April 14 or 15 because nobody wants to accept an offer from a program that isn't their top choice until it is absolutely necessary--so the cascade doesn't start until then unless there are a sufficient number of people who have top choice offers who then actually decline other offers in a timely manner.

Am I just overthinking this whole thing? Or is this entire process completely bizarre and up in the air until the last minute? Has anyone gotten off a PhD waitlist well before April 15?

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    Note that #1 often does not have a waitlist. So I would think that by having a waitlist in place, you are generally in situation #2.
    – Dawn
    Commented Feb 25, 2021 at 20:13
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    Far more people already have the offer they want than you are thinking. They accept their offer and reject any others. Schools following #1 might still go to a waitlist if they get an unusual number of early rejects. Or not.
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Feb 25, 2021 at 20:19
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    I think far more common that either approach purely is to have a mixture, where a department gives more offers than spots but not so many that it expects to completely fill all its spots. For example, a department might admit so many that it is 95% confident on a statistical basis that it will not exceed the number of spots it has (and in that 5% figure out a way to stretch the budget for a year). Commented Feb 25, 2021 at 20:25
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    ^ And if the go over one year, admit fewer the next Commented Feb 25, 2021 at 20:47
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    I’m voting to close this question because your problem is that you are on a waitlist and you want to be accepted. Nothing we say can help solve this problem. Commented Feb 25, 2021 at 21:08

5 Answers 5

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I don’t think you’re overthinking, you’re just... thinking. But basically, you’re thinking about things that are beyond your control, so in that sense any amount of thinking does not benefit you in any practical sense.

For what it’s worth, many departments hold events allowing admitted students to visit the department (virtually, these days) and meet with faculty. My own department’s event is today and tomorrow, and I had a pleasant meeting with several of the visitors. So I expect many students will be making decisions soon after attending such events. Keep in mind they don’t all know ahead of time their precise order of ranking the different programs (unlike what your intuitive “model” seems to assume), but instead go through a due diligence process where after getting admitted to several schools, they find out more information about each one and then make a decision. There is no reason why this can’t happen well ahead of April 15, and I believe it often does.

Good luck!

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These days, in the U.S., in math, in R1-ish schools, more admission+funding offers are made than are expected to accept. If the unlikely event occurred that a surprising number accepted, I would expect that the program would act in good faith, and just try to average things out the next year and the year thereafter. I'd be shocked if an offer of admission+support were "withdrawn" after accepted. (Nevertheless, the pandemic does give people excuses for otherwise-unthinkable behavior...)

So, as in my program, we have lots of experience (at least for non-pandemic times...) about acceptance rates, demographics, etc. Each year we also have similar qualified financial info, e.g., about "unacceptable" over-admission, and such.

We do not have an literal "waiting list", but we do have a list of people who have a chance of getting an offer (admission+funding) if events transpire considerably outside of expectations.

The nation-wide April 15 convention has many positive features, but it does tend to discourage wait-listing, for game-theoretic reasons mentioned in the question. That is, even with an official/literal "wait list", unless there are unexpectedly-many rejections, we would not, and maybe could not, start making offers to people on the wait list, because rejections (from the students) are not binding until April 15.

Right, operationally, unlike 20+ years ago, at most places "being on the wait list" is not as positive as one might imagine.

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  • The April 15 resolution is voluntary, and not at all nationwide. Carnegie Mellon is a notable non-participant. cgsnet.org/ckfinder/userfiles/files/… Commented Feb 26, 2021 at 7:21
  • I know for sure my PhD program routinely accepted more than they had funding for, and dealt with the resulting small fluctuations. I also know for sure people who still got in off the waitlist, so all is not lost even in that case.
    – Well...
    Commented Feb 26, 2021 at 16:13
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Has anyone gotten off a PhD waitlist well before April 15?

I got a rejection letter and was accepted afterwards. The rejection letter was sent by the system automatically (it was the end of April). However, my acceptance was 100% conditioned on my advisor getting a grant, and that was delayed due to the government shutdown. So I kept waiting for another couple of weeks until I got the good news. A few of these experiences turn you into a silver fox.

Now, what really matters:

You should email this graduate program and politely let them know that: 1) You already have offers from other institutions; 2) Their school is at the top of your list; 3) You would appreciate them letting you know about their decision ASAP. This may increase you chances of moving toward the top of the waitlist, presenting you as a stronger candidate.

Good luck.

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Actually, I expect that #2 is more common and is actually ethical. The number of slots is determined by money and faculty (and other) resources. It isn't especially flexible and telling someone "sorry" after "accepting" them is pernicious.

You say you've been accepted at a couple of places and your deadlines are in the future. You should just wait to see what happens. Accept something by the deadline, but otherwise just relax.

Note that at the institutions where you've been accepted, others are likely on the waitlist and hoping for you to decline.

Is it bizarre? Hard to say. The decisions are made by thousands of different people all with their own needs and priorities. Before a (more or less) common deadline was set it was chaotic. People were inclined to accept an offer (with an early deadline) and then later decline when they got a better one later.

But #1 would be unethical if such an acceptance could be rescinded for other than bad actions by the candidate such as failure to graduate. The common deadline was set to avoid such situations as having to turn down someone after accepting them and making the process a bit less bizarre than it might otherwise be.

So, just relax. Your trying to "game" the system is going to result in sub optimal outcomes, very possibly for yourself. It is what it is.


And if you do accept an offer, you should immediately decline other offers as a courtesy to others like yourself who are worried, worried, worried ....

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    I agree with all of this except the unethical part. My program admits 15 with and expected yield of 3-10. We figure that the numbers will work out over time to be about 6 per year. Not sure why this would be unethical as long as everyone who is accepted would be allowed to attend (with funding) if they accept.
    – Dawn
    Commented Feb 25, 2021 at 20:12
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    @Dawn, it is ethical as long as you really mean "accept" when you accept and work out how to make it happen. I hoped I was clearly speaking of turning people down after accepting them. There are one or two questions here, I think, where that happened.
    – Buffy
    Commented Feb 25, 2021 at 20:14
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    Note I do still think #2 is better, because having varying cohort sizes is obnoxious for many reasons.
    – Dawn
    Commented Feb 25, 2021 at 20:15
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    I don't know that OP is trying to game the system (but I do think they are causing themselves stress by imagining the games of others). They have until the deadline to wait for an offer that may not come or accept the one they have.
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Feb 25, 2021 at 20:21
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    In the title, yes, but "game the system" implies some underhanded attempt to come out ahead. In the body it seems that OP is just nervous and worried about a situation they haven't been in before.
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Feb 25, 2021 at 20:24
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I am waitlisted by one of the public university. I checked gradcafe and a few yrs ago someone was waitlisted by the same program, on the top#1 of the list of 2, begging ppl to decline offers so that this person could attend, which did not happen.

The same year, according to the university's official website, the program has a 45% yield rate with a few receiving acceptances but did not attend.

I would say for this program #1 is probably more true than the #2. Because on gradcafe I have never seen ppl talking about being waitlisted other than that one post but the program yield is pretty much ~50% each year.

Also because of funding, I don't have my hopes up - someone else turning down an offer tied to an RAship with a faculty not in my research interests is not gonna help me get off the list. But different programs will be SO different.

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