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When I was in my bachelor's program, I applied to three universities in Europe for masters. My two first choices accepted me and offered me funding for my masters studies which is competitive (2 students in my field got it). The third university which is not as well known as the others in my field, but still very good, accepted me but did not offer me funding. They interviewed me in this university and then rejected me. For the other two universities, I also had interviews and they both accepted me.

Now I am applying to PhD programs again in Europe. I did my masters in one of those universities in which I was accepted. Again, I have applied to three universities. This morning, the one that was not my first choice and again is not as well-known as the other two, after an interview, rejected me. This position had 5-6 vacancies.

I am confused about this, to be honest. Because I do not know if I should interpret it as that I will be rejected in the other two as well, or just assume it depends on my match with their programs. If the latter is the case, why did they even interview me? The thing that confuses me is this: if they shortlisted me, it means they were considering me. After the interview, they rejected me. I did not have the impression that I could not answer their technical questions. My question is this: should I interpret that the same thing will happen with those well-known universities? Why do you think that they rejected me while I feel I am qualified enough to the other two as well?

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    What kind of positions did you apply to? Most PhD positions in Europe are really just a single position (rather than a "program"). So when you get a rejection after interview, the most likely explanation is that they preferred another candidate. – lighthouse keeper Mar 16 at 13:28
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    That's not an answer to my question. Large institution with many professors offer single positions, too. – lighthouse keeper Mar 16 at 14:43
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    I think the implication of the comment by @lighthousekeeper, is that many (most?) doctoral students in Europe are hired directly by a PI, not admitted to a "program". I don't know how it all works, exactly, but it might require applying several times to different professors even at the same university. In the US, you apply to a department at a university and are assigned an advisor later, though you can also change advisors. But it is different in much of Europe. – Buffy Mar 16 at 15:10
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    The most common thing is to interview more people than the minimum positions, often at least 2 interviews per position. Therefore at least half of the people get rejected after an interview. This is how the world works, not just academia. The fact that you got interviewed means you were cosnidered, so its encouraging news to keep applying – Ander Biguri Mar 16 at 23:48
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    I would contact them and politely ask for feedback, such as "How can I improve my interviewing skills"? They may or may not respond. Of course, sometimes one doesn't like the feedback one gets .... – JosephDoggie Mar 17 at 13:19
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Nobody here can truly answer your question: we weren't in the interview, and haven't seen your application materials. However, some points for you to consider:

  • Typically, MSc admissions are based heavily on academic achievement: transcripts, references from course tutors, etc. Applicants have come from a variety of backgrounds and may not have had opportunities to undertake significant independent research. In contrast, PhD applicants can be expected to have completed some form of independent research. This makes it easier to assess other skills relevant to success in a PhD: creativity, tenacity, communication, collaboration.
  • Often admissions decisions are not as simple as identifying the strongest N applicants. A variety of political and practical factors can come into play. For example, departments may try to ensure that PhD positions are distributed 'fairly' across their various research areas, or use them to support newly-hired members of staff. At the uglier end of the spectrum, some departments may base their decisions on the whims of one or two powerful individuals. There can also be additional rules and constraints imposed by whoever is ultimately supplying the cash that supports the positions.
  • The way your question is phrased, one gets the impression that you went into this interview feeling that success was guaranteed, and that you are 'too good' for this school. If candidates come across this way in interview, it leaves a bad impression, even if it is objectively true.
  • Schools know that they are competing with each other for the best candidates. A second-tier school may recognise that the very best candidates are going to go elsewhere. If so, it can be counterproductive to make offers to those people: by the time they get around to declining, the second-choice candidates have already taken positions elsewhere.
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In late 2019, I had funding to employ a single PhD student at my European university. So I opened up a vacancy, and I received about 140 applications. By sheer necessity, I had to reject 139 candidates, and that included several very good ones indeed.

The main difference you're experiencing is that European Master programmes can accept scores* of students every year, but many European PhD positions are job vacancies that can only be awarded to a single person. So you're suddenly dealing with significantly more serious competition for the available positions. Rejection merely means that at least one candidate was even stronger than you.

*exact numbers depend on country, university, programme, but it's typically much much more than one student per programme.

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  • The master fund that I received was given to only 2 students in my field. As I said in another comment, the position I applied was not with a single supervisor. It was a large university which they had 5/6 positions. – mandoblurian Mar 16 at 14:40
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    If you want answers that are more accurate for your specific situation, it would be helpful to edit more of these details into the question. The answer I gave is relevant for the question as you originally asked it; the question didn't specify where in Europe this university is, how many positions were available, how many people applied, and exactly how competitive the master funding was. Beyond that, you used to compete with people who wanted to start a masters. Now you compete with people who completed a masters and want to start a PhD. The competition simply is stronger. – Wetenschaap Mar 16 at 14:50
  • I edited. Thanks for the answer. – mandoblurian Mar 16 at 14:53
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    @mandoblurian Changing the numbers (1 out of 140 vs 5/6 out of X) doesn't change the point being made here. – JBentley Mar 19 at 9:15
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    It could be fit, not merit. Things I would consider besides grades and letters include ____, _____, or _______. The blanks will vary for each PhD opening. – Paul Mar 19 at 15:01
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Don't try to infer anything from such a rejection. The possibilities are too vast. It may be that many good students used this university as their backup plan in case they weren't accepted elsewhere and one of them was chosen instead of you. There can be a lot of competition. It could also be a case of "poor fit" with the faculty that wasn't recognized before the interview.

But, applying to only three schools seems like a mistake. If you want to get into a program then a broad search is recommended (with a backup school or two). Don't make the search narrow in terms of school rankings, geography, and such. There are a lot of possibilities but if you pass them up voluntarily you might suffer for it.

But, relax for now. The outcome at one place has no real effect on the others. Nor does your "worry" change the game.

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PhDs position in Europe are usually unique: you are not in competition with other candidates, you are in competition with the ideal profile the PI has in mind for that position.

If may be even the case that when none of the candidates fits the profile, the position is advertised again in a couple of months (hint: do not apply again ;) ).

If you feel confident, and you liked the project, you may contact the PI and ask if you can apply for external funding, writing your own proposal. You may ask the PI where to look for calls.

Ps: external funding may or may not be connected to the project, you have freedom in defining the scope of the project (well, then there is a board/panel/comitee having the freedom of funding your project)

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  • Do you mean ideal in the sense of knowledge? Or personality and match as well? Thanks. – mandoblurian Mar 16 at 14:54
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    @mandoblurian all of this, and more (letters of reference, skills, profile, interest, ...) – Mark Mar 16 at 15:30
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    both, even attitude towards research/academy (some prefer PhDs that aim for academy, other for PhDs that aim at a industrial career)... I would go so far as to say that the criteria are so subjective that it makes useless to ask for a feedback about the rejection. I would suggest you to have a look at the Marie-Curie fellowships: they are very competitive, but they may provide you a solid block to build your PhD study (3 years funding and a network of interested institutions). thephdlab.com/marie-sklodowska-curie-phd-fellowship (a succesful candidate telling her experience) – EarlGrey Mar 16 at 15:35
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Don't take it too personally - try looking at it from the other side. They have some number of positions to fill with some number of applicants and they need to go through a process to find the applicants that best fit the positions. Typically that process involves eliminating those that don't meet the essential criteria and short-listing and interviewing those who look most promising for the role.

If they interview 4 people for 1 position, 3 (at least) are going to be 'rejected'. If someone is appointed, that does not necessarily mean the selectors thought the others could not have done the role or been successful in it, just that someone else was a better fit with what they were looking for. (There are also many reasons why they might not appoint anyone, but again not necessarily a reflection on the candidates.)

Certainly it is possible to perform badly in an interview, but even if all 4 performed brilliantly, 3 are not going to be offered the post.

Most of life (PhD positions, jobs, partners, elections etc) is not like a driving test where you pass or fail based on reaching a specific standard, but a matter of 'fit' and preference. The language of 'rejection' and 'acceptance' although common is probably not good for your mental health ... you're looking for something that is a mutually good fit both for you and the role/them. Just because someone thought you were not a good fit with one role has no bearing on whether you are good fit with a different role.

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  • That's why I think you have to figute out who the potential postdoc employers are before applying for jobs. You can spend the year before applying adjusting your research to be a better fit with the interviewer. – Mehta Mar 17 at 21:49
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I studied in Europe until my master Degree and had my Phd in the USA in computer science program. I realized that the level of US students are pretty weak in Math, Science and engineering overall. The math that I did in a bachelor degree in France is what we are doing in a Master or Phd program in the USA. No offense but it's a reality. In some German or French University, american student would be lost in science programs. Here in a phd computer science program, most of my collegue were unable to solve a simple differential equations.

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    PhD programs in the US lasts 5 years, often including a Master degree (or something like that) for a reason... – EarlGrey Mar 17 at 21:28
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Now that interviews are free cause of zoom, more people are getting interviews. Classes are smaller this year cause everyone's got financial pressure. More people are getting rejected after an interview now.

Don't read too much more into it than that. This is a difficult year for admissions.

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    Do you have evidence that more are getting rejected after interviews or is it just a guess? I don't have a sense of why that might be true. – Buffy Mar 16 at 13:43
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    More interviews and fewer slots. I don't think you need a math degree for this calculus. – user133933 Mar 16 at 13:44
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    Don't be insulting. And I do have several math degrees. Why "fewer slots", then. – Buffy Mar 16 at 13:44
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    "Now that interviews are free cause of zoom" - Free except for time, which is still an in-demand quantity. For admissions processes I have some insight into this year there have been no changes in the numbers of students interviewed. Of course that's a small sample and there may be exceptions, but the general statement doesn't seem true. – Bryan Krause Mar 16 at 14:55
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    "Classes are smaller this year cause everyone's got financial pressure." [citation needed] This is about Europe, not the US, funding here works a bit different. "interviews are free cause of zoom" Not at all, time is money. – Polygnome Mar 17 at 12:20
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I would not read anything into it.
Look at your MS applications and how they went.

Many things can cause rejection from too many candidates, funding issues, personal whim of the interviewer, yada yada.

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