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I wrote to a professor whose area of specialization aligns with mine in pure math and I wanted to discuss the possibility of a PhD.

I got the following reply:

Dear X

thanks for your message and interest. We can in principle discuss the possibility of a PhD with me, but I should warn you that it's unlikely to work out in the end - first of all, most likely I won't accept any new PhD students for the next year.

If you nevertheless want me to consider accepting you, please send me your Master's thesis and ask at least one of your recommenders to directly email their recommendation letter to me.

Best,

XX

Should I discuss the possibility further? On the one hand, the professor says that it is unlikely to work out in the end and on the other he says that if I still want him to consider accepting me, I should send my masters thesis and recommendation letter. I am confused and I would like to know what exactly I should do.

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    I'm not sure if you are asking for an interpretation or for opinions on what action to take. I do not have opinions, but I suggest that interpretations might include: 1. The professor lacks funds for a PhD student. 2. The professor is too busy to take a new PhD student. 3. The professor is considering quitting their job. Dec 24, 2021 at 18:58
  • @AnonymousPhysicist I am asking for both.
    – user135061
    Dec 25, 2021 at 6:34
  • Well, opinion-based questions are generally not permitted here. Dec 25, 2021 at 15:54
  • It actually means if you can bring your own money, she/he may accept you.
    – yarchik
    Dec 25, 2021 at 22:48
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    My reading is "I wasn't planning to take any students next year, but if you can convince me that you're a truly exceptional student (i.e. that I would be remiss to reject you), then I would of course consider it."
    – user541686
    Dec 26, 2021 at 0:54

2 Answers 2

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If I'd written this I can tell you what I was thinking.

I want to warn you that there is little chance of working for me, but at the same time I don't want to send you a short form rejection for several reasons:

  • maybe you can benefit from some mentoring; if I find your background and qualities promising, maybe I can encourage you or give advice.
  • maybe I have other colleagues here or elsewhere to whom I can pass along your information.
  • maybe I can help in some other as-yet unknown way.
  • maybe I have a policy of always rejecting everyone and waiting to see which people have that extra "push" or won't take no for an answer, or who can't be easily discouraged. See this answer to My advisor wants me to quit the program. What should I do?.

But I would not want to offer such things with any indication that this could lead to a job with me.

There is a very small possibility that something might work out with me, perhaps I can apply for extra money, perhaps you are so exceptional that I can figure out a way to fit you in. But right now I don't want to give you any indication of those remote possibilities.


I'm purely speculating, but if you think a discussion or at least some further interaction has the potential of being beneficial and it doesn't require an unacceptable investment of time or travel and you can take a second "no" after the first one, then this might be worth pursuing.

In principle it's almost always of some benefit to talk to anyone who's willing to talk, as long as you are prepared and careful and as long as there aren't any known downsides to it.

Academic careers take totally unpredictable turns often based on who you meet and with whom things might "click" either immediately, or years later.

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I think it is pretty clear, actually. If there is some special reason that you want to work with this particular person, then do as they ask. But don't put much hope into a successful outcome.

If your letter writer has some standing in that research community and can boost you enough then it might work out.

Beware that they might be so busy that even if you do get in the door there might be little help with your research if they are very busy. OTOH, note that they seem willing to give your thesis a look (or have someone close to them to do so), so they offer to put some effort into evaluating your potential.

Don't give up other opportunities as this one is a long shot.