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I e-mailed a prof in France (Paris) on 10 Jan that my research interest align with his work and I would be willing to work for a PhD under his supervision in Pure Mathematics.

I am a student living in Asian country. His reply was the following:

Dear X,

Sorry but to get a grant for a PhD is very competitive in Paris. You need to be supported by a mathematician who knows you and is convinced that you have a top level. I don’t know you and I have already 2 PhD students

How should I follow up to this email of his?

Should I ask my referees to send him LOR? Should I send him a copy of my master's thesis? I have already attached my CV along with this e-mail.

Edit 1: I also wrote at the end of the mail that if Prof. doesn't thinks that I might be a suitable for supervision then I shall be really grateful if he could write me back briefly about the skills I am lacking.

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    Telling the professor you'd be "willing" to work for them instantly got you off on the wrong foot. If a student told me they'd be "willing" to work for me, I'd be insulted by their presumptuousness and tempted to respond, "Great, but I'm not willing. Please go away." Jan 18 at 16:41
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    @NicoleHamilton That was not how I actually wrote in mail
    – Kalneol
    Jan 18 at 18:02
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    (regarding the edit) ...now you are just making matters worse. First you cold email them without LOR or anything, and you are trying to get them on board to help you with your application. They might not even have read your CV if they know it's a no-go without a LOR, and spending the time actually reviewing your application in-depth might be a serious waste.
    – Lodinn
    Jan 18 at 18:05
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    @NicoleHamilton If a student from a non-English speaking country wrote to me that they would be "willing" to be my student I would understand that the intended meaning is "interested" (note that in many languages the distinction between one's "willingness" and "desire" is not as explicit). There may be other aspects of the student's email (which we haven't seen) that conveyed a sense of presumptuousness, but professors should not ascribe so much meaning to the choice of a single word.
    – Max
    Jan 20 at 7:43
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    @NicoleHamilton You're not supposed to be able to read Shakespeare or catch willing-vs-interested nuances in an email if you're doing a PhD in Pure Mathematics. I'm pretty sure no one (specially not a non-native English speaker) would take offence with an email saying "willing" instead of "interested". Not because you're a native speaker you can expect everyone to speak English on the same level as you (or catch that "suspect" in your comment is not a grammar error). Jan 20 at 17:23

3 Answers 3

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You don't. That email is a clear rejection, and any attempt at a follow-up will only waste everyone's time. If the professor were open to get to know you and to be convinced that you are a top-level candidate, they would have indicated so. Instead, they are pointing out that they already have two PhD students (and, tacitly, are thus not overly keen on investing effort in a small chance of acquiring a third).

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    A clear rejection would require far less thought and no hope of acceptance: "Sorry, I'm not accepting students at this time.". Instead, the professor shows a path, hard though it may be to follow.
    – Buffy
    Jan 18 at 16:26
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    @Buffy Sure looked clear to me. I agree 100% with this answer. I would not split hairs over the fact the response was more than one sentence. Jan 18 at 16:36
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    We can theoretically argue if this means reject at 99.99% or 100%. But in practice, it means that it will be more fruitful to contact a different professor (with a different approach).
    – Miguel
    Jan 19 at 12:49
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    @Buffy I am not sure if they are showing a path, but rather stating what kind of requirements would be necessary, and that they are quite hard to achieve. OP writes "I shall be really grateful if he could write me back briefly about the skills I am lacking". French academia in pure mathematics is very competitive, so taking this stance is not a good idea. Very good candidates may not get a position, even if they have LORs from local professors, etc.
    – Pedro
    Jan 19 at 12:58
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    @Buffy: You suggest this isn’t a clear rejection, by saying that a clear rejection would be simpler and more direct. But to my ear (and to some students), your example would also come across as so blunt that it is unkind. As I read it, the OP’s professor means what you say, but wanted to say it in a way that was more tactful, and with more explanation, to be helpful to OP.
    – PLL
    Jan 19 at 14:06
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I agree with Arno that this is a clear rejection. I work at a university in Germany, but I suppose the situation in France is similar.

The problem is that professors get such e-mails all the time, usually from students who live in an Asian or Arab country. They send CVs, grades, even theses.

Now imagine a professor who gets an e-mail like yours every few weeks. They simply do not have the time to check if one of these students might a prospective candidate. Open positions are rare, and if there is an open position, they select one of the master students they have already known for 2-3 years. This is what your professor means by saying that he does not know you. You are lucky that he answered you. I know that there are professors who simply delete e-mails like yours.

Sending a thesis or a letter of recommendation will not help here. You are one among hundreds. If you really want to do a PhD in France, you have to establish a direct contact. If the university where you want to work offers a summer school or some postgraduate courses, try this.

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  • wait so re 'You need to be supported by a mathematician who knows you and is convinced that you have a top level' - what if you convince a mathematician you are top level but the mathematician does not know you prior? how will they know you if you don't e-mail them anyway? you said 'you have to establish a direct contact' but how is what OP did not direct contact? by direct contact you mean actually attend the school eg 'summer school or some postgraduate courses' ?
    – BCLC
    Jan 21 at 17:56
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I suggest that you don't send a thesis. It is too much, too soon. Instead, find a sponsor locally who knows you well enough to be a fair judge of your likelihood of success in a competitive program.

Have that sponsor contact the professor, preferably personally, with a recommendation. Even a LoR can wait until the initial contact is made. Given the assumed level of the Paris institution, someone with a known reputation would be best, but someone active in research certainly.

After initial contact by the local sponsor, other things can be sent as requested and required. But let someone else speak for you initially.

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    Can you please tell what exactly you mean by sponsor ?
    – Kalneol
    Jan 18 at 14:56
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    Sorry. in this context, a local professor that will speak highly of you. Not a formal thing. An advisor is usually the right choice.
    – Buffy
    Jan 18 at 15:04
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    There is a local prof. who I did a seminar and master's thesis with.
    – Kalneol
    Jan 18 at 15:05
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    That sounds about right.
    – Buffy
    Jan 18 at 15:06
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    Basically yes, but personal informal contact in this case is probably better than a LoR. If that isn't possible, then a formal letter is needed.
    – Buffy
    Jan 18 at 15:08

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