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Basically the title. I have met my supervisor to ask for a LOR and he was genuinely surprised when I said I'm also applying to his group. He said he had already taken in 3 students and didn't want to take in more that's why he didn't post projects (when I asked that I didn't see any projects for him on the page). He said he generally does not like to post projects because he likes students figuring out their projects, but I should apply anyway and I shouldn't specify anything, and that he would love to take me in because I work well.

Now I am asking because my friend applied to his group and basically knew he was gonna get in because he was upfront with him, had a project and the process was very informal.

I understand from the last line that the takeaway is to apply anyway, but it didn't seem very encouraging and most of my friends who are PhD students are saying he's politely letting you down easy and I should ask again directly for a yes or no answer (because of funding and committees who review my application and how much he'll fight for me), which I am against and think it's going to be weird. Application requires 3 written statements and it would take time to write them that's why I am hesitant to commit that much effort just for a possible rejection from the get-go. But again it seems weird to be told to apply anyway and not apply?

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    "I'd love to take you in because you work well, but unfortunately I can't because I already have 3 students" would have been the obvious way of "politely letting you down easy". Encouraging you to apply with the intention of rejecting you would just make it harder for both of you down the road. So I wouldn't assume that to be the case.
    – Stefan
    Nov 5, 2023 at 22:28
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    @Stefan Thank you for your comment. That's a rational way of looking at it. Nov 6, 2023 at 2:45

7 Answers 7

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It looks like this is a question of communication between you and your master's supervisor: he encouraged you to apply, but you are concerned that he might not have been really enthusiastic about it. It's difficult for us to judge!

That said, I wouldn't read much into the "didn't post projects" part. I could definitely understand that as faculty you may not be actively looking for more students, but at the same time be interested if there is an opportunity someone you already know and whom you already think is a good match.

(Perhaps another thing to keep in mind, however, is the "already taken in 3 students" part. There is a risk that someone supervising too many students will not supervise them adequately. In my country (France), PhD advisors are typically not supposed to supervise more than 3 students simultaneously.)

Anyway, I don't see any way to dispel your doubts other than talking with your supervisor again, telling them essentially what you are telling us: applying is a complicated process to you, and you weren't sure of how enthusiastic he is because of the reasons you mentioned, so you wanted to check whether you understand correctly. There may be an explanation we're currently missing, e.g., your master's supervisor wrongly assumed you would not be interested or available in continuing on a PhD, and so was surprised when you asked. I understand you may be embarrassed but I don't think it's especially weird to discuss the topic again. Applying to a PhD is not a light commitment, I would understand that a prospective student needs to discuss the topic several times before making a decision.

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    Thank you for your answer. How do I ask without sounding like I am enquiring about the outcome of the application? I am worried I will sound: will you accept me or not? Nov 5, 2023 at 2:32
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    I'm a bit unsure about the precise situation: is the "outcome of the application" decided by your prospective advisor or not? and are you "competing" with other students if you apply? but in any case I don't think it's so embarrassing to ask. Basically, does the prospective supervisor want to take you or not? and if it's not sure (e.g., it depends on getting outside funding; or you are in competition with other students, etc.), then you deserve to know, and to factor this in your decision to apply or not.
    – a3nm
    Nov 6, 2023 at 18:31
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A good approach towards life is to take people at their word, rather than assume that they say X but mean Y (as you appear to do: He said something, and you are going through contortions to think about possibilities that he could really have been meaning something else).

So when he says "that he would love to take me in because I work well", take that as a compliment and assume that that is exactly what he meant: That he would love to take you into his research group.

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    Thank you. That is good advice. Nov 5, 2023 at 20:25
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    Unless they're management ;)
    – DKNguyen
    Nov 6, 2023 at 0:17
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He said I should apply anyway and I shouldn't specify anything, and that he would love to take me in because I work well.

If that's what he said, he obviously wants you in his group, there's no question about that.
So if you want to be in his group, you should definitely apply.

The rest of what he was trying to convey to you was that his attention and resources are divided across 3 students already, so you should be aware of that before going in, and factor that into your decision-making.

For example:

  • If you end up needing a lot of hands-on support (which is entirely normal), he might not be able to provide as much as both of you might be hoping for.

  • If you end up needing funding (which, again, is entirely normal—unless you have a fellowship), he might not have as much available, and may need your assistance with acquiring some (such as help with writing grant proposals, or flexibility in what projects you work on).

  • If you have particular existing projects in mind you want to work on, he might not be able to take you in for those particular projects, because he already has enough students on those.

Basically, his point wasn't that he wouldn't want to accept you, but that you might encounter sub-optimal conditions if you join.

tl;dr: He was trying to help you make an informed decision on your own side, not to have you filter yourself out of the pool.

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  • Thank you so much for your answer. That's exactly what I needed to know and didn't know how to infer it according to the situation, for example: the supervision situtaion and funding. Nov 6, 2023 at 19:57
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It seems to me you're very self-conscious, but I would think this pertains to your future and therefore like in many areas of life, it is very important to have honest and difficult conversations. If this professor ends up being someone who is difficult to communicate with and always gives vague answers, he's probably not someone you want to work with for 4 years anyway.

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To me this reads as I've got a few students, and I really don't want to take on another student that requires above average hand holding so don't want random students. However I'm happy to take on more good / pre-screened students

I don't think this is unreasonable, taking on a weak graduate student is burdensome for someone in the group, and sadly too common.

Apply, particularly if your working relationship with this professor has been positive. he has explicitly invited you.

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It sounds as if you are currently and actively applying to PhD programs anyway. Yes, it is a labor-intensive process, but the hard part is pulling all of your materials (LORs included) together. This particular professor encouraged you to apply, which is more than most (believe me!). Go ahead and complete the application, I am sure there are other schools/programs you are applying to anyway, so why not, right? Regardless, please continue to keep us abreast!

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It's different in every country/school/department. If this happened in my department, it would mean that the professor doesn't have any more external funding left, but would be happy to take you on and fund you through the department (probably as a TA). There are pluses and minuses to being funded that way. If you are concerned, you can talk to him again and ask specifically what the implications would be for your workload (TA positions are often time consuming) and ask if he thinks there will be a future opportunity for you to switch to an externally funded project.

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