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I am an international applicant and I applied to several schools in the US as well as the UK (and one in the EU) for PhD in this cycle. I got accepted with funding from one of my top preferences in the UK after a (really good) interview with a potential advisor (a global top 5 university), and I am looking forward to it (I have not accepted the offer, not received a formal letter, and I am waiting for some other results). I have received rejections from some of my preferred departments in the US (and I understand and respect that), but one of my applications did not even make it to the committee because it was "filtered out by postdocs" (found upon inquiry). I am feeling a loss of confidence, mainly because of the last part. I am posting this question here for the following point:

  1. Of course, I will be honest with my potential advisor if asked (she has also shown interest in my applications and is in general very understanding). Will this make me look bad to her or make her lose faith in the decision? I think I will be a good fit for the group, but this makes me look bad on the competitive scale. I don't want her to think that she made a mistake by accepting me, when other programs of similar tier have rejected me. This may come up because I am scheduled to meet with her soon, before I give my decision to the admissions office.
  2. How should I take in these decisions myself? I do think I should ideally be happy with such a result, but this still bothers me.
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    You are basically asking: "someone else thought I was not good enough for their programme, will my potential advisor think less of me because of this?" If she has no confidence in her own judgment and needs other people to tell her what to think, yes. Otherwise, no. So, probably/hopefully, no. Commented Feb 10 at 0:56
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    Admissions are a numbers game. If there are 10 great candidates for 3 spots, well, 7 have to be rejected.
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Feb 10 at 16:12
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    It's very rare for people (even highly competent people) to be accepted everywhere they apply. This is even truer when applying for a real job rather than a PhD (e.g. you could be rejected 30 times before acceptance), so get used to it and don't let it destroy your confidence!
    – Alexbib
    Commented Feb 10 at 19:09
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    On the face of it it seems like you respect the rejections more than you do the acceptance. Why? Commented Feb 10 at 20:51
  • Was your potential advisor ever turned down for a job? If so I'm sure she'll understand. If so, would that change your view of her? To the point: this is not as big of a deal as you are making it.
    – tnknepp
    Commented Feb 12 at 15:00

5 Answers 5

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From my point of view your question shows a somewhat unhealthy obsession with notions such as "global top 5", "similar tier", "competitive scale", and "look bad".

I think the advice that you need at the moment is simply: Relax!

It's very unlikely that your future advisor will "lose faith in the decision". Most professors are very confident to form their opinions on their own, also if other people make different decisions.

You got accepted into a good PhD program, you say your're looking forward to it, and as far as one can tell from the question you seem to have a decent future advisor. Now it's time to enjoy the journey. Life is not (only) a competition.

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    Indeed when I look back at my question I understand I care about those notions more than I should, perhaps rooted to the 'educational surroundings' I grew up in, thanks for pointing that out. I understand why it can be unhealthy, It's something I need to work on for sure. It's definitely good to think that other rejections won't waiver the confidence of my Potential Advisor, thanks for that remark.
    – Mathaddict
    Commented Feb 9 at 23:43
  • @Mathaddict I would highly recommend watching the video Is Success Luck or Hard Work? by Veritasium. Provides a different perspective that I think you will benefit from.
    – mhdadk
    Commented Feb 10 at 18:12
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    @Mathaddict when competing with the best on paper, being number 1 everywhere is statistically impossible. Someone will dislike your nose, your courses, your papers, your aura or whatever.
    – DonQuiKong
    Commented Feb 11 at 15:55
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If I thought a student was good and I then learned that their application to another university had been filtered out by some postdocs, I'd probably think "Well, that other university made a mistake by having postdocs filter the applications." That's certainly more likely than "I must have made a mistake in evaluating this student."

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Congratulations, you are an exceptional student that got into a top program. I am so sorry that you have to live with the fact that while you are exceptional, you may not be the most exceptional (read that with sarcasm).

If it comes up, be honest. Your advisor is well aware of your strengths and weaknesses as an applicant/candidate and chose to hire you. Now focus on doing well so she does not regret her decision.

In academia acceptance and rejection after a certain point becomes about fit. Obviously, your future advisor thought you were a good enough fit to support you. That's fantastic.

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I think I will be a good fit for the group, but this makes me look bad on the competitive scale.

You're past that stage now. The competition is over and you have won. Congratulations! Your task now is to figure out how you can best achieve your academic goals and contribute to the work of this group.

This may come up because I am scheduled to meet with her soon, before I give my decision to the admissions office.

Actually, I doubt that it will come up. There's no need for you to proactively bring up the other schools you applied to. This doesn't have anything to do with being "honest" or not, it's simply irrelevant and none of her business. Likewise, it's unlikely that she will ask you about your other applications; it would be tactless.

The focus for the meeting should be on the future: what would it be like to do your PhD at this university and/or in this group? Is it a good mutual fit in terms of research interests, skills, expectations, workload, standard of living, etc? The meeting will go fast; use the time on stuff that matters now.

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  • It may be unusual to ask where the student applied, but in my experience it appears common to ask what other offers the student is considering.
    – GoodDeeds
    Commented Feb 11 at 11:32
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In addition to the above, different universities have different priorities and criteria. Even those that are considered of similar 'tier', age or are otherwise grouped together.

These different priorities/criteria are effectively one large experiment to try and get the best candidates, that unfortunately has very real impacts on people like you. [1]

Don't take it to mean you are a worse candidate than those who got offers to the ones you didn't, the fact that both you (and obviously your potential advisor, given they gave you an offer) think you are a good fit for that team means that their methodology works.

It is a lot better to be with an advisor you can work well with, and in a group you are happy with, than be in one you hate, simply because it was ranked marginally higher by a quite arbitrary ranking system 2 years ago.

Also, Universities and in particular potential advisors, will likely have different opinions of your uni, especially as it is an international one, they may have had limited interaction with other graduates, so limited positive or negative experience can drastically shape their attitudes towards the quality of education for the uni as a whole. If this is a factor, it's not your fault and there is not much you can do. [2]

Finally, you might not have got into your absolute dream uni, but you still got into a program you consider one of the best, and you should be proud of that.

[1] My universities current entrance criteria for my program has been the subject of continuous study, adjustments and experimentation for over 20 years. It is entirely possible that the uni that rejected you bluntly was simply trying something a bit drastic that they thought would improve candidate quality, whether it was the 'right' choice, I couldn't say.

[2] Slightly different, but there is a local uni that is generally considered '2nd tier'. Not bad, just not the best. However, I know a number of people that will hire people far more leniently from there than the so-called 'top' unis, as the consider that the quality of education is drastically better in their fields. They are only basing it off their own anecdotal evidence, but they are only human, much like those in charge of phd programs, so previous bias can have a large effect. 1 of these people even graduated from one of the 'top' unis, but now (admittedly quite a few decades later) strongly recommends the lower ranked uni to prospective students, and favours it amongst graduates.

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