Out of curiosity, I am wondering if a PhD application decision letter gives the reasons for the decision?

If yes, why? If not, why?


In my experience in the US, I have never seen any sort of decision letter for an application (whether for Ph.D. or any position) that gives reasons for the decision. It may be different in other countries, but in the US at least, there are many good reasons to never give such information formally.

The actual decision-making process is never as clean and clear-cut as anybody wants it to be, and with the limited information available in applications and even interviews, there are going to be cases where people make mistakes or make good decisions for unclear or hard to state reasons. Lots of good people may get turned down for reasons having nothing to do with them, such as just having too many good candidates in the same area.

If an institution gives real reasons in an official statement (as opposed to something meaningless and bland like "not an appropriate fit at this time"), then it is opening up the door for all sorts of potential problems and disputes, not to mention potential legal liability if something could be construed as relating to a protected category such as gender, age, religion, or ethnicity. They also have to worry about seriously unbalanced people who may take it as a personal insult and begin some sort of stalking or harassment campaign (it happens!). Not giving reasons may feel unsatisfying and cowardly, but it is an easy and safe path for an institution, and as such is generally official policy.

Now, if you have an informal trusted relationship with somebody who was involved in the decision process, then it is sometimes possible to get a strictly unofficial take on what may have happened. You might learn things you didn't want to know about how sausage is made, however.

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    "If an institution gives real reasons "..." then it is opening up the door for all sorts of potential problems and disputes, not to mention potential legal liability if something could be construed as relating to a protected category such as gender, age, religion, or ethnicity." Well that sounds like the exact reason for enforcing an open process. – Pål GD Oct 10 '14 at 20:08
  • Unfortunately, the realities of bias are likely to be largely unaffected by an open process. Consider, for example, the differences found by this study in PNAS: qualifications are often evaluated differently without the decision-makers being consciously aware of what they are doing. What would be needed to actually affect bias is some equivalent of Orchestra blind auditions. – jakebeal Oct 10 '14 at 20:58
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    @PålGD Even if an open process were to reduce bias, it won't necessarily reduce claims of bias; frivolous claims can be just as expensive to defend. – sapi Oct 10 '14 at 22:09

No, there is usually no specific reason given.

What would even constitute such a reason for rejecting someone from grad school? People sometimes imagine that there might be a clear-cut explanation, perhaps numerical. "The applicant pool was strong enough this year that we were able to set a GRE verbal cutoff of 165" or "We prefer applicants who have taken eleven courses in their major, but you've taken only eight" or "You lost out to someone who published one more paper than you did" or "We accept applicants from Yale only when we run out of applicants from Harvard." That's generally not how admissions decisions work. Instead, the judgment is holistic, based on the entire application, including intangible aspects like how compelling the letters of recommendation are. There's not much to say beyond "We got many strong applications and managed to fill the incoming class with applicants who impressed us even more than you did", and there's nothing to be gained by spelling that out.

Of course, there's occasionally a simple reason, when you really can refuse to admit someone because of something specific. However, that reason is sometimes insulting, and it would be dangerous to give the impression that the applicant could be admitted in the future if they just fixed this one thing. (It's rare to see an otherwise wonderful application with one utterly unacceptable aspect. Instead, if you're unacceptable in one respect you're likely to be at least questionable in others.) It would just be adding insult to injury to say "Well, your application probably wasn't good enough overall in any case, but here's one aspect we found particularly appalling."

I think what applicants often want isn't an explanation of the decision so much as constructive advice. Should they give up on the idea of attending graduate school? Do they need additional preparation? Are they not presenting themselves in the best light? It's completely reasonable to seek this sort of advice, but preferably from a mentor. Brief comments from admissions committees are unlikely to be useful.

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At my UK institution it is now required that all applications have a reason for the decision, which is communicated to the applicant. This is meant to ensure and document a clear decision making process for quality assurance purposes.

However, these officially documented reasons are often bland, boilerplate and uninformative. The useful information usually requires direct comparison with other candidates (for the relative ranking), which is exactly the information the institution can't release by law.

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    Could you at least provide some of the reasons that do get listed, for informational purposes? – aeismail Oct 10 '14 at 17:49
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    (1) Doesn't meet academic standards. (2) No suitable supervisor available (ie, already have too many students). (3) Unsuccessful in competition for limited funds. Note that this last one is becoming less common, as in most cases there is now a separation of the academic offer from the studentship offer; ie, in many cases an unfunded place may be offered. – Ian Oct 10 '14 at 19:27

Here are the only sorts of "reasons" I've ever seen in US decision letters.

Acceptance: "We were impressed by your qualifications."

Rejection: "We had many more qualified applicants than seats."

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  • I just wanted to add that the latter is giving the reason for rejection, at least in many cases. Sometimes there is something in an application that gets it tossed out in the absolute sense; but more commonly, the applications which get rejected are simply not ranked as highly as some other applications. IF we take the question to mean "Do applications explain why other applicants were ranked more highly?" the answer in North America is certainly no: how do you do that without revealing confidential information? – Pete L. Clark Oct 10 '14 at 18:12
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    @PeteL.Clark: In a sense you're right, of course. But in another sense, it sounds like the kind of letter you might get in response to an application to join Tautology Club. – Nate Eldredge Oct 10 '14 at 18:25

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