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I had written to a well know professor in my field of study regarding a possible PhD position. He responded and asked for references. I was dumb enough to respond to this mail after 4 days. It has been two weeks since the last email and I never heard from the professor.

  1. Is it a good idea to send a follow up email?

  2. Do you think the delay in responding to his mail would have spoiled my chances?

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No, the delay didn't spoil your chances, and no, don't write a followup.

The prof wasn't waiting for your reply, and didn't expect it to come the next day. If he is "well known", he may get dozens of applications every week, plus hundreds of other emails. He likely didn't notice the delay, but just processed the daily flood of messages.

Even if he did remember when your first mail came, he knows that compiling a good application with references takes time. You usually have to write a reference yourself and find a professor who knows you at least by sight to sign it. You could have been out of town for a job interview, ill, etc., there are a million very legitimate reasons why you didn't have it ready by the next day.

If he actually has an open position in which you might've fit, he has surely checked your references, and didn't like them. If not, there is little you, or he, could do.

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Well I was in a very similar situation. I applied to Germany and X offered me a position. I had two interviews from Y and Z coming up the next week, so I decided to wait till I got them over with which turned out to be a very very bad idea. I sent a mail to X mentioning I need some time to think over the offer. The interviews gone bad. I decided to take the position offered by X. I sent a mail and the response was

We decided to give the position to another applicant. Good luck in your search.

I have every reason to doubt that you are in hot waters. Replying late unless you really had strong grounds to do such an act will seriously affect your chances of getting admitted. First, there are others like you who have applied. Second, its unwise to expect them to wait this long for a seemingly simple reply.

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  • @Karl Ignored is not the right word as I asked for time to think over the offer. In this case of OP there is a high probability that someone else could have replied with references, the chances gets very slim if its an advertised open position. – Sathyam Dec 13 '15 at 20:38
  • Ah, you did't say you asked for pause to think about it. Still you might've overdrawn it, or they were just impatient. But the OP never said there was an actual position. If there was one, that professor would be collecting possible applicants for a few weeks, and then get back to those that look promising to him. – Karl Dec 13 '15 at 20:46
  • You cannot expect an employer to wait for a week after a real job offer. He's made a decision, and urgently needs to make another one if you decline. Number two on his list might get an offer from a third party, and then he's scraping the barrel. Unless of course he said he'll wait. Did he? – Karl Dec 13 '15 at 21:24
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Good question.

Yes, the delay may have affected your chances, but I wouldn't worry about it either way, as you can never know. The professor might not even have noticed as he was away. Alternately, he may be very attentive to such things and ruled you out. Even if he did notice, it might only have made a slight impact on his views - it is not implausible that he would assume that you had to contact referees about references, for example. With this said, I have the impression that fast replies are the way to go, so you should probably try to ensure you reply faster in future situations of this nature.

I think that you should contact him as you have nothing to lose, and much to gain. Plus, you signal that you are very interested by following up. In terms of how to do it, I would start by politely apologising for taking his time (i.e., sorry to bother you...). I also apologise for taking so long to respond to his initial reply and explain why this happened. I would then ask if he could let me know about the likelihood of getting the position, given my follow up email, explaining that I am am very interested in the position, and would like to know if I might be able to acquire it before I consider applying to other positions (or something to that effect).

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  • I agree on the "nothing to loose part", but am doubtful about possible gains. Those professors get a lot of applications. If everyone writes a followup email after two weeks, in the long run everyone will have an annoyed professor with less time to think about actual new research projects. ;-) – Karl Dec 14 '15 at 2:45

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