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My application to a specific PhD position was rejected. I was informed about it last week and I wasn't even invited to an interview. The information was a standard email telling me that "despite your evident qualifications, there were better candidates". Now, I see that the institution re-posted a job ad for the exact same position, and only changed the starting date to a later one.

I'm a bit puzzled by this situation and don't know what to do:

  • Should I re-write a better motivation letter and apply again, or does the early rejection means I have no chances at all?
  • Should I contact the thesis supervisor and ask him what could improve my chances, like this answer to a similar situation suggests?
  • Or should I wait a bit, get other experiences as research staff/assistant or something similar and apply for another position later?

My biggest worry is that I might appear too "pushy" and that my future applications in this institution will be automatically rejected, even if I have more experience. On the other hand, having a feedback from the supervisor could be useful for future applications.

I am aware that similar questions have bee posted already, like this one. However, my situation is slightly different, as I would apply to the same position without any new experience (against what is advised there). The cultural setting is German-speaking Europe.

  • 1
    Assuming it is indeed the very same position (how do you know?): My guess is that they were not satisfied with the applications they got and are trying again (although it's strange that they'd do that so soon). If nothing has changed in your application I'd expect that they'd reject it again. Thus, a phone call can only increase your chances. Your concerns about appearing "too pushy" are unfounded. I know I've received phone calls when we had open positions, but I really can't remember anymore who has called me. – Roland Dec 28 '16 at 11:43
  • Have you spoken to the supervisor in the past and would he/she be open to discussing why your application wasn't short-listed? Others may have a different opinion, but I don't think you should mention the re-advertised position and ask how you can improve your chances if you apply again. It would sound like you're catering to his/her requirements rather than presenting what you have to offer. – Inde Dec 28 '16 at 11:44
  • I am sure it that it is the same position because the job ad is exactly the same (the texts are identical) and the job is precisely described, so it is unlikely that this position is a different than the previous one. – anonymous Dec 28 '16 at 15:33
  • And I haven't talked to the supervisor, I only sent him a short email to ask about a detail of the application procedure, so he doesn't know me so far (sorry for the double comment, I cannot edit my previous one). – anonymous Dec 28 '16 at 15:37
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First of all, can you be sure it is exactly the same position? The same professor might have just gotten another grant which can fund another PhD position; it is then possible that they announced the second position with an (almost) identical ad. If that is the case, you can still have a chance of being accepted if you apply. If not and it's indeed the same position, it'll be much more difficult.

If it's a second position with the same professor, it means that the search for a suitable candidate starts anew. Being rejected with the previous application then isn't really a problem—it just means there was at least one candidate better than you. With a new hiring process, the selection starts from a beginning and it can happen that you'll be the best candidate this time. If, on the other hand, it's the same position, none of the candidates was a good fit for the job; and that doesn't change now unless you can change a part of your application (like your cover letter).

In my opinion, you cannot go wrong by sending a brief, polite email to the professor and asking about the new ad and potentially for a short feedback on your application. The worst that can happen is that you'll get no response at all, and then it's probably not a good idea to apply.

  • From an outsider's point of view what is the difference between "the second position with an (almost) identical ad" and exactly the same position? – emory Dec 28 '16 at 17:44
  • @emory thanks for the remark, I expanded the answer to discuss the difference. – Ondřej Černotík Dec 28 '16 at 18:33
  • @Ondřej That doesn't really address emory's question: how does the OP, as an outsider and without knowing any of the internal dynamics, tell whether the second opening is for the same position or not? – E.P. Dec 28 '16 at 22:03
  • @E.P.: I suppose they could ask. Other than that, I cannot fathom. – tomasz Dec 29 '16 at 2:36
  • I explained why I think it is the same position in the comment to the questions. It's true that one can never know without asking, but in this case it seems obvious, unless the new ad isn't the one they wanted to post, as CCTO's answer could suggest. – anonymous Dec 29 '16 at 8:03
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I wouldn't worry about "appearing pushy". The biggest risk here is that you will waste your time and mental energy. It is true that if you simply repeat your application the chances of getting admitted this time round are small (though not 0%). It's worth making the call you suggest for two reasons: one you gain experience on what was wrong with your application, two your rejection may have been due to a misunderstanding, and you could clear that up. Your supervisor may even be very enthusiastic about your application after this is cleared and addressed in your application.

However, there is another angle to consider. A PhD is no trivial endeavour. It is physically, but mostly mentally demanding, and will push you to your psychology's limits. Many people who embark on one regret it, or drop out, or are worse-off professionally at the end than they were when they started. So if you got rejected from a PhD course without even an interview invite, you really need to consider if this is the kind of PhD program and / or kind of environment you're willing to spend the next 3-7 years in. A PhD is extremely challenging at the best of times when there aren't politics etc to worry about. If they rejected you outright, then maybe that's a red flag that you don't want to be applying for that particular course / department in the first place. So at the very least, weigh the reasons for this particular course very carefully; don't go blindly into a PhD / environment that isn't right for you.

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If it were a second (similar) position which became available unexpectedly (funding granted or someone quit), almost all organizations would draw on the pool of applicants which they'd just finished vetting, and reach out to the applicant who was, effectively, their second choice.

This really sounds like they just didn't like any of the applicants they received, and want to throw their hook back in the water. Bit of a shame they chose to tell you they went with another applicant, if they didn't actually do so. Possibly they did make an offer to the only one they found acceptable, and that applicant declined.

If I were on the inside, I'd probably re-word the description to stress whatever qualities the prior applicants didn't have. Also I'd probably give it a little more time.n But academics can be remarkably clumsy managers and their relationship with their institution's HR department can be horrible. (As with their IT department, etc etc.)

So this could indicate a dysfunctional hiring process. Which describes far more of them than you want to imagine. It probably can't hurt to clean up your application and send it back in, but frankly I'd write them off. Some job postings are just plain vapourware.

  • Good points here. But remember that choosing when to hire someone might be problematic if the funding is available for a specific time window only so it might not always be possible to wait after an unsuccessful call. – Ondřej Černotík Dec 28 '16 at 20:52
  • What do you mean by "a dysfunctional hiring process describes far more of them than you want to imagine"? Do you mean that a dysfunctional hiring process means a poor supervision? And if the problem is at the HR level, how will it impact me once I start my thesis there? – anonymous Dec 29 '16 at 8:07
  • For new job seekers it's easy to imagine that the recruiting process is all very logical and well-planned. In fact, having been a hiring manager for a while, I can say that it's often remarkably disorganized. Criteria may not be well thought-out, corporate/institutional processes may not be followed, people who review the resumes may have preferences that aren't exactly aligned with the criteria as posted, and the hiring mangager--especially, I'd say, if they're a technical or academic person--may really dislike the whole thing. So the resulting decision can be very non-deterministic. – CCTO Dec 29 '16 at 17:12
  • So let's assume that the hiring process is as chaotic as you describe. What does that tell me about the position after the process is finished? – anonymous Dec 29 '16 at 17:29

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