I have a former classmate of mine who wasn't successful in his/her application to top-tier PhD/MD programs this past application cycle.

Over the phone and through email, I've been sympathetic when I learned about his/her disappointment and offered words of encouragement, reminding him/her of their worth ethic (working 2-3 jobs at the same time and maintaining a stellar GPA) and personal aspirations (the kind of aspiration where you think that he/she would be a major force in research, selflessly serving the needs of others, and accomplishing a great deal in their career) during our undergraduate years.

However in recent time, I've lost touch with this person for unknown reasons, as I stopped hearing back from them. Distance, time, busy with other stuff. I don't know.

The question I wanted to pose is, should I try to reach out again?

If they decided to reapply, what little would my words of encouragement offer beyond a smile and good wishes? (I doubt they would have an impact on the actual admissions board)

If they decided to not reapply, wouldn't my words just pour salt into an otherwise fresh bitter wound in their mind?

Mind you, I am going through the testing phase at the moment myself and am narrowing down my PhD study programs to a handful for application, so I can't claim that I am in similar waters.

Put yourself in this person's shoes, how would you react in either scenario?

  • 2
    This might be a better fit for SE.InterpersonalSkills. While the person's stressed out over an academic issue, they're basically just someone you used to know, and you're asking about how to interact with them. – Nat Oct 12 '17 at 3:31
  • Perhaps, but wouldn't the audience from academia SE be a better source of opinion on the matter? There has been posts regarding academic workplace issues, academia.stackexchange.com/questions/97162/…, but it would appear that by virtue of employment within a university, the question itself wasn't that far in the pale. – Frank FYC Oct 12 '17 at 3:34
  • 2
    @FrankFYC: academia has very different norms from regular workplaces, so we kind of have to answer these questions "among ourselves". Anywhere else, the answer to "my boss is abusive" would be "go to HR". In this case however, the answer of "should I reconnect with a friend who has gone quiet after a disappointment" isn't really changed by the academic nature of the disappointment. – nengel Oct 12 '17 at 3:49
  • I agree with your sentiment of "among ourselves" and this is exactly the reason why I believed the academia SE would be a better environment for the question. This is a person who want's to become an academic but is for a lack of a better word, disappointed. As someone who has gone through the process, would words of sympathy encourage or distress you? – Frank FYC Oct 12 '17 at 3:56

If you decide to reach out again, I would try to reconnect over a different topic first. It sounds like it has been a while since the results were announced, and bringing up their past disappointment over and over again will probably not help them get over it. If all of your interactions are focused on this one topic they might start to wonder if you are either secretly judging them about it, or if you are just pumping them for advice on what mistakes to avoid in your own applications.

If subsequently they bring up the topic on their own, you can express sympathy at that point. But I would follow their lead in whether they want to dwell on it or not.

  • "secretly judging them about it" the notion never crossed my mind, I never saw myself as someone who needs to be superior to another. But given its possibility, this possible perception is noted. "pumping them for advice on what mistakes to avoid in your own applications" I originally reached out because I wanted to learn about the process from someone who just went though it, but when I learned of the results, I took a more sympathetic tone and offered reassurances they they would excel the second time around, I just didn't know what to do once they stopped replying. – Frank FYC Oct 12 '17 at 4:04
  • Maybe rather than "secretly judging", a more general formulation would be that if you seem stuck on the topic, they might think that it somehow had affected your view of them. Even "No way, you're so smart, I was sure you could do it!" sounds like "I'm disappointed that you failed" if that's how we're currently feeling about ourselves. – nengel Oct 12 '17 at 4:20
  • not really... more like "Wow, I didn't know that. I'm sorry to hear that. Don't let it get to you this time around, you are X and have done Y, if you believe in yourself, you will be successful". But your advice certainly gives me insight and notions that I never considered before. – Frank FYC Oct 12 '17 at 4:32
  • Note that I'm not saying that this is how they perceived you previously, merely listing some of the pitfalls that might arise from bringing the subject up again. If they stopped responding to that conversation, I'd take that as a sign that they weren't interested in talking more about it at that moment (for whatever reason, you already listed a lot of options). Since it's a topic they probably have many feelings about, opening with something more neutral and letting them get back to it, if they wish to, organically over the course of the conversation lets you gauge their mood first. – nengel Oct 12 '17 at 9:20

The most important question in terms of if you want to address the topic is: Despite their stellar and good record,he/she was not admitted. Do you understand why? Is there any issue which can be changed? If you really don't understand it, then I would not talk to them much.

From the viewpoint of picking up the conversation: I think it's not wise to make it the first topic, but leave it to them how he/she responds to a general "How are you doing." question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.