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So I plan on applying for a PhD program pretty soon. I’ve done quite a lot of research into the people who do interesting things in my area and I’ve come up with a list of universities that I want to try to get into and people in those universities with whom I’d like to work. My problem is that the list is too long...

Is it wrong if I apply to too many places? I’m a good student and I can get pretty impressive recommendations, so there is a good chance I’ll be accepted in more that one place and I don’t know if I’ll look bad if I turn down offers after having talked to several professors and everything.

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    You won't look bad turning places down if you have a better offer. They won't know how many offers you have (unless you tell them), and it would be really stupid on your part if you only applied to one or two places in order to be sure you only got one offer. – Peter Shor Oct 16 '17 at 2:55
  • I changed the title to better reflect the post. Was previously "How many postgraduate programs should I apply to?" But really it is a question about appropriateness of a long list/multiple offers, not number of programs. – Dawn Oct 16 '17 at 15:14
  • Apply to five to ten carefully selected programs. More than ten is a waste of your time. Fewer than five and you risk getting no offers. – Anonymous Physicist Oct 17 '17 at 1:39
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First of all the question

How many postgraduate programs should I apply to?

is not possible to answer objectively; it is as subjective as it gets. Ultimately it would depend on the type of person you are, on the possibilities you have available to you etc etc. My short answer would be: apply as many as you like...

The question

What is a good number of PhD positions to apply for?

is also a bit tricky, but somewhat better. There are no clear cut numbers and threshold, AFAIK. I would definitely send out more than one! If your problem is that your list is too long, prioritise. Rank these places based on factors relating to as well as besides scientific reasons, such as location, cost of living, weather, any cultural aspects etc etc.. When you have a ranked list, rather than a plain list, you can start from the top and work your way down. (OR: start from the bottom, to gain some experience as you work your way up to list. This was an advice I was given by a head hunter once, his advice was to divide the list of companies I was interested in to three tiers and start from the lowest one). In any case I would suggest that you take your time with each application and go with quality over quantity (more on this a little further down). If the applications you send out come back negative, continue from the list.

About sending multiple applications out; the important thing there is that you don't want to come across as a wholesale applicant sending boilerplate mails or applications to anyone and everyone in the field, even if that's not the case.

For example, it's probably a good idea to not apply for several different positions in the same department with the same type of application. Research environments aren't that big (at least in Europe), PIs that work in similar fields typically know and talk to each other. So if you don't leave a good impression with one, you might be off to a bad start with another one.

Now that being said, it does not have to be a negative thing, as a matter of fact you can turn that to an advantage even. I applied for two postdoc positions at the same institute, turned out these two labs were very well connected. I did my interviews for both groups together, and they even helped me choose between the positions. Important thing is to be transparent about it.

Finally, I think there are plenty of questions here on Academia.SE that address these type of issues actually. Feel free to do a search for application, job or job-search tags.

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    thanks! all the answers have been very helpful but yours in particular is very detailed. What worried me most was exactly "coming across as a wholesale applicant". – Hame Oct 16 '17 at 22:12
  • @Hame glad to have helped. best of luck with the applications :) – posdef Oct 17 '17 at 6:33
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There is no such thing as "too many places", except if it is compromising the quality of your applications (or your other life activities). Start applying at your most wanted places, making sure to polish your application to your best effort, and keep going until you run out of time, energy, or programs you would actually want to attend.

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  • "Start applying at your most wanted places" only if you have the qualifications to have a chance of getting in – Anonymous Physicist Oct 17 '17 at 1:38
  • Eeh, you can't actually know that, only the admissions committee does. There's no harm in applying even if you don't stand a chance, as long as you don't stop before you applied to several you are likely to get into. OP did mention the strength of their references etc, so I assumed that wouldn't be too far down the list. – nengel Oct 17 '17 at 1:47
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What I ended up doing was ranking my schools in terms of preference: I applied to those schools whose offers I was most likely to accept first, and worked my way down the list. I had planned on applying to about a dozen schools, but stopped filling out applications after six because I realized I wouldn't really want to go to any of the other schools on my list!

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