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I was recently accepted for a PhD position after going through the application process of submitting the usual documents (CV, motivation letter,...) as well as an interview.

I have heard, from my now colleagues, that during the application process, my supervisor had mentioned that I had come across as very motivated.

I am curious however, if there is ever a good time (say after one has established a rapport with one's supervisor) to ask about the other candidates who fell short? Or is it something quite taboo?

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – StrongBad Nov 28 '17 at 15:02
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    You mention 'the other candidates who fell short'. But you could find the answer is 'we wanted someone else but they had a better offer, so we had to make do with you instead'. – Jessica B Nov 28 '17 at 20:22
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    So you have just been accepted to a PhD program. Congratulations! Now is a perfect time to learn how to build a healthy distance to your ego. Because now on forward (if you honestly have not noticed it earlier in your life) it will not do you much good but mostly be used as a tool to try and steer you here or there. – mathreadler Nov 28 '17 at 21:04
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    Please edit the question to explain if there's any way this information would help you, or what you intend to do with it. If the answers are "in no way" and "nothing", then, well, maybe you shouldn't be nosy. – einpoklum - reinstate Monica Nov 28 '17 at 21:55
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    It's probably none of your business. – jim Nov 28 '17 at 22:59
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You can ask, but it's really none of your business. Admissions committee deliberations are generally treated as confidential. Asking about the other candidates and why they were rejected will almost certainly be seen as intrusive. It's the kind of thing that's likely to cause them to wonder how they made the mistake of choosing you over all those other candidates who would likely have known better than to ask that question.

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    "You can ask" seems to conflict with "Asking about the other candidates and why they were rejected will almost certainly be seen as intrusive"... (assuming a common-sense definition of "can") – Mehrdad Nov 26 '17 at 22:17
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    No one has a gun to your head either way. You can do it but here's what's likely to happen. There's nothing to protect you from your own poor judgment. Does that clarify my use of "can"? – Nicole Hamilton Nov 26 '17 at 22:36
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    Yeah, it says you're not assuming the common-sense definition of "can". Most likely the OP is already aware no one has a gun to his head either way. (But then again, if he does, how would you know better than he would?) I would remove the first phrase in the answer since it's misleading. Otherwise it's a great answer. – Mehrdad Nov 26 '17 at 22:56
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    As a student, you are welcome to ask your instructors or your advisor for an assessment of your strengths and weaknesses and advice on how to improve and it's likely they will try to give you helpful answers. But that's not the same as asking how you stacked up against the other candidates and the reason is the one I gave: Admissions committee deliberations are generally treated as confidential and your question will be seen as intrusive. Which of those words do you need explained? – Nicole Hamilton Nov 27 '17 at 2:36
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    @NicoleHamilton: I agree. The OP can ask, in that there is no formal rule against it; but probably should not ask, because it will be seen as rude and intrusive. Personally I don't think that phrasing conflicts with common sense. – Royal Canadian Bandit Nov 27 '17 at 12:29
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There are two reasons not to do this :

  • Anything said by the candidates would be confidential. Would you like other people to blab about your mistakes or just imply that other people were better than you? Most people would not. Also, some of the information given is likely to be personal. Maybe they disclosed a bit of medical information that was not for public consumption, maybe they had personal responsibilities they don't generally advertise but were relevant to taking up the position on offer.

  • If they tell you something and the candidate hears about it and doesn't feel it's fair or true or that it was confidential, they might call that lawyer and cause trouble. The most likely sacrificial offering the institute's lawyers would then offer up to deal with that problem would be ... you. :-) It would certainly make problems for your own career.

There is, however, a correct time to ask about these things: when you're about to start a job where you'll be the one making the decisions. At that time you should ask peers and mentors about how they generally make decisions on this issues in non-specific terms. What you should certainly never do is ask about specific candidates and particularly not ones you were in competition with.

Finally note that one thing most employers and institutes expect as a given is that people signing on are discreet. Asking about things that are none of your business is not being discreet and this would reflect poorly on you.

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    +1 This answer is more factual and has a less judgemental tone. – Pharap Nov 27 '17 at 18:40
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    "One day you'll be the one making these decisions" is exactly the legitimate reason, and this answer is 100% correct that the advisor(s) will provide experience in evaluating candidates eventually, and not using the set who applied the same year. – Ben Voigt Nov 27 '17 at 18:58
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I actually had the same curiosity after I was accepted, it is interesting because I also met the other candidate the day of my interview. I do not think it is taboo to ask but you have to wait for the right moment, it might take some time to get there.

A possible shortcut is, once you are more integrated with the group, you can ask the phd/postdocs, because the professor might have asked the course of their opinion.

I do not think that your question is just pure curiosity, it is actually useful to hear about how experienced people judge candidates and what qualities are more or less appreciated.

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    Downvoted. Asking about the selection process is completely appropriate, but OP wants to ask about specific rejected candidates, which is not. – JeffE Nov 27 '17 at 15:07
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    @JeffE if the name of the candidate is not disclosed, and if there is no way the candidates knew each other, what difference does it make? – Herman Toothrot Nov 27 '17 at 15:55
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    @user4050 but how do you know the candidates won't know each others? – Ooker Nov 28 '17 at 0:25
  • @Ooker if the interviews are held in different days or at different times, or even if there were more candidates. The only way to know would be if you have two candidates being invited in the same day and they both stand outside the door. – Herman Toothrot Nov 28 '17 at 17:08
  • @user4050 It's pretty easy to find out who the other candidates are (talks posted on the department webpage, word of math, etc.). When I interviewed, I checked who the other candidates were. And you never know who has met at a conference. It is definitely taboo to ask. – Morgan Rodgers Nov 29 '17 at 7:24
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I do not understand why is this worth asking/thinking about? It is not a good idea. I can imagine a question about the acceptance rate can give you the insight how good you are, but more that I find it very intrusive and ego-feeding.

  • I second @None's answer. What's the point in asking, Jason? Will you write a better thesis armed with the knowledge?. My 2 cents for what is worth of: Writing a thesis is mind sucking and tiresome exercice. A lot of people I know were able to get to a PhD position but a lot of people were not able to finish... Best of luck. – Andy K Nov 27 '17 at 11:33
  • I don't find this "ego-feeding" (at least not in a negative way). Knowing that you outperformed a number of people can be a great boost to your confidence (and it can totally help against imposter syndrome!) So, given a good answer, I can totally imagine that this knowledge will make you able to write a better thesis as you feel more secure (@andyk). Of course, this varies much by person. And I can see a lot of answers a supervisor could give which would not be seen as intrusive (at least not in my culture), ... – yupsi Nov 27 '17 at 19:05
  • ...e. g. "There were 112 other candidates besides you, even a few from Cambridge, MIT, but your ability in Task A really stood out". – yupsi Nov 27 '17 at 19:06
  • @yupsi Unfortunately, according to my experience, this would not help anyone with imposter syndrome, but often aggravate the case: "Oh my god, I don't know how I tricked them to believe me being much better than those people from MIT and Cambridge, but now they inevitably will find out because I am so much worse and will never be able to fulfill their enormous expectations..." – Thern Nov 29 '17 at 15:53
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My suggestion: Ask when you know your supervisor enough to know what kind of person they are.

As you see from the answers and comments, there are many people who'd consider everything as confidental. My impression from academia, however, is that many people like to talk (unless things really labelled top-secred or medical details). So try to find out what kind of person your supervisor is - do they do smalltalk, and if yes, what is it about? Do they speak about other collegues and tell you department gossip? If they are open for things like that, you could try to start at lunch a conversation about the interview. Start with small questions and ask more if you feel your supervisor does not feel uncomfortable talking.

However, do of course not ask for really private details and do not inquivise your supervisor if you feel they do not want to talk about a certain topic. What you also probably should avoid is asking about direct comparision of a candidate to you (e.g. whether somebody had more or less points then you in a certain task). Also, if possible, do not ask for names.

  • But when he knows his supervisor well enough he should not have to ask the question because then he should be able to figure it out himself. – mathreadler Nov 27 '17 at 9:17
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    If they are open for things like that, — ...then you can be sure that they are talking about you behind your back as well. – JeffE Nov 27 '17 at 15:08
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Yes, you can inquire about your selection process, but you need to proceed tactfully and professionally.

  1. You will not be told the identities of other candidates. Application process is tacitly anonymous.

  2. Your question should be structured as a request for feedback, so that you can further improve yourself. In essence, the feedback you request should be invariant to there having been a hundred candidates of just one candidate (you) during the selection process.

  3. Knowledge of other candidates is almost immaterial since you will not be directly competing with them for the next stage of your professional career and certainly not for another few years. In fact, my first impulsive assumption as supervisor on hearing your query is that you want to leave and join another PhD program, wherein you may likely meet some of your previous competition.

  4. If you must ask, discuss it from a perspective of further improving synergy with your supervisor(s).

  5. (Example) A candidate from a non-English speaking background can ask supervisor about the influence of their English communication skills towards your selection and further growth. In this scenario, the supervisor might advise you to audit language development courses, as the case maybe. You might also use this discussion to request more opportunities to speak in the lab, discuss papers and improve your skills.

-- Aside: I liked the question as a good example of the difference between random thoughts and curiosity and structured thought. You will learn as a researcher that there are numerous open questions related to almost anything you are researching. The ability to identify and narrow the set of questions most pertinent to your focus and even sequence them will distinguish you as a good researcher. You'll also learn about resource efficient planning, since you can't delve into every curiosity.

Lets say you want to know X.

The things you should know a priori. Why do you want to know X? What is your present best guess about the answer to X? How will a different answer to X from an expert change your process? How will you benefit from the answer to X and employ this benefit towards helping your career and the scientific community as a whole?

If I were your supervisor, I might not actually answer your question about other candidates, but if you structure your inquiry properly with prior due diligence then at least I will be happy that you are on the right track to a successful PhD program!

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Don't ask about others, but feel free to ask about yourself. For example:

  • What were my strengths compared to the 2nd, 3rd and 4th candidates?
  • What weaknesses did I have compared to the 2nd, 3rd and 4th candidates?

Or you can even be more specific, as in:

  • Did my traveling experience in South-East Asia set me apart from the 2nd, 3rd and 4th candidates? What about my motivation, did it set me apart from the 2nd, 3rd and 4th candidates?

All the above questions are strictly about you, but they are logically equivalent to:

  • What are the weaknesses, strengths, experience and motivation of the other candidates?

which would be highly inappropriate, so just don't do that.

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Of course no-one disrespects other's privacy, and sure this is none of your business, but curiosity is also natural, and for some their curiosity on other people is stronger than others. For those, they might don't understand why a natural tendency is perceived as intrusive, and they will be confused. For me in the past, this confusion invokes more questions, and the cycle will begin.

I still don't think curiosity on other people is harmful, but my life lesson is that it's also natural for others for not having strong curiosity. In their natural point of views, this might be perceived as intrusive. Knowing their personality is crucial, and with time you will know when and how to ask to satisfy your curiosity.

Think of the people you will ask as a small Stack Exchange community. There are two kinds of question that get popular. The first kind asks from curiosity, but it evokes controversy. They're still good questions, but some will disagree with it. The second kind not only asks from curiosity, but also shows the desire to really understand what's going on. The curiosity is not anymore peripheral, it is indeed the one that everyone wants to see it. And this will evoke their curiosity.

protected by Alexandros Nov 27 '17 at 19:39

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