how can I kindly reject PhD students?
June 30, 2014 2:11 PM   Subscribe

I have just begun as an assistant professor in the humanities at a prestigious university, and I am getting more emails from prospective PhD candidates than I can handle, gracefully or otherwise. I am presently a total n00b (read: incompetent at my job) and can't realistically take more than one a year. But I have no idea how to deal with these emails. Any suggestions on how to handle them, from anyone in similar but wiser positions? Agonized details below.

On a semi-weekly basis I am beginning to get emails from students from all over the world asking, pleading, demanding, that I look at their PhD research proposals and consider working with them. I do look at the proposals, and I really don't like being mean. I'm young enough that I remember grad school neurosis, and I don't want to contribute more to it than I can help. My university has a very good, neutral admissions system which every candidate, regardless of all these direct email approaches, must go through. But I still feel obliged to give these emails a response of some kind. There've been for me two separate problems of response, and I'd really love advice on either/both.

Response type #1 - Maybe: I have fewer problems with proposals I think are good and promising, but there the problem is how to encourage them to apply without appearing to promise that I will work with them, since I technically can't promise that. How can I do this?

Response type #2 - No Way in Hell: For proposals that I don't think are good, how do I craft a kind response that essentially says "Hmm, interesting (even if not really), but no"? Mostly I don't think many of them are up to snuff (some are outright terrible) or else are not really in my area of expertise (which is Small and Puny, and I would feel wrong attempting to supervise them). What should this response be? Ignore them? (Not an option for me, I think that's mean) Write a curt rejection without explanation? (also seems awful). Try to explain to them why I don't want to work with them? (also awful and time-consuming, and in my brief experience with taking this route, demoralizing for them and agonizing for me) Palm them off on someone else in the department knowing that said colleague also wouldn't take them? (kind of mean, and it's been done to me by other colleagues, and it has sometimes happened that I'm at the end of this chain) Palm them off on someone else in the field, at another university? (what if I think the proposal is so awful that it would be embarrassing to "recommend" them to a colleague I respect? also this doesn't work if the candidate has specified that they want to be at my university). Secret options X Y and Z that I don't know about??

I would really appreciate specific sentence-phrasing suggestions. Also, should I be devising email response templates? I'm just getting so many of these that the thought of writing personalized emails for each and every one of them fills me with timesuck dread...

Basically, I'm encountering a situation where I've just newly crossed over from the supplicant side of the fence to the gatekeeper side of it, and I don't know how to assume this new role gracefully. I would appreciate all and any advice! Many thanks in advance!
posted by starcrust to Work & Money (21 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Can't you just say you're at capacity and can't take anyone else, good luck etc? And yes, as a form reply, without looking at their proposals.
posted by Lyn Never at 2:14 PM on June 30, 2014 [3 favorites]

If the university has an application process that all candidates must apply to, can't you just have a form letter directing them to apply there? That way you can avoid expressing any opinion at all about their proposals (and don't have to read them). If their proposal looks good you can always include a line asking them to follow up with you if they are admitted.
posted by pombe at 2:29 PM on June 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Response 1:

Dear X,

Your proposal looks very interesting, and I feel that you might be a good fit for my lab [for reason x, y, z, if you want. You can also ask clarifying questions about their proposal ideas, whatever else here]. [If you want to start this next sentence with "Though I cannot guarantee that I would be your advisor," you could, but I don't know that that's necessary] I encourage you to apply to our department! I look forward to your application.


Response 2:

Dear X,

While I greatly appreciate your interest, I do not think your research would be a good fit in my lab/am not interested in taking on another student this year. I wish you the best of luck in your application process! [If you have a professor in mind who would be a good fit, you can recommend them if you want, but it's not necessary.]

posted by ChuraChura at 2:29 PM on June 30, 2014 [7 favorites]

Best answer: I don't want to sound insensitive, but this is a big old "not your problem". You'll drive yourself crazy trying to be too personable. There are really only two possible responses, and if you want to be really efficient, you can use the Gmail "canned response" app. You can have only one response if you want to be really really efficient

Possibly interesting (or not; see above about efficiency): "Your CV is promising, though I'm not sure I will have room in my lab. I would invite and encourage you to apply through the X graduate program; that's the only mechanism whereby I can take students." The department's application process will screen them for you. This would also be a decent response if there's someone else in your department who would fit them better. You're not obliged (or worse, fund them) to take them because of this. That will all be decided later (possibly much later depending on your department).

You don't think they're good, or a good fit, or you're full: "Sorry, I don't have any space in my lab for someone with your background. Best of luck."
posted by supercres at 2:32 PM on June 30, 2014 [8 favorites]

Best answer: If I were emailing you (because the general advice is that I should email someone like you), I'd appreciate a straightforward reply that tells me to not waste your or my time, e.g. "Thank you for emailing me. At [Prestigious University], all admissions for our program is handled by [Very Good, Neutral Admissions System/Office]. You can contact ["them" or name of a person] at [email address/URL]. Best of luck with your research."

As a new assistant professor, guard your time. You've earned it.
posted by JackBurden at 2:34 PM on June 30, 2014 [25 favorites]

Best answer: (Also, it can be argued that it's best for your department and school if you noncommittally encourage everyone to apply. It's not like anyone is going to sneak in under the wire. At worst, if it's anything like my department, you'll have too many people asking to talk to you when them come for interviews.)
posted by supercres at 2:35 PM on June 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

First thing to do:

Talk about this with someone you trust in your department. I expect that the answer that you will get is that you should not be spending your time dealing with these people, and should focus on your own work, and on working with the grad students already admitted to the department, and on your own work, and on your teaching, and on your own work. Also on your own work, and then probably your own work. Helping graduate students in other departments should, probably, fall somewhere below volunteering to serve on university-level committees. Legitimate academic relationships that form naturally from conferences, etc, aren't included here. Likewise, unless you've been appointed to the graduate admissions committee, graduate admissions aren't your problem. In fact, if you weren't appointed to the graduate admissions committee, it's probably because your department doesn't want you worrying about graduate admissions right now when you could be worrying about... your own work.

Are these people PhD students elsewhere who want you on their committee? Those I would just delete without bothering to reply. I would only consider requests like that sent from colleagues elsewhere on behalf of their students.

Or are they people seeking admission to your PhD program as your student? I would reply with "Forwarded to the graduate admissions committee" in an email that does that. Or, honestly, just not reply. If you have a web page, you can add a note stating that you receive many requests related to graduate admission and cannot deal with them all, so you forward them to the chair of the graduate admissions committee or the administrative person who's really in charge of it.

You have a lot of things on your plate now. Don't ever forget that your ass is on the line in a very short time, and that "(S)he was really nice to other people's students over email" will get you exactly zero votes on a P&T committee.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 2:39 PM on June 30, 2014 [4 favorites]

Best answer: My standard reply, modify as you need:

Thanks for your interest! Unfortunately, my lab is full right now, but I will keep you in mind if openings arise.

Short but sweet. What's more important is that you a) get used to writing and sending it and giving it exactly zero more thought, and b) develop the ability to judge, very quickly, whether something or someone is worth additional time on your part. Time is your biggest currency. If not, see a).
posted by Dashy at 2:47 PM on June 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

If there is a separate neutral admissions process and you can not promise anyone lab space even if you wanted to, I would have a single canned response and let someone else sort it out. This is the very definition of Not Your Problem.

"Thank you for your interest in XYZ Lab. All interested applicants must apply through Portal X. Have a good day!" For people that you really like and think should apply, you could add a complimentary sentence showing that you've read their work.

The reason these people are emailing you is presumably, they think you have some sway in the process and convincing you will help them get a spot in your PhD program. If you don't actually have any sway, then don't waste their time and your time.
posted by muddgirl at 2:56 PM on June 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: thanks for all the reality checks so far! this is very very useful, especially the template suggestions. Not to threadsit, but I think two clarifications needed to qualify the "not-my-problem" answers - it is a bit more of my problem than it might seem:

1) I'm in the humanities, which is not lab-based, so the student is really applying to work directly with me.

2) I'm in the UK, where the advisor role is far more prominent - and it's not a committee, it's just me. In fact it seems almost to be the case in this system that the yay or nay for admissions pretty much boils down completely to the prospective advisor, other factors aside (funding, basic GPA etc)
posted by starcrust at 2:58 PM on June 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

As a new assistant professor you have enough on your plate, don't add to it by spending any time on these emails. Don't even spend time looking at them. Just respond with JackBurden's form letter every time automatically. People on the admissions committee are the ones tasked with looking at the proposals. Talk to students after they've been accepted or when they're visiting.
posted by overhauser at 3:00 PM on June 30, 2014

Best answer: I am a doctoral student. I implore you to just say no and move onward. If you have an appropriate contact, please provide that.

What I really need from you is an answer so I can move down my list of targets. No is fine. Yes is fabulous. Wishy washy this-is-interesting just clogs my work. This isn't about you or you feeling good or your calendar. It's about not wasting anyone's time.

As in most things, it is a kindness to deliver the rejection quickly and succinctly.
posted by 26.2 at 3:04 PM on June 30, 2014 [13 favorites]

Best answer: You're kind to even be thinking of replying. In my experience, in this sort of situation, the standard is usually to just not respond at all. If you're a woman, you may want to consider: many women struggle in academia because they take on extra work, usually out of a desire to be friendly or nice or helpful. Just be reading those proposals sent to you, you're taking on extra work out of a desire to be friendly and nice and helpful.

One thing to keep in mind is that a lot of these students are asking you to work for them for free. They want you to perform a service for them for which you will not get paid -- sure, service is technically part of your job description, but this isn't the sort of service that anyone's going to care about. By reading over their proposals, you're working for no reward.

There's another thing to keep in mind, provided I make certain assumptions about your current place in academia. You say you've just begun, that you're new, etc etc -- am I right in taking that to mean you don't have too substantial a research record yet? If so, keep this in mind: these students are requesting/demanding unpaid labor from you even though they know nothing about you. You're just a name with an e-mail listed on a website. If they don't specifically know your work or have met you, or whatever, then their entire motivation for contacting you is that you're a warm body able to sign off on their research. (Again, this may not apply: if you're a hotshot who's already gotten a name, then they may actually know of you. But if that's the case, you need to learn right now how to firmly say no to people. Hotshots attract vampires, and vampires can suck you dry.)

So, here's where you are: you're bending over backwards to try to be friendly and helpful to people who are asking you to work for them for free (and often not even being nice about it, if they're demanding!), and they're asking you in particular for no reason other than because they found your e-mail address on your department's website.

You sound like you really are an extremely nice and gracious and kind person. You're the kind of person academia needs. But here's a situation, perhaps, where you should think hard about how going an extra mile to be nice and gracious in response to someone you have no special duties to is doing harm to you. It's taking up your time, diverting your energy from where you need it to be to succeed, and draining you emotionally. And you get nothing for it.

With that said, I like Dashy's template. Remember the standard polite refusal is this: "That won't be possible." You don't have to explain yourself, you don't have to apologize, you don't have to feel bad. Again, just by responding at all, you're going beyond the standard to be kind and gracious.
posted by meese at 3:05 PM on June 30, 2014 [6 favorites]

My husband gets a lot of these emails and he simply has a short text on his website giving information about postgraduate admissions and stating that he's sorry but he won't be able to reply to every request.

I showed him your question and he said that he refers both "No Way in Hells" and "Maybes" to the postgraduate admissions but tells the "Maybes" to mention his name in their application.
posted by snownoid at 3:34 PM on June 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

I like the answers that you also marked as best, but:

I'm in the UK, where the advisor role is far more prominent - and it's not a committee, it's just me. In fact it seems almost to be the case in this system that the yay or nay for admissions pretty much boils down completely to the prospective advisor, other factors aside (funding, basic GPA etc)

I can't imagine that you don't have both of the two:
1) good and somewhat more experienced colleagues whom you could invite over to a pint at the staff club after work to tell you what they'd do if they were you,
2) a postgrad coordinator (or head of research) who will only be too ready to discuss admission policies with you.

In the (UK; humanities) department where I did my postdoc, your "other factors aside" would in fact have been a big but, and everything would have had to be run past the postgrad coordinator in any case. Are you sure you've worked out how exactly the structures work at your dept.?
posted by Namlit at 4:14 PM on June 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

Humanities synonyms for lab: portfolio, group, office, quiver, murder of crows ... (will stop before I get unhelpfully silly)
posted by Dashy at 4:40 PM on June 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You're getting really good advice here. I just want to second 26.2 in particular: please don't give people false encouragement. Young people especially aren't going to be able to tell the difference between ordinary politeness and genuine interest, and you're not going to be doing them a favour by implying their work is better than it is. It is kinder, in the long run, to not say things that aren't true. Also, from an efficiency perspective yes, put detailed instructions for how to apply on your website, as well as any useful caveats (like, "I am not currently accepting new candidates for the coming year," or whatever), and point them towards that.
posted by Susan PG at 5:06 PM on June 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

I would be surprised if there weren't a protocol for this that you may be violating by giving any evaluative answer regarding their work. They're not your students, and you represent the university and your department now when you correspond through your faculty email address. Maybe UK law is really really different than what it is in my US state, but here, doing what you're doing would be potential exposure for the department. You're not the first prof to have this problem - there is surely a correct procedure for it, and it probably involves pointing them to the admissions office.
posted by fingersandtoes at 6:47 PM on June 30, 2014

For all: "All admissions questions should be directed to [admissions office]. I am not accepting unsolicited submissions from researchers who have not been accepted to [prestigious department] at this time. Best of luck with your endeavors, starcrust"

An addition for the promising ones: "Your research proposal appears relevant to my work and [general compliment], however, I take on an average of one new student per year and will need to see application materials from every accepted student before making a decision. I think you would be a good fit at [University X] and encourage you to apply. I will mention my interest to the admissions department but have no say in their final decisions. Best of luck."

I will add that I work in a non-degree-granting department at a well-regarded US university and regularly get applications that cc dozens of professors. They misspell my name and have not read our website. My librarian husband gets them too. I promise that a lot of people are spamming you and you're putting way more thought into these responses than colleagues are. I reply to them all with something similar to script #1, and that's apparently above and beyond here. Most people don't reply; they barely have enough time to help the people who jumped through all the hoops required to get here.
posted by tchemgrrl at 7:26 PM on June 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

Do you have a website for your lab? If not, create one. One page on the site should be for prospective grad students. You can share generic and specific information there - and I think you should also include a specific format you'd like for submissions that people will actually have to spend 5 minutes formulating, e.g. in iambic pentameter, less than 200 words, whatever. Specify that only emails with a submission in that specific format will receive a response.

The goal for this is twofold: first, you are only spending your rather valuable time looking at VERY short overview (if you're intrigued enough to want more, then you can ask for their 70-page proposal). Second, you only read the ones whose authors have actually done research on you, and are meeting your stated guidelines before asking for help. If they can't take the time to bother to google you and read your website guidelines for prospective students, why should you spend ANY of your time reading their proposal or writing a response?
posted by arnicae at 7:41 PM on June 30, 2014

When I was applying for phd positions, I sent an email (a template, even) to prospective supervisors. Very few responded, and I would have much rather preferred hearing a 'sorry, we're full' email than silence. And now, on the other side of the coin, I generally say that I have no money to fund a PhD project and so am not taking on students right now, which also happens to be true.
posted by dhruva at 8:30 PM on June 30, 2014

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