PhD Rejection: Why You Did Not Get In — The Admit Lab

Philippe Barr, PhD
8 min readFeb 23, 2023

Another “We regret to inform you” message has come your way, and now it’s time to reflect on that PhD rejection and what could have been the cause of this unwelcome news. After investing so much effort into your academic journey, this rejection may be disheartening. But don’t lose hope, it happens to many prospective students. Instead of feeling demoralized, let’s focus on what might have gone wrong, and especially, how to fix it!

To ensure you get the “Congratulations!” email that you desire, it is important to understand why PhD applications are typically declined.

Here are a few of the most frequent reasons behind every PhD rejection.

Your Eyes Were On The Wrong Program

Based on our experience working with multiple people who had to deal with a PhD rejection, the first reason behind every PhD rejection is that prospective PhD students sometimes mistakenly knock at the wrong door. This happens when the student is either unaware of the differences between the disciplines they are considering or misunderstands the requirements of a particular program. For instance, an engineering student may mistakenly apply to a computer science PhD program, not realizing that while the two disciplines are related, they require different skills and backgrounds. Similarly, a prospective student may think that an English literature program is the same as a creative writing program, or that an economics PhD only focuses on business and finance when it also covers areas like public policy, history, and sociology. Knowing the nuances and distinctions between disciplines can your from making costly mistakes in your applications.

You Were Momentarily Blinded By Rankings

PhD applicants often make decisions about which programs to apply for based on rankings rather than considering the best fit for their individual needs. Rankings can provide an easy way to compare schools, but they are not always a reliable indicator of the best fit for a student. Rankings often do not measure quality in the same way as other criteria such as faculty mentoring, research opportunities, and career support. It is important to consider a variety of factors when deciding which program is the best fit for you and to look at how programs match your research interests, the quality of faculty mentoring, and the overall career-development opportunities available.

An Unrealistic Appreciation of Your Own Profile Got Your PhD Application Rejected

Prospective PhD students often have an overly optimistic view of their chances for admission into a program. This is due to the highly competitive nature of the process, which often requires an impressive academic track record that may be daunting to many potential applicants. The truth is, success in securing a place in a PhD program requires a great deal of hard work, dedication, and commitment. It is not uncommon for excellent candidates to be rejected due to their lack of experience or research accomplishments, and even those with excellent credentials can face long odds in their pursuit of admittance. To avoid that feared PhD rejection letter, it is important for prospective PhD students to understand the competitive nature of the process and to approach their application with realistic expectations. Additionally, a thorough understanding of the requirements, qualifications, and expectations for success can be extremely beneficial in helping to secure a spot in a top-rated program.

(Would you like to know what PhD admissions committees are looking for? Watch this quick video to find out key elements to highlight in an application)

Your PhD Application Was Rejected Because Your Target Program Was Too Small

Prospective PhD students often make the mistake of applying to programs with too small of an intake, without realizing they are taking a significant risk. Many programs have limited openings and may not admit many students. They might even not take any students every year, depending on budgets and a multiplicity of other factors. This can leave prospective students feeling disappointed and discouraged when their applications are not accepted, as they may have invested time, energy, and resources into the application process. Prospective students need to research programs thoroughly and make sure they are aware of the number of spots available before applying. That way, they can make sure their applications are not falling on deaf ears.

In addition to researching programs thoroughly, don’t hesitate to reach out to the departments you are interested in to ask them more about their admissions process and how many spots they expect to fill. This can help you make an informed decision when choosing what programs to apply for and minimize the risk of applying to a program with too small of an intake.

You Got A Rejection Because Your Dream Advisor Was Unavailable

Prospective PhD students often find themselves in a difficult situation when applying to programs and departments that do not have a high number of faculty members working on their specific subfield or topic of research. This can be a major hindrance in the application process, as there may be fewer faculty members with subject matter expertise in a particular area and consequently, fewer opportunities for mentorship or guidance. The advisor you wanted to work with might have a full plate (i.e. too many dissertations to direct), he or she might have had a book to finish, is about to go on leave, or close to retirement. Moving forward, to avoid this type of situation and the PhD rejection letter that comes with it, it might be best to choose universities that specialize in your chosen field of study and that have more than one professor working on your topic on staff, or pick programs that offer cross-disciplinary research opportunities. It is also possible to contact programs and departments ahead of time to inquire about faculty expertise and research interests.

Your PhD Rejection Letters Were Prompted By Your Statement of Purpose

Based on our experience, the main reason behind every PhD rejection is often because of a poorly written or organized statement of purpose. A statement of purpose that does not provide compelling evidence that the applicant is prepared to undertake a research project can lead to immediate rejection. While there are no hard and fast rules for writing a successful statement of purpose, it is important to ensure that your statement highlights not only your academic and research interests, but also any relevant work experience or volunteer activities that demonstrate your commitment and capability to pursue a PhD.

A statement of purpose is key aspect of being accepted into a PhD program, and it can be rejected for several reasons. One of the most common reasons for rejection is a lack of clarity in the applicant’s research goals or objectives. If an applicant does not provide clear and concise information as to why they are applying and how their experience is relevant to the program, it can be difficult for committee members to assess whether or not the person is a good fit for the program. Additionally, if an applicant does not provide sufficient evidence as to why they are passionate about their chosen field of study and why they will be successful as a graduate student, the committee may reject their application.

Another main reason is that the statement does not make a convincing case for why the applicant’s research interests fit with the department’s current and future research agenda. If the statement is too broad or unspecific, it may not demonstrate the applicant’s commitment to a specific area of research. Finally, if the statement does not highlight the applicant’s unique skills and qualifications, it may not be persuasive enough to sway the admissions committee.

To ensure that your statement of purpose meets the standards of the chosen doctoral program, you should be sure to research and understand the requirements before writing and submitting it. Additionally, it is important to pay close attention to detail and proofread the statement of purpose several times before sending it off.

Your Recommenders Did Not Have Your Back

One of the key elements to making a successful application is a strong letter of recommendation. If an applicant’s letters of recommendation lack substance or are poorly written, it can be detrimental to their chances of being accepted. A lukewarm letter or one that reads as a template can be a deciding factor in whether an applicant is accepted or rejected. Thus, it is important for applicants to make sure that their letters of recommendation are well-written and suitable for the program they are applying to. To obtain better letters in the future, several steps can be taken to make sure you get letters of recommendation that get you in.

The Reasons Behind Your PhD Rejection Were Simply Out of Your Control

Admissions committees of PhD programs are gatekeepers to a highly sought-after privilege: the chance to delve into meaningful and groundbreaking research backed by the support of a prestigious institution. It is not surprising, then, that the decisions behind these gates can seem hard to grasp and non-transparent. The selection of applicants is often based on subjective criteria and what can feel like a black-box process for those on the outside looking in. As a result, many potential applicants can find themselves frustrated and left wondering why they were not accepted into a program. It is important to remember in these cases that schools are striving to find the perfect candidate who they feel is best suited for the program and its mission. It is important that applicants take the lessons learned from the process to inform their future endeavors and apply them to become a stronger candidate for their next opportunity. With patience, persistence and the right preparation, it is possible to get accepted into a PhD program and fulfill your research and educational goals.

The Good News

Many prospective PhD students who got rejected the first time by Phd programs get admitted the second time around. This is due to the fact that they have had more time to prepare their applications, gain additional experience and learn from the previous application process. When applying again, you can focus on addressing any weaknesses identified in your original application, while also highlighting your strengths. It is also important to be persistent and not give up if the application is rejected again. With the right attitude and preparation, you can turn a rejection into an opportunity for success.

In Conclusion…

All in all, it’s important to remember that PhD rejections happen to everyone and you shouldn’t take it too personally. Chalk it up as a learning experience and move on. If you want professional help with identifying the mistakes you made on your application, The Admit Lab offers PhD application services. Just send us your application materials and we will get to work helping you produced polished applications that are sure to get accepted the second time around. No one likes getting rejected but if you view it as an opportunity to learn and do better next time, then maybe getting rejected isn’t such a bad thing after all.

Originally published at https://admit-lab.com on February 23, 2023.

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Philippe Barr, PhD

I am Philippe Barr, founder of The Admit Lab, a graduate school admissions consultancy that helps students get admitted into grad school: https://admit-lab.com/