How to approach a potential PhD supervisor

University professors receive numerous requests for PhD positions from students who are about to graduate from a university and are seeking their chance. Many such requests I receive are composed in such a way that they lose before they start. This small page explains the reasons for this, and then explains how to write the first email to the potential PhD supervisor.

There are many opportunities for doing a PhD study, and almost everyone with decent marks and wishing to get a PhD position can eventually get one, but before this happens, the potential candidate will have to approach many potential supervisors. If you are sending messages to, for example, 40 professors, and all other students in your situation will do the same, then, given that there are many more students than professors, how many messages will every professor receive? Is it possible to answer all of them? On the other hand, professors do need research students. Hence, for a professor the practical solution is to look quickly through the message and ignore the unsuitable ones (I always reply, even to the unsuitable ones, but this is another matter).

The main components of suitability are the candidate level and background, the candidate readiness to work hard and interest in the topic, the candidate honesty, and the candidate respect for the time spent by the potential supervisor reading the first message. And because of the last point all this needs to be conveyed just in a few sentences. Hence, in your first message, cover very briefly (so that one does not need to scroll to read the message) each of the following points.

1. Tell who you are (your name), what you are (studying what), and how good you are (the expected quality of your undergraduate degree and/or your ranking among your peers, and the ranking of your university in your country if the potential supervisor can be expected not to know this. This is the level and background).

2. Tell what you are interested in. This should match the research interest of the potential supervisor, and you need to know what it is and demonstrate that you know. Hence, you need to carefully read the research web pages of the prospective supervisor, and identify the topics of interest in sufficient detail so that the potential supervisor would recognize that you are not sending the same text to many people. Of course, you have to approach many potential supervisors, but if you do it with the same text, this signals that you prefer the supervisor to do what should be your work.

3. Ask if there is a suitable opportunity.

Here is an example of a very bad letter, with explanations of what is bad:

Dear professor, (Should have a name in this line, showing that it is not the same text sent to many)

My research interest in UAV design closely matches your research interests described in your web page. (Shows that the sender did not look at my research web page, or he/she would not say this).

Please read my CV and reply with the opportunities for me in your group. (An unjustified demand on my time, the applicant should first make sure of the research interest fit.)

Best regards ...

Here is an example of a good letter (the student details are fictitious):

Dear Prof. Chernyshenko,

My name is Alexey Titov. I am about to graduate with a distinction degree from the department of applied mathematics of the Rostov State University, considered to be among top ten Russian universities in mathematical sciences. I will likely be ranked among top 5% of the mathematics students in the year.

I am interested in doing a PhD under your supervision, in particular in the area of applying sum-of-squares of polynomials optimization to fluid dynamics, or something similar. I would be happy to do both theoretical and numerical studies.

Is there an opportunity for doing a PhD in your group?

Best regards Alexey
PS My CV is attached, in case you are interested in more details.

Note the key part above: sum-of-squares of polynomials optimization to fluid dynamics. This is specific enough to indicate that the applicant really knows what I am doing, and would really be interested in that topic. Maybe it is even too specific, skin friction reduction in turbulent flows would also be all right, as well as other topics I am interested in.

Well, please send me letters like the second one, not like the first one. And I am not an exception, other academics are the same ☺.

Once again, your first contact email in brief:

Who you are, what you are, how good you are, demonstrate that you know the supervisor's research interests, ask about what you want. Be brief. And attach the CV.

Best luck. One can always find a place to do a PhD.

This is an email link: Send an e-mail to Sergei Chernyshenko

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