Five steps for landing in a PhD position you have always wanted

I was working at a university in India in 2003 when I decided to undertake a PhD in Australia. I was very fortunate to receive advice about the application process from two of my colleagues who had completed their PhDs from overseas. As a result, I was able to get three offers with scholarships from three different Australian universities.

Not all students who want to undertake PhDs are not that fortunate: often no one is available at their place of work to advise them about the process. They usually send dozens of emails to academics requesting for a PhD position and give up after failing to receive a positive response.

I would like to give some advice for such PhD aspirants based on my experience of submitting PhD applications but also based on my 12 years of experience in evaluating such applications as a university academic in Australia. Note that I have written the blog with international students in mind, but the principles apply equally to domestic students.

Here are five steps that you can take to prepare your application:

  1. Decide what you want to do. In most Western countries, higher degree research students are not assigned projects by the department or the nominated supervisor. Instead, you are expected to have a fairly good idea of what you want to do in your PhD. Think about the areas of your interest and shortlist a few potential broad topics for your PhD.
  2. Research starts before you start your PhD. Research what is being done in the area of your interest and who is doing this work. An easier way to answer both of these questions is to search the latest papers on your identified topics using Scopus, PubMed, Google Scholar or other search engines. Review the abstracts (and some papers) to get ideas for your PhD topics as well as to see who is publishing these papers. Shortlist academics who have consistently published in your area of interest. Conduct a further search of their work by reviewing their academic profiles and list of publications.
  3. Prepare a cover letter (< 1 page). Prepare a short letter of interest to describe your experience and research interests. Everybody has a different writing style but three short crisp paragraphs should be sufficient. In the first paragraph describe who you are, the skills you have and your prior research experience. In the second paragraph discuss the research you want to conduct in your PhD based on your learning from Step 2. Be specific but remain flexible. In the third paragraph briefly mention why you have selected that particular academic/university. Please feel free to adapt this guideline to your writing style but avoid writing more than 3/4th of a page.
  4. Prepare a short resume (<2 pages). Your resume should include your academic qualifications, work/voluntary experience, any research experience and your list of publications. Note that academics are busy people and are only interested in candidates who already have at least some of the skills required to conduct research in their lab. They are looking for what you can bring to their lab, so make sure that your resume (or the cover letter) reflects this. Publications in good journals are very important, especially if you are an international student looking for a scholarship. Try to restrict the resume to just one page and use the second page for listing your publications.
  5. Write a succinct email (5-7 sentences). Introduce yourself, describe the topic you want to work on and list the key skills you will bring to the lab. Attach the resume and the project proposal. Don’t be careless: make sure that your email is grammatically correct, and the name of the recipient is spelled correctly. Remember that you are not writing a text message to a friend where it doesn’t matter if you write “i” instead of “I” or “their” instead of “there”. Sloppy language and grammar in an email to your potential supervisor will make the recipient press the delete button without even looking at the attachments. It may sound harsh, but you cannot expect to be selected for a position that requires you to write a thesis of 80,000 – 100,000 words if you cannot write a short email correctly. A good email does not mean that you will get a position, but it will convince the recipient to read your attachments.

Notes

  • To be competitive in getting an international scholarship, you would require a master’s degree (or at least an honours), a couple of good publications and a few years of research experience.
  • Your skills and interests need to align with the academic. Therefore, make sure to thoroughly research the area of interest of the academic before emailing him/her.
  • Follow leaders in your discipline on Twitter and/or LinkedIn and subscribe to email lists in your discipline to get an idea of the current trends and topical issues. LinkedIn groups can also be helpful.
  • It would increase your chances of success if you can find someone to introduce you to your identified academic.
  • Including a short project proposal (~2 pages) along with the cover letter can further increase your chances of success. Although it is not essential, but a proposal will give the potential supervisor a concrete idea of what you want to do and demonstrate that you have the skills to review the literature and prepare a proposal.
  • Do not lose heart if you are not successful at your first attempt. It can take time to find an appropriate supervisor. However, do not send mass emails without understanding the field of work of the academic.

Good luck!

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