Thursday, 7 August 2014

How (not) to apply for a PhD

As with most academics, I get a fair a number of unsolicited enquiries about possible PhD placements. Unfortunately, a number of these appear to be from students who are receiving little or no advice regarding how to go about making an application.

Every now and then, an application stands out from the bunch for being particularly good or bad. A while back, I received one of the latter, which made me so sad that I thought I would turn my response into a post. What made it particularly tragic was that it was from a student who had received government funding to study abroad, and was therefore in a fairly strong position.

The email (name redacted) was as follows:

On [DATE] "XXX baby" <> wrote:

Subject: Hello doctor

My name is XXX, I finished M.Sc. degree in XXX University in Iraq at (2012), I have obtained a fund from the Iraqi government to study PHD in Microbiology in the Ustralia.

I had opportunity to be a student of Iraq and My interests are about Bacteriology and Immunity in general and I really hope to get your kind acceptance to pursue my PHD under your supervision in University of UNSW.

Kindly find attached my C.V please which I hope it gives detailed overview about me

Thank you very much

The CV was then attached as several JPEGs of scanned pages. Unusual attachments plus a username of “XXX baby” and subject line of “Hello doctor” meant that this one almost went straight in the bin as spam. Given the number of typos and other errors, it might have been better if it had.

I’ve had some others that were almost as bad, including one that started “Hello Sir !” and proceeded to end every sentence with an exclamation mark! Yes! Every sentence! No! That’s not a good idea!

Lest I get misunderstood, I must stress that the point here is not to be mean to these students. The issue is that they are clearly not getting the advice they need, especially given the fact that they are writing in their second (plus) language and applying to academics with a different culture.

Here then, is my advice/guidance for those wanting to make an unsolicited application for a PhD studentship (though most points still apply if a project is being advertised). I get many applications from overseas students. If I am even to consider you as a potential student then you need to impress me. The following impress me:

Professionalism. Send a well structured email, with a sensible subject such as “PhD enquiry” and a CV (if attached) that is provided as a single sensibly named PDF (or docx), i.e. your name and “CV” feature somewhere in there.

Genuine Interest. Personalise your message and provide some indication that you really know who I am. “Dear Sir” indicates a blanket mailshot to all and sundry and is thus destined for the bin. Knowing who I am is not enough, though. I also want an indication that you know and understand at least something of the research that goes on in my lab. Referencing degree subjects or research experience that match neither my background nor research focus indicates poor research/understanding. A PhD is long, hard graft and I need to know that you have genuine interest or everyone’s time will be wasted.

A clear CV. Your CV should have relevant skills and metrics highlighted. If you are from overseas, remember that I probably do not know what your grades mean, so place them in context. What proportion of students get those grades/medals etc.? This is a research post, so describe some of your research projects and your role in them. When it comes to CVs, evidence is the name of the game. Don’t just list skills and positive attributes: provide examples.

Motivation/Enthusiasm. Good grades are not enough and academic ability will only get you so far in a PhD. Motivation and enthusiasm are critical. As well as a CV that stresses relevant achievements, include a personal statement that convinces me that you want to do a PhD (with me) for the right reasons, and are likely to see it through.

Ask questions. This is basically genuine interest + motivation/enthusiasm but worth stating in its own right as intelligent questions are the evidence of those things. It's your PhD and your life - you should care about what you might be doing. The caveat is this: do not ask a question that is answered by ten minutes of reading my lab's webpages and/or paper abstracts.

Good communication skills. If English is not your first language, get your emails proof-read by someone with good English. Exclamation points after every sentence indicates that communication will be tricky, as does failure to appropriately understand/respond to emails. I am not going to think you are not keen if you take a few days to give a measured response. I am going to think that communication may be insurmountably difficult if I get a speedy response that is riddled with errors.

Funding. Unless you are applying for a specific funded project, you will need to secure your own funding. A clear indication of a funding plan is therefore crucial. If you already have funding, this is good. Better still, would be to detail exactly what that funding covers (i.e. duration? fees AND living expenses? any attached conditions?) and to indicate how the funding was won and how competitive it was. Winning a competitive scholarship is one way to impress. Even better, provide evidence in the form of an official notification of funding etc.

References. Ultimately, it is very tricky to assess a student from a CV and covering letter alone. Again, evidence is the name of the game. Provide two or more faculty members or professional scientists who can provide an academic reference. These should have institution email addresses, not personal gmail/yahoo addresses, as anyone can create these and they will carry less weight.

Fail to hit most of these points and your application is in the bin. (I now have a generic response that I send out to generic applications.) This may seem harsh but there is a lot at stake and it is important to get a good fit between student, supervisor and project; a poor student/fit is a net drain on lab productivity.

A PhD is not something to embark upon lightly. It will consume many years of your life and will quite possibly determine the direction of the rest of your professional life. A PhD application should be made with all of the research, care and attention to detail that this implies.