How to contact a potential PhD supervisor

1 04 2015

It’s probably fair to say that most university-based academics regularly receive requests from people around the world wishing to be considered as prospective postgraduate students (mostly PhD). I probably receive an average of 3-4 such requests per week via e-mail, as do many of my collaborators. Unfortunately for those making the inquiry, I trash most of them almost immediately.

It’s not that I’m a (complete) bastard; rather, it seems that few of these people have given very much thought to their requests, or how they might be perceived. Indeed, I’d say that about 90% of them are one-liners that go something like this:

Dear Professor,

I wish to write you to seek for supervision towards PhD degree. If you not intersted, assist me to get other supervisor.

XX

Yes, with all the bad English, impoliteness and lack of any detail, these types of requests get deleted even before I get to the close. One recent e-mail even addressed me as “Dear Sir Hubert Wilkins …”. Sometimes, you really must wonder how some people have enough common sense even to turn on the computer.

I’m not naïve enough to think that most of these are serious requests for supervision; indeed, many of them seem to be desperate cries for help to assist people to quit their country of origin, for reasons that have nothing to do with academic pursuits.

So for those people who are genuinely seeking academic supervision, and in a vain attempt to stem the number of pointless e-mails I receive (yeah, right), I offer some tips on how to contact a potential PhD supervisor:

  1. Perhaps most importantly, it is essential that you write to someone with approximately the correct expertise in your area of interest. I could list hundreds of e-mails from students requesting supervision for projects in electrical engineering, agronomy, cellular function or toxicity trials. Sorry, folks – I don’t work in these areas. I know I’m a bit of a generalist, but these people are stretching the fabric of reality a little too far.
  2. If it looks like a form letter, it probably is a form letter. In other words, if I can’t tell that you have specifically targeted me for my expertise and track record, I’m not going to give you a second thought. Take some time to peruse prospective supervisor CVs, and invest even a few sentences on how their interests align with your own. Most of the information you seek will be available online, so please, do a little research! After all, you will be doing research for a PhD, so if you can’t even research your supervisor correctly, you have no hope of garnering a positive response.
  3. Following the point above, write more than one line. Nothing says ‘incompetent’ more than a single-line e-mail.
  4. Be polite. Please.
  5. Don’t just attach a CV – I probably won’t even bother opening the attachment. The very first step is to initiate contact and, following the recommendations above, enter into a dialogue with the person you are targeting. Once the online relationship and dialogue have been established, you can send your CV. Remember, finding a PhD supervisor is not like applying for a job – it’s a personal relationship with an academic mentor and (ideally) a mutually respectful one at that.
  6. Have a very clear idea of the area you want to research for your PhD. Saying something like “I’m interested in sharks” or “I find conservation biology fascinating” is woefully insufficient. Remember that point about research? Do some, and find a research question that you deem interesting. Think about what’s already been done in the field and do a little background reading. I would never expect a fully fledged proposal at the initial contact stage, but I do expect you to know roughly what hypotheses you’d like to test.
  7. If you’ve ever written an academic paper, technical report or lay article, then it’s a good idea to list those straight up. If you’ve previously demonstrated even a basic capacity to do science, you’ll probably get my attention more than someone who hasn’t.
  8. If you aren’t the best writer of English, find someone who can help you write your introductory e-mail properly. I’ve supervised people of various competencies in English, and provided they work hard and endeavour to improve, lack of English prowess is rarely a fatal problem, at least at the beginning of the degree. However, if you demonstrate straight away that you can’t write English well enough to save your life and/or you are merely being lazy, I’m probably not going to respond to you. If you genuinely follow the guidelines above and still make a few mistakes (even native speakers do), I’m not going to bin your e-mail on that component alone; however, it’s not a good look right from the outset if you make a heap of silly spelling and grammatical mistakes.
  9. If you’re applying from overseas, you have to be at least vaguely cognisant that scholarships don’t grow on trees. In other words, most people I know don’t have millions of disposable dollars/euros/pounds just sitting around in a bank account waiting for the next lucky contestant to say ‘fund me’. In my specific case, if you do not have Australian citizenship, then asking me to take you on ‘in one of my projects’ is a naïve pipe-dream. You have to do the ground work and look into how you might get funding. Yes, we do have international scholarship schemes in Australia, and yes, some universities can waive overseas fees. But as you can probably imagine, these are extremely competitive and are far from guaranteed, even for the best students. Unless you are independently wealthy, you better have some ideas about from where you potential funding will come. Don’t be discouraged, however – most of the students I’ve taken on over the years are non-Australians. The funding exists, but you (a) have to be good and (b) have to do the legwork to have a shot at getting it.

If your introductory e-mail follows these basic guidelines, there’s a very good chance that I’ll respond. It’s very unlikely that you’ll be warmly welcomed into your supervisor’s academic bosom without further discussion and development, and there are those additional uncertainties of being accepted to the university and finding the right funding. Indeed, the entire process from initial contact to rocking up to the lab can take years, and you should at least expect a period of 18-36 months to get all your ducks in a row.

I do not want to give the impression that we academics are a narcissistic lot with nothing better to do than demand supplication from unworthy students. Nothing could be farther from the truth. We absolutely depend on good students, as much as good students depend on us to guide them to academic independence. I do very much want to hear from you. If you are as good as you say you are, chances are someone equal to the challenge will gladly take you on as a student. Just don’t blow your chances before you even get the opportunity to say ‘hello’.

Good luck with your supervisor hunt!

CJA Bradshaw


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31 01 2017
Advice for undergraduates on contacting supervisors in ecology: Aim high and understand that it will be an anxious experience | Weltbummler Ecology

[…] any ecologist whose paper you like, there are obviously caveats which are detailed really well here and here. However, a well written and thought out email is something that any academic […]

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27 09 2015
Vijay

Thanks for this. I’m in the process of writing to research supervisors at the moment, as an overseas student (:-)..) from India, and this is the kind of advice I wish I’d had before I dashed off the first few… none were one-liners, but it’s hard to get to the right tone between gushing and terseness, honestly.

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13 08 2015
Pers

Professor Corey Bradshaw,

All in all, you have mentioned great points to consider in writing to a potential supervisor for the start of a PhD journey.

I continue where your left off: the problems and inconsistencies with supervisors, referring to the “10 truths a PhD supervisor will never tell you” By Tara Brabazon at https://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/features/10-truths-a-phd-supervisor-will-never-tell-you/2005513.article?page=0%2C0

At the end, I repeat the punchline of the article for potential students to keep in mind when choosing a supervisor: “Who called the supervisor a bastard? Who called the bastard a supervisor?”.

Good luck with your students hunt too!

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7 04 2015
Rina

Even though i am a student (might try for a phd), i believe that is how i would have assessed potential candidates as a supervisor. Rudeness when addressing anyone equals to a big ‘no’! I think the decisive factor in such e-mail will be based on the student research interest (its feasibility and the logic behind it) and whether it is in sync with that of the supervisor. As a student aiming for phd, always keep in mind, any supervisor will expect more from you. Thank you sir for this helpful post.

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