Approaching academics and universities


Have you considered approaching universities and academics about doing a PhD with them or applying to one of their programs? Although cookies might not hurt your chances* there are better ways to make sure you get noticed and given a shot to apply.

First of all you shouldn’t be afraid to contact and approach an academic if you are interested in their area of research, or if you think you would like to work with them. Not only do academics expect this kind of contact but they welcome it, as it shows initiative on your part. It’s no small feat to email a researcher and ask them to consider working with you, and it is sort of a requirement before applying for a PhD with them. Many researchers meet their students before the interviews, or have communicated via e-mail to assess whether there is a possibility of working with one another both from the student’s and the researcher’s point of view.

So now that we’ve clarified that you will have to contact Dr. InMyDreamFieldOfResearch before showing up for an interview with her, you’re probably raving to go, typing emails on the side as you furiously skim the rest of this post. But hold on! There are a few things you should consider before you shoot electrical signals halfway round the world to recompose themselves into meaningful squiggles on your future supervisor’s screen.

First of all, know who you’re directing the e-mail to. A little respect can go a long way, so make sure you address the person with their correct title! If you’re not sure whether the academic is a Doctor or a Professor, find out! A short google search will quickly resolve the matter for you, and yes it does matter which you use! If in doubt, always aim high. No one will be offended if you call them Dr. when they haven’t finished their PhD yet, or Professor if they haven’t received professorship yet, but if you call a Prof a Dr some offense might be taken. Now this might seem snooty to you, but the problem isn’t just to do with the researcher’s ego, it is a direct reflection of the amount of effort you’ve put into finding out about this person’s work! If you haven’t even bothered to find out their qualifications and title, that’s a pretty bad start. Avoid Mr., Mrs., Miss, Madam etc. (unless the academic has not received a PhD and this is the appropriate title) and for Pasta’s sake NEVER address an academic by their first name!

On a related note, do your research! Read this researcher’s papers, read the papers they’ve cited, make sure you are familiar with their work and make it known that you are familiar with their work, especially if it’s relevant to your PhD research area. If there is a specific PhD question related to the post, familiarize yourself well with it, if there is a grant proposal that you have access to, do the same, if you’re emailing just to say “Hey your work is awesome, wanna let me look into this rad thing under your name and lab??” then do the research you need to for that!. It is not only flattering to the academic that you have taken an interest in their work, but it shows that you have made a well informed decision about wanting to work with them or on that specific PhD. (And yes by the way, it is perfectly ok to email an academic even if they’re not advertising a PhD program, to express an interest in working with them. You can even explore funding opportunities together!)

Notes on style: presentation matters! If the e-mail is the first thing your prospective supervisor ever sees of you, you want to make a good impression, as we know that first impressions not only matter but also last! Proof read, check your style, be professional, be formal; sign off with Kind Regards, Sincerely, Thank you (but preferably not all three at once), and your full name. Ask questions! Relevant, well thought out questions about the research post are very impressive and often can make the difference between a candidate that gets the post and one that doesn’t. Don’t ask questions that are or will be readily available in the PhD advertisement (like rate of pay, where the lab is etc.).

Finally, don’t be afraid to arrange a visit to the university and a meeting with your prospective supervisor (all previous points about emailing still apply in a meeting situation too).

So, go on, armed with everything you need to make the first contact, and wow your future supervisors with your awesomeness!

Dr. Neo

*disclaimer: there’s a small chance that this constitutes bribery, and so The PhDninja would advise you to play it safe and keep the cookies for after you’ve been accepted onto the program..


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