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I am currently applying for PhD positions (mainly - though not exclusively - around Germany and Switzerland). As I would like to start as soon as possible and would rather be paid than receive a scholarship, I am not applying via grad schools but directly to potential supervisors.

This is an arduous process as very many PIs interest me, though most do not have the financial freedom of creating new PhD positions on the spot. Consequently I have written a lot of emails and I have developed a short formula which I adapt to each individual PI. The structure is roughly:

  • Title: 2-3 buzzwords related to the PIs work followed by " - PhD Opportunities"
  • Introductory statement - Who am I
  • Short summary of my experience, explicitly mentioning points relevant to his focus and including a link to my full CV
  • Explicitly state my preferred topics related to his focus
  • Explicitly ask if he has a PhD position opening, possibly including a suggestion of what sort of project would motivate me, and what about him/his group precisely I found interesting.

Here is an example e-mail:

Neurogenetics and Psychopharmacology - PhD Opportunities

Hello, I am a Molecular Neuroscience major from Heidelberg. I have recently graduated from our MSc. program and am currently looking for groups in which to pursue my PhD.

I have very versatile experience in neuroscience - ranging from molecular biology, microscopy, and genetics in model animals up to fMRI, eye tracking, pupillometry, and behavioural tests in humans (for more on this please refer to my CV: http://chymera.eu/docs/cv-acad-gen.pdf ). I would like to continue using a broad spectrum of methods in my research, and put my scripting experience (Python, R, Julia, MATLAB, SPM, FSL) to good use in the analysis of complex data sets.

I am very motivated by research into mood disorders and genetics; and I would also like to augment my methods spectrum with psychopharmacology and NIBS over the following years. I find the addition of these methods particularly important because in my opinion they present the most solid ways of testing causality in correlations between human brain activation and behaviour (as observed via fMRI or PET).

I have browsed your list of publications and I found your neurogenetics work most motivating. I would like to ask you whether you would be able to offer me a PhD position in which I could integrate the genetic focus of your group with brain imaging and brain stimulation (perhaps to elucidate brain area function or psychopharmacological treatment possibilities resolved for endophenotypes). I would also be grateful for the opportunity to discuss further project ideas with you.

Best Regards,

Christian

I generally just write one email, and follow up 7-14 days later with a second one if there is no reply within the first week. Of the PIs that do not respond to the first email less than 25% respond to the second.

With this email structure (and what I believe is a strong background) I get a reply rate of ~50%, of which all replies specify that the PI would like to take me on - in principle. Actual invitations for interviews, however, are at about 5%. I am thinking this could be a lot better.

Do you have any (different) email structure which you have found optimal? Are there any other details - such as tone and style - which you think are very important to note in such a context?

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1 Answer 1

I would say you are waiting too long to explain why you are interested in the research group. Your motivation for writing and taking up the faculty members' time should come much earlier in the message—I'd recommend no later than the second paragraph.

I'd also suggest that you might also want to consider sending the message to the Oberingenieur or Akademischer Rat of the faculty members' group; he or she may have a better idea of what vacancies are currently available.

Finally, "cold calling" does not get a high response rate; if there isn't an active opening, most potential advisors won't really respond unless they have to.

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how would you recommend I specify my precise motivation earlier? In the first paragraph? Would you recommend I just move that one sentence from one paragraph to the other, or just drop some other paragraphs entirely? Akademischer Rat is a legal description of the position and it's possible for all, some, or none of the members of a group to have that attribute. Also, in my field, this is very rarely advertised on a group's website. –  TheChymera Mar 12 at 2:56
    
I would move the sentence, but go beyond just simply saying "neurogenetics." You could make specific references to the research topics actually covered by the group, rather than just citing the overall theme. (They want to know you've taken the time to find out more about their group!) As for the citing of underlings, obviously this won't work if your field doesn't provide that information—but for others, this might be helpful advice. –  aeismail Mar 12 at 3:33
    
As aeismail said, if there isn't any specific opening, it's better to get in contact with the Studentenberater(in), whose job description includes giving advice to people in your position. If you want to contact a PI directly, it might be better to have your current advisor initiate the contact, assuming that he/she is in good terms with the PI in question. That will get you a better chance of getting the PIs attention than an email directly from you. –  Koldito Mar 12 at 10:49
    
I find that advice strange, as most groups in my field - afaik in all fields - do not have dedicated liaison people for students to interact with. The more successful PIs tend to have their own secretary, but secretaries are seldom privy to openings which could be arranged, and unenthusiastic about mediating with students. I for one have never received any sort of reply when contacting a PI through his secretary. Studentenberater is a position held at the faculty, and they are usually better informed on issues of education rather than research. –  TheChymera Mar 12 at 14:57
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