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Currently I am working towards Master in Computer Science degree, hoping to be done by the end of the year. Last month a new professor moved to our University and now there are open Phd positions in his research group. I decided to work on a Master thesis provided by this group, however before starting to work on the master thesis I want to finish my exams. Additionally, I am interested for the Phd positions as I like the area of research, but I believe that it is highly unlikely that the Phd positions will remain open until I am done with the thesis. Having in mind that I have the exams to finish first, it will be ca. 6-7 months from now until I am completely done. And I believe the positions will be filled by then.

I don't know how to proceed now. I think the best asset I have in hand at the moment is the fact that I am going to work my master thesis in the group of this new professor. But other than that, there are some downsides because he does not know me as a student as he just moved to our university. Also, I don't have any publications to impress him, and my grades got slightly worse lately.

What is the best thing to do now? There are multiple options:

1) Leave the exams aside; Start working on the thesis, after starting to work on the thesis express interest in the Phd position. Ensure that the work of the thesis is high quality so the Professor is impressed.

2) Express interest in the Phd position from now. Finish the exams, and then start working on the thesis. During the process improve the grades to impress the Professor.

The dilemma here is, if I wait long to finish everything, by then the places might be gone. On the other side, if I act as soon as possible, I think as if I don't have much in hand to impress the professor.

Please consider this question having in my the context of my exact situation and then from a general view point evaluate on what could happen in the typical case.

I am sure, here we have more experienced Professors and Graduate student that could provide insightful information and suggestions.

EDIT 1: Additionally, what is the typical time frame needed for a Phd position to be filled, I believe 6 months is more than enough, or?

EDIT 2: What if there is an application deadline? And the deadline is at least 6 months away before you get the Master degree? Is it worth applying? I believe no Professor would wait for a student to get his degree for 6 months and then give him a position? My basic instinct says "go for it" there is nothing you would loose at least you are not going to regret that you didn't do it, however when thinking rationally all the odds seem against

Thanks!

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I can maybe guess, but what country? –  Bill Barth Jun 21 at 17:36

4 Answers 4

up vote 7 down vote accepted

If you are currently working on a master's thesis in the group of the professor with whom you'd like to a do a PhD, the best thing to do is set up an appointment and talk to him.

As an advisor, I don't need to have a published paper to see whether someone in my own group is a competent researcher or not. I can see this by interacting with the person, through reading their project updates and emails, and by talking with other the more senior members of the research group (who sometimes will work with the students more closely than I can).

Given that the goal of an advisor is to select people they believe will become excellent researchers rather than simply the "top students," someone who is an "internal" candidate is often a better option than taking a chance on someone whose work the faculty member hasn't been able to observe directly.

[That said, however, I think there is also something to be said for considering going somewhere else for a PhD than the place where you did your bachelor's and master's degrees, when it makes sense to do so.]

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Thanks for the answer. I just want to rephrase some points which might be important in here. 1) The professor just moved to the new University, as such I have not cooperated with any of his coworkers. So there is no way for him to get insight about my qualities except the recommendation letters that I can get from influential professors. 2) I not working currently on the thesis yet. My dilemma is here: Should I start working on the thesis asap, and should I "open up" to the professor about my intentions? –  Wolfgang Kuehne Jun 21 at 19:15
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If you're interested in working for the professor, let him know as soon as possible—with respect to both the master's and the PhD theses. –  aeismail Jun 21 at 19:31
    
what would qualify for "when it makes sense to do so"... what are the things for which it would make sense to switch institution/country? research interest, university ranking, income?!? –  Wolfgang Kuehne Jun 22 at 13:09
    
In general, the only reasons I would stay at the same school are financial, personal (family in the area, two-body problems, etc.), or because there is a unique research opportunity that cannot be pursued elsewhere (for instance, your thesis advisor is the pioneer of method X that is at the heart of your research, or because only school Y has instrument Z). Otherwise, I'd try to go somewhere else. –  aeismail Jun 22 at 13:25

Talk to the new professor ASAP, since he will be the one to make the decision about admitting you.

When someone moves to a new school/job, they are "unsure" about how they will be accepted at the new place. The best thing you can do is to give him a "welcoming gift" in the form of a student who will do what it takes to get into his group. Assuming that your qualifications are halfway decent, being among the first to welcome him may be all it takes to get it.

The professor may well have preferences as to whether you should do your thesis or your exams first. If he expresses a preference, follow that preference in order to "qualify."

On the other hand, he may say, I'll hold a spot for you until you complete both your thesis and exams. Getting a commitment at this early stage is way different from waiting until you are ready, and applying then.

It's like the airlines; they have a bunch of "cheap seats" for people who buy tickets "early." If you wait until the day of the flight, you will have to pay "full price."

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I like your analogy with the airline. I believe talking to the professor asap would be clever as well, but I am afraid of looking to suggestive and cocky. And maybe at this point he wont have enough parameters in hand to evaluate me. –  Wolfgang Kuehne Jun 21 at 19:19
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@WolfgangKuehne: Just take it slow. It's quite possible that "he won't have enough parameters in hand to evaluate you." But the key thing is to "take a ticket and get in line" before others do. –  Tom Au Jun 22 at 16:59

I think the answer depends strongly on where the money comes from. I third the advice to talk to the professor in question immediately.

In the US, for example, the answer will partially hinge on whether the money needs to be spent on a project that starts now or soon, say National Science Foundation grant money, or is coming from the professor's startup package and has a much longer or unlimited time horizon. If it's the latter, then they may not be too worried about when you might start, and therefore might be willing to make a commitment on you now for a position in a year.

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People need to eat, so they need jobs. One does not need to wait until a time limited job is finished before searching for a new one.

There is nothing wrong with politely showing interest in doing a PhD in his research group. The fact that you are at the same institution means he can just go to your Master's advisor and informally ask if you are good for the position, and probably trust it more than a recommendation letter.

If he wants you on board, comes the starting date that the funding requires; but this is something only he can know, and will tell you upfront if he needs to fill the position before you finish. Even in this case, showing interest may put you on his list in case he gets another grant, or could forward you offers from other groups. If he really wants you, sometimes there are ways to get you in; for example, if the university does not require you to have a master to enrol on a PhD.

Regarding the timings, announced positions usually quote a deadline. You may want to wait to be closer to it so you have more time to build up your thesis, but on the other hand, the longer you wait, the bigger the chances your application will just join a big pile for review. In this case, probably the sooner the better, because it is unlikely your thesis will radically improve in a few of weeks (you will get progress, of course, but not a breakthrough that is not visible already).

Lastly, as aeismail said, I think is very important for a researcher to move around institutions, and when possible and makes sense, even countries. I did my undergraduate in Spain and a Master's in Sweden, and I can see they are very different systems; so they sort of complement each other's deficiencies. On the other hand, I know brilliant people that studied all the way to the PhD in the same university, and plan to become lecturers there some day. As such, they don't get "new input"; they have the same weak points and deficiencies as the people who taught them, and they will just perpetuate it.

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