I have been working for two years after my Master and I am now looking for a PhD. I got a PhD offer from one university, met the person who would supervise me and told them I am very interested, while making it clear that I also applied to other PhD offers and am waiting for answers. They said that that it was not an issue for them.

But now he just sent me an anonymous paper and suggested to me peer-reviewing it to help me "get a foot on the ladder". I am really confused by this proposition since:

  • I am still working for my company
  • I am still searching for PhD offers to apply, which takes me all my free time,
  • I never reviewed a paper before.

So, I am not really in the mood to do this now since I have more urgent concerns. However, I do not want to upset this potential supervisor, nor make them believe that I am not motivated.

So, should I do this review or not, and if I don't, how can I refuse without upsetting this potential supervisor?

Let me precise that I am likely to do my PhD there if my other applications don't get accepted.


The paper in question is anonymous and I am asked to peer review it for a journal publication. The paper subject is in my field of research but not really in the field of my potential supervisor.

  • well, if you dont review it, no one will know you capacities for PhD. I think it is normal to do it in that ways
    – user94263
    Jun 26, 2018 at 8:22
  • 1
    Reviewing is one of tasks that most researchers usually do. If the paper is related to your field, then there is nothing to worry about the quality even if you are doing it for first time, you potential supervisor can see and modify the review comments accordingly.
    – Mithun
    Jun 26, 2018 at 9:19
  • 3
    If you don't have time to do it, just tell him that.
    – GEdgar
    Jun 26, 2018 at 13:34
  • 1
    So does the paper look interesting to you or what? This angst seems excessive to me. There's no risk-free way to refuse personal requests from potential future supervisors. And there's also no guarantees in life that such investments of time always pay off. Sometimes you just gotta risk wasting a few hours. Jun 26, 2018 at 16:14
  • 1
    It would, of course, be unethical for him/her to submit your review under any name but your own. Under such circumstances it isn't someone you should want to work with in any case.
    – Buffy
    Jun 26, 2018 at 20:09

3 Answers 3


Maybe it's a matter of question formulation, but I find this to be a very peculiar request and would be equally confused as you seem to be even if I wasn't busy with other stuff.

Specifically, you're not qualified to review a paper, yet.

If he's asking your analytical opinion on a paper, kind of like a journal club style dissection of the content, then sure I guess that's no big deal. But if you are given a manuscript, written by someone else and submitted to a journal, I find this request unrealistic and even unethical.

Also, in a way disagreeing with the previous answers here, I don't think it's a reasonable request even if you were given the article in a more relaxed, journal club-like format. Because you are supposed to learn to read and understand the scientific literature, it's part of your training as a PhD student. To use that during the recruitment process, as a test is a bit unfair in my eyes.

that was my first feeling actually, that he was assigning me some of his work while I am still in the application phase. The paper is anonymous and I am asked to peer review it for a journal publication.

The above alone, would even deter me from considering to start there. I think it might be worth thinking about what kind of work environment you want to get yourself into for the coming 3-X years of your life.

But again, it's possible that I misunderstand something in the OP. Just my two cents...

  • 1
    I second the feeling that this particular place may but unneccessary load on PhD students and have them do busy work for the PI. I was asked to help with reviews during my PhD (not before) and my PI always acknowledged my by adding my name (he used to sign his reviews). Yes, it is a learning experience but the terms are unclear and inappropriate as a method of evaluation. Among other things, reviewers are not supposed to send manuscripts to others.
    – Stefano
    Jun 26, 2018 at 14:47
  • Thanks for your answer, I had the same feeling. I tried to clarify the question with him but I got the request right. I'm a bit lost since I really got along this person during the interview, yet this kind of request makes me quite distrustfull and it is hard to tell if there are good intentions behind this or a will to take advantage of my absence of experience.
    – Mai Kar
    Jun 26, 2018 at 15:08
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    @MaiKar "it is hard to tell if ..." well, you can always try to ask him/her what this particular request is supposed to do with the admission process. I know that it might be tricky to find the right formulation at times, but as a general rule of thumb; when in doubt, just ask :)
    – posdef
    Jun 26, 2018 at 15:56

I learnt a lot through editing/reviewing the text of papers in progress that my proposed advisor was involved in, while I was awaiting acceptance at the graduate school. I was fortunate to be included as co-author of the later ones as my own program started. Allow me to suggest you be as helpful to your advisor as you can, but then when you are in his program, express an interest that you be on track to produce papers of your own to establish your credentials get his ok to submit abstracts to conferences/journals and so forth. It takes about a year to get on the publication track, and you have about 2 to 3 years before your doctoral qualifiers, so you have time. Your eventual doctoral degree and dissertation will most probably require some publications, or allow your prior program related publications to be used as source material. So get going. Remember: Publish or Perish.

  • Thank you for the record. I agree it would be wise to do so. In my case it is a bit different since the paper in question is not a paper of his team but an anonimous paper to be reviewed for a journal. It is in my field of research, but not really in the supervisor's field.
    – Mai Kar
    Jun 26, 2018 at 13:28
  • As the paper in question, is directly in your field of research, that is exactly why your supervisor asked you to handle it, and possibly with the thought that you will become familiar with the specific formatting/editing/standards of the Journal concerned. Therefore if you chose to submit an abstract to be considered for an article call in that Journal, you would not need much preparation time. Good choice. It will shave 2 years off your publication schedule.
    – A. Name
    Jun 26, 2018 at 13:45
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    I think this answer misses that the person asking the OP for a review is not the OP's advisor. Only a potential advisor among several candidates. Also, my personal belief is that "publish or perish" will make you perish by forcing you to publish low quality work.
    – Stefano
    Jun 26, 2018 at 14:48

A literature review is an effecient way for you to have general overview about the state-of-the-art development in you research area. Most supervisors require their Phd students to do a literature review before starting the actual research.

  • 5
    I don’t think this is the kind of review meant here. My understanding is that the advisor has asked the student to peer review a paper.
    – Dawn
    Jun 26, 2018 at 11:51
  • @Dawn Yes indeed, the paper is anonymous and I am asked to peer review it for a journal publication.
    – Mai Kar
    Jun 26, 2018 at 13:32

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