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I'm about one year from receiving my master's degree. I have published a few papers, so I'm confident that I want to do research. I have been offered two different PhD positions at my current university, but I might not want to stay here. The reason for not taking the first position is that I don't like the advisor too much, and for the second position that they lack funding/other resources.

I recognize the early(?) offers are due to my hard work. If I would like to apply to somewhere else, when should I start contacting potential supervisors?

Also I need some strategy to get out nicely... it will be difficult to stay under the radar

  • Short answer: You haven't been looking already? – JeffE Jul 28 '13 at 18:26
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It is never too early to look around for PhD positions. Start out by looking at what is advertised to see what is available and where. If you already know of places to go then get in touch with the department/research group to present yourself. Having a few papers under your belt will be a plus so provide a CV and the papers in your first contact and add a statement of what you want to do and why you are interested in that place.

Being focussed and showing you have a strong urge to continue is likely to impress.

I can understand it is difficult to say no to two offers and move away but remember that you are free to move. Saying no to a position without funding should not weigh you down. The other position is a little more sensitive of course. But, people move for many reasons, personal and professional. I do not think you need to explain your motives. A change in location is enough. Moving is a positive so there is nothing remarkable about doing so. There is, furthermore, no reason to bring up any negatives about your present location. If your move stirs bad feelings then it is a sign things are not right anyway.

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There are two factors:

  • looking for a university and a research group,
  • having time for the formal admission process.

I will start for the later, as it is simpler. It depends on place, but some typical estimates of effective time you need are (at least, for applicants from aboard):

  • in US ~1.5 year,
    • applications for Oct in Dec-Jan plus SATs that need to be taken before,
  • in UK ~1 year,
    • applications for Oct in Dec-Jan,
  • in continental Europe ~3 months,
    • some applications May-Jun, some - on rolling basis.

However, it depends to some degree on particular university or institute (so always check that; and also check prerequisites, e.g. language tests, documents to be collected - some of them need time). Moreover, it depends also or your national/visa status.

When it comes to searching for a group, it varies. You may find an advisor of your dreams on the first conference you attend (or via a talk at your university, or recommendation of a local professor), or you may spend a year and be far from that. (See also: Methods for finding graduate programs for specific areas of research.) The time you need depends on:

  • popularity of your target field,
  • how well are you networked in the target field,
  • how popular is your current universities for that field (are professors well networked? are there many talks of invited guests?),
  • how many conferences/schools/workshops you attend and how good are you at networking.

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