Background: I have done my masters in computer science/artificial intelligence. I want to do my PhD related to data science, applied machine learning. I do not have degree from world's top ranked universities nor I have top quality research publications. I have had some domestic issues since my completion of degree education so I have not been able to fully focus on my career. Nevertheless, I am very much willing to learn and upgrade myself is to meet the research labs requirement. With curious mind and life-long learning attitude, I have been doing various online courses (after my work hours)and have worked on different tutorial projects related to data science and machine learning i.e. from text mining, image processing, process mining, genomic data science to blockchain development.

More background Since, I want to become a really good researcher and for that Phd is the first step. After my masters, (more than 2 years) I had time to reflect and I take notes about what I am going to do during my PhD. I am going to be a dedicated Phd student where I can work hard, learn, collaborate and produce good quality research publications and build a strong research profile. I am very much willing to learn whatever it takes to complete my Phd project. With my qualifications and the skills, I have been applying for PhD positions whose qualification and skills are very much in match with mine. I apply only after I feel confident that I shall be able to handle such project. However, after applying for more than a year, I have not even got reply from most. I have been interviewed 3 times and I have been told that they have found better candidate for the position. One Prof. wrote that he liked my profile and wants to interview but after interview he told me he got better candidate for the position. After one week, I noticed same phd position being advertised again :(. I was interviewed again lately by the same professor, but rejected again. No clue what they really want from a PhD candidate.

My Question(s)

I am really confused about what professor look in a phd candidate? If its the skills and qualification or is it the certain level of interest and passion to go for research degree. I believe, I have both.

What should I do now? Keep looking for PhD positions? Or improve myself (in I do not know what way).

I have been keeping up with my interest for research career even through the tough times. I have applied to more than 50 positions. The only prof. who found my profile interesting rejected me twice in interview. I do not want to give up but do you think I should give up and rather look for other career.

Thank you for your attention and precious time. Your feedback is highly appreciated.

  • 1
    Do you have an opportunity to discuss this with the professor who rejected you twice? Ask what it is that he/she saw as lacking and ask what you might do to make up any shortcomings. It is risky, I know, but it might be possible. Don't complain about the rejection. Just try to come across as someone who truly wants to improve but doesn't see the correct path.
    – Buffy
    Commented Oct 8, 2018 at 21:02
  • I was thinking to email him and ask about suggestions in general (with no complains) but was not sure about my step.
    – Sceptic
    Commented Oct 9, 2018 at 2:02
  • 2
    No clue what they really want from a PhD candidate. — This seems like a natural question to ask, directly, during any job interview: "What are you really looking for? How will you choose from the applicants you interview?"
    – JeffE
    Commented Oct 9, 2018 at 14:44
  • 1
    during interview they did describe the responsibilities and description of the main tasks — Sure, but that's clearly answering a different (and far less informative) question. "There must be several applicants with the required skills and interests. How will you choose which one to admit?" In short: "What do you really want?"
    – JeffE
    Commented Oct 10, 2018 at 18:59

2 Answers 2


Every advisor is different and each wants something different in students they advise. At one extreme is a person with a well established, ongoing, probably funded, large scale project who needs students to do a lot of the research work, leading, one hopes to a lot of papers and doctorates for the students. Their needs are very specific. If you have the skills they need and they judge that you will probably work hard enough (pretty hard) you may find a place in their lab. Unfortunately, the advisor is also likely well known and prominent and so the competition to join the lab can be fierce. If you get in, the work will also be very intense. However, if you can handle it, you will probably wind up at the end with a good, if very intense career for yourself.

At the other extreme is someone like myself who only ever had a few students and only one or two at a time. I didn't need help on the kinds of research I was doing, other than from colleagues elsewhere, so all I really required in a student was interests similar to mine and the drive to complete the degree with only my advice on their plan and progress. I wanted people with similar interests so that I would be able to give them good advice and so that it wouldn't be impossible for me to judge their progress and completion.

Anything in between these two extremes is possible. My own doctoral advisor was more like myself than the hard-driven lab master, but he was full of ideas and ran a weekly seminar attended by a few students and also a few other faculty members. He was admired by students and faculty, though he was a bit aloof and very professional. If a student could get over the fear of meeting him, he probably had a problem or two for you to work on and if it went nowhere was able to help you change direction. This seems to me to be the ideal.

I had an earlier advisor who wasn't nearly as helpful. Part of that was that he was untenured and so spent most of his time on his own research and publications and wasn't able (or skilled enough) to give me much help and direction.

My advice would be to avoid advisors who are too busy to really advise, either because they have that extremely high powered lab or because they are too new to academia to know what and how to properly guide a student. Of course, if the high powered option appeals to you, then the superstar prof with the giga-lab may be what you want and need.

If you arrive for graduate study without already having an advisor, possible in some places but not others, I suggest that you look and ask around for suggestions about who does a good job with students in your field and who does things that interest you. Choosing a compatible advisor may be the most important thing you do as a beginning grad student.

I should note, I guess, that in some fields you don't really have an option. If you require the Large Hadron Collider for your work, then giga is probably your only option.

  • Thank you very much for detailed reply. Regarding two extremes you mentioned, I believe i can survive in both. 1. Being hardworking and eager to improve myself with total dedication. 2. Being curious and self learning with little bit of guidance to make sure I'm going in right direction. As you said I should look for less busy advisor, my question is how do I know if someone is really less busy since I am not resident of US or EU or Australia. All I have is access to their profiles on websites. All I do is find professors who are having open positions and have similar research interests.
    – Sceptic
    Commented Oct 9, 2018 at 2:07
  • @Buffy I guess it is one of those very rare instances where you did not respond to the comment made by OP :) Commented Dec 15, 2019 at 12:42

The honest truth is that in fashionable fields, such as machine learning, there are thousands of students every year that are motivated and well qualified and that want to do a Ph.D. One issue that a professor has is: how to recognise those students among the even larger cohort of all Ph.D. applicants? Good results from very good universities tend to be a very safe marker. Since you don't have that, you are already up against it, and have to hope for a supervisor who is willing to take risks.

With that in mind, you have to amass as much hard evidence for your claims about your own qualification and ambition as you can. Taking courses and learning in your spare time is an excellent first step, but you could, for example, also try to set yourself a concrete goal of implementing a complete project, do it, and put it on some open repository, where the professors you are applying to can see it. In other words, think of yourself like an arts students who is building a portfolio, anything that will prove that you are as qualified and hard working as you say you are.

At the end of the day, once the professor interviews you, they also have to feel that you are a good personal match, i.e. they have to want to work with you and have you around for several years. This comes down to personal chemistry, and thus there is no recipe, and it is certainly possible to overdo attempts to impress the professor. I have seen applicants, for example, that were so keen to show how keen they were, that I could not finish a sentence without being interrupted by the student trying to complete it (almost never in the way I was going to complete it). Apart from being annoying, I could not see how I would ever teach such a student anything if they think that they already know everything I might have to say.

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