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I just received an email from a student from a distant country, asking me to accept him as a Ph.D. student. I do not know this person, his advisors, his references or even the university he studied in. His master's thesis looks good at first glance, but I cannot be sure since it is not in my field. He still wants to do Ph.D. research in my field. I asked him to send me some refereed publications, but he replied that he has none yet, and then asked me to give him some work by which his application can be assessed.

I am very unsure about this - I am afraid to get stuck with a bad student that takes too much time to supervise. On the other hand, I do not want to block him entirely. So my plan is to give him an open problem that I and some colleagues tried to solve in the past but failed. If he fails and gives up, then he will have to look for another advisor; if he does manage to solve the open problem, then I will be more than happy to be his Ph.D. advisor, and his solution will be a part of his thesis.

My reservation about this plan is that it might be unethical/unprofessional to give him such a difficult problem to start with. But, he asked for it, and of course he is not obliged to take it if he does not want to.

Is this plan reasonable? Is there a better plan?

UPDATE: based on the answers, I changed the plan as follows: (a) referred the student to register through my university's system; (b) asked the student what papers he has read on my research field, and what ideas he has for extending them; (c) Based on the student's answer, I decided on a research problem that was not solved yet in a publication, but for which I already thought of a solution, so that I can guide the student in case he gets stuck; (d) scheduled a video call. My plan is to start working together remotely in parallel to the registration process, and see how it goes.

Thanks a lot for all the insights and ideas!

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    Interview him directly over skype. Ask about fundamentals that he should know. – A Simple Algorithm Jul 26 at 11:54
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    I do not know this person, his advisors, his references or even the university he studied in. His master's thesis looks good at first glance, but I cannot be sure since it is not in my field. — Lots of red flags here. Without clear evidence of their suitability, why did you not just politely decline? – JeffE Jul 26 at 12:00
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    If you and your colleagues failed to solve this problem, why do you think this student would be able to solve it, alone, without funding and an advisor to help? I feel like this sets him up for failure. – IEatBagels Jul 26 at 17:12
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    I'm confused about your characterization of this student as "out of thin air," since this just sounds to me like "applying." Isn't there some standard process for students who aren't referred through the old-boy network? – Elizabeth Henning Jul 26 at 17:59
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    @ElizabethHenning After sufficient (internet-augmented) due diligence? Yes!! If I am not qualified to judge someone's expertise, then why on earth would I think I'm qualified to be their PhD advisor? – JeffE Jul 26 at 18:55

13 Answers 13

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If the prospective student cannot realistically solve the problem - and it certainly seems so given that you + some colleagues couldn't solve it - then it does seem unprofessional to me. One could easily interpret your reply as a soft rejection, except it's dressed up to give the student some hope. Ambiguous signals are bad (just see how many literary plots involve one party in a romantic relationship giving ambiguous signals to the other).

I suggest instead using a problem which has already been solved, but the solution is not trivial. For example, you could take an exam question from a Masters-level course related to the student's field. The student should be able to solve it, although it will take effort. You can then assess how good the student is against the other students in the course. Alternatively, you could set some minor problem that will nonetheless need to be solved before a bigger one can be attacked. For example, "write a C++ program that numerically solves [this differential equation]" is not going to be easy, but if the student is able to do it, then you can maybe use that program on his thesis topic.

I'd avoid asking for something that takes more than several hours to do. The student is likely to be applying elsewhere as well, and it's not fair to expect him to sink a lot of time into one application.

  • They may not have found a solution as they may have only looked at it over the coffee break - but that does not mean that it does not have a solution... – Solar Mike Jul 26 at 7:50
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    But if it is just an exam question, how can I know if the student solved this by himself or just found the solution elsewhere / asked a friend to solve it for him? – Erel Segal-Halevi Jul 26 at 7:53
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    @ErelSegal-Halevi I was thinking of an exam question whose answer is not easily Googled for. If you are concerned the solution might not have been produced by the student, you could ask for a Skype interview, and quiz the student about the solution then. – Allure Jul 26 at 7:59
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    @ErelSegal-Halevi How could you verify anything that the student says (e.g. a solution to the problem your colleagues haven't solved) is produced by the student? – Skeleton Bow Jul 26 at 19:12
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    @ErelSegal-Halevi Anything that is not so hard as to be an unreasonable test for an entry-level Ph.D. student is also at a level where paid outsourcing is plausible. That's why a video interview is an important suggested stage in the interaction. – jakebeal Jul 28 at 18:30
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I would tell them what you expect from a PhD student: prove theorems/run empirical tests/conduct human studies or all the above. If their profile is a clear mismatch, I wouldn’t bother.

I would next ask them to review two papers of their choice out of your recent publications. One page review each. The review should include at least one idea for future directions. It tells you whether they’re serious, what they want to work on, and whether they can reason about ideas in your field. It also guarantees that the problem is at least somewhat tractable (you’ve solved it after all).

If you’re happy with the write ups, schedule a video interview. You both are committing to 4+ years together, best to make sure you can discuss things together.

Good luck!

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    The issue is that, because (as you say) it's a commitment for 4+ years, I want to have a stronger evidence of fitness than just a single video interview.. – Erel Segal-Halevi Jul 26 at 12:53
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    @ErelSegal-Halevi by all means do more after the video interview, but as a start asking them to look into papers that you have published would make reviewing their work easy for you & is a good first step (assuming your looking for students & don't just want to ignore it completely) – user2813274 Jul 26 at 15:53
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    If you have the money, you can offer them a 1 year/6 month research assistantship to see if you fit (after the first steps obviously) – Spark Jul 26 at 22:47
  • What @Spark said. Even if you decided to take him on (which is not at this stage anyway) You could explain to him that because of his different background and lack of publications you would expect a trial period to assess his fit. – einpoklum - reinstate Monica Jul 28 at 15:43
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    And if you don't have the money, it is perhaps not outrageous to ask the student to first get a master's degree in your field. – chepner Jul 28 at 16:59
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There are an awful lot of very fine but disadvantaged students out there who just don't have any good network to connect them into good schools. I know some excellent folks who are now top professors and researchers only because somebody decided to respond to their "out of the blue" email.

Unfortunately, there are also vastly more mediocre or terrible students who will do nothing but waste your time. Moreover, these students are over-represented in perception because they email many more people than the good ones. Even just responding to their emails is usually a waste of time.

So how do I decide if a student who writes to me is likely to be worth responding to? Simple: did they write to me, or did they just write to an authority figure who might be able to help them? Some heuristics that I find helpful in telling the difference:

  • Does the student talk about me at all, or just about themselves?
  • Does the student show some familiarity with my work beyond just the title of a paper or two?
  • Does the student explain how their interests may relate to mine?
  • Does the student have some vaguely plausible ideas about what sort of work they would want to do together with me?

If a communication passes all of these tests, then it shows that the person has spent some real time to think about this communication and that there is some real reason that there might be a potential match. It's an honest signal of effort that has been invested, and that's a big deal, because it means they're writing to me and not just a list of ten thousand people with Ph.D.s.

Now, this doesn't actually tell you if the student is actually any good or not---for that, things like the tests that others suggest are not a bad thing to do. But this start gives some signals that seem to be fairly reliable in helping me distinguish between "application spammers" and potentially serious candidates to work with.

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    Indeed, now that I read his email again, I see that he mainly talks about himself, and does not show any familiarity with my research field except the general field name. Probably this is what made me suspicious in the first place. – Erel Segal-Halevi Jul 29 at 6:31
  • A very good heuristic imho, since it allows to discard a good 95% of spammy applicants quite fast, while still giving a chance to the 5% remaining. – m.raynal Jul 29 at 9:39
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There are two separate issues involved in the discussion to this point:

  • How a faculty member should respond to a student who emails them directly asking about graduate studies
  • How to evaluate the credentials of a potential graduate student

Your question is a conflation of the two issues. But I will answer the first issue by saying what I do in these cases: I write them back with polite encouragement to officially apply to our graduate program, including the link to my department's admissions web page. And then I forget I ever got the email (unless something during the admissions process reminds me of it).

I don't see any point in trying to evaluate somebody from an email when there is a perfectly serviceable mechanism for gathering information on all applicants and evaluating them systematically.

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    This is the answer. – R.. Jul 27 at 6:57
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    "perfectly serviceable mechanism for gathering information on all applicants and evaluating them systematically." I wish this would be universally true... Anyways the key takeaway is that universities make offers of admission, not professors. – ZeroTheHero Jul 27 at 12:43
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    This answer would be less than useless for many applications, at least to universities in the UK. Over here, it is expected and often required that an applcant already have been in contact with a potential supervisor who would be willing to supervise them in their chosen area of research. Without this, the University may not even consider an application from a candidate. – Araucaria - Not here any more. Jul 28 at 3:31
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    At the OPs institution, a prerequisite for applying is to have the support of a professor there who agrees to advise them. In many parts of the world this is the order of operations, in others it is not. Your answer only applies in places where students first apply to a program. – Bryan Krause Jul 28 at 17:19
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Be wary. This could be a con aiming at getting a study visa. They apply for PhD courses, get accepted, get a visa and you'll never see them again.

Due diligence is required.

just received an email from a student from a distant country asking me to accept him as a Ph.D. student.

So far so normal.

I do not know this person, his advisors, his references or even the university he studied in.

If you don't know his university why are you even considering this ? At the very least you should be seeing an accredited university (something that's easy to check). Not seeing this, don't go any further and forget it.

Advisors and references

These should be available to check at the university. If you can find the university (!) but can't get in touch with these advisors or references (or they're not at the university) then it's a con ((or very likely one) and you just forget this.

Note : private emails and phone numbers should not be accepted. You need email addresses and phone numbers from within the university.

my plan is to give him an open problem that I and some colleagues tried to solve in the past but failed. If he fails and gives up, then he will have to look for another advisor; if he does manage to solve the open problem, then I will be more than happy to be his Ph.D. advisor,

Ridiculous.

You and your colleagues (all better qualified) can't solve the problem but you expect a prospective PhD candidate to do better ? This is just setting someone up to fail. Why waste their time ?

My reservation about this plan is that it might be unethical/unprofessional to give him such a difficult problem to start with.

Difficult ??? It's impossible as far as you're concerned - you can't even solve it yourself !

How would you feel if someone did that to you ?

Is there a better plan?

Give a fair but difficult test if you must, but one you at least know the solution (and a reasonable time frame for it to be solved in). This (like any test) will let you judge their competence. You cannot judge their competence if you have no idea how to solve the problem yourself or how long it should reasonably take.

However I would not give a test until you have verified the university, references and advisors and confirmed they exist and know the student.

Remember : accredited third level institutes or you could end up with a fake university telling you everything is OK. 

  • -1 because of the assumption that an applicant not be considered when you don't know their university. Also for being overly suspicious of it being a scam. However, definitely agree with what you said about OP's plan. – einpoklum - reinstate Monica Jul 28 at 15:02
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    @einpoklum Did you miss the word "accredited" ? It's not about "not knowing" the university, but the possibility that the university may be a university in name only. As for "being overly suspicious", anyone dealing with online applications and new contacts who is not "overly suspicious" is being very naive. – StephenG Jul 28 at 15:08
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    @einpoklum If anything I was far too mild in my choice of language about the potential for online scams in this area, as anyone dealing with applications from overseas students should be aware. Note that institutions can be held responsible for failing to do due diligence on these matters by the authorities. This is a very serious issue. Institutions should make staff more aware of these issues (clearly something the OP's employer failed to do). My awareness is heightened by an acquaintance who ran a language school and was constantly receiving fake applications. – StephenG Jul 28 at 15:20
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    I'm just saying I can't un-downvote you without an edit; the site "locks" votes after a while. Also, note that a language school is very different from, say, a biotechnology lab, particularly w.r.t. applicant distribution. – einpoklum - reinstate Monica Jul 28 at 15:25
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    @einpoklum You can edit the post yourself and add just a bunch of  , if you wish. (Yes, I know, that's a ridiculous policy on SE's part.) – Federico Poloni Jul 29 at 7:30
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One strategy is to query the student as to what specific part of your research program is of interest to him/her, and in what way is this student prepared for this kind of work, including papers (by you or others) or textbooks read on this topic.

As the path of least work is for the student not to read anything and move to a less inquisitive prospective supervisor, this should be enough to sieve however coarsely interested applicants from the “truly random” ones. It is also a nice way to start to build a picture of the candidate as follow up questions can enlarge the discussion to cover background preparation.

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tl;dr : Your plan's no good; do other things instead.

I do not know... his advisors, his references or even the university he studied in.

Then take a short while to read up on who those people are. Now, ok, if they're in art history and you're in chemical engineering, maybe you shouldn't bother, but I'm assuming there's at least some overlap between your applicant's former field of study and yours.

You could also consult colleagues of yours who are closer to that field, to get a basic opinion of that university and his advisors/references.

His master's thesis looks good at first glance, but I cannot be sure since it is not in my field. He still wants to do Ph.D. research in my field.

If he wants to switch to your field, he probably has some idea of what he wants to work on (not necessarily true but likely). Assuming that's the case, I'd consider having a remote audio or even video talk with him, to tell you about some specifics of his own interest and why he decided to approach you to be his advisor.

I asked him to send me some refereed publications, but he replied that he has none yet,

So, he just wrote a thesis but nothing was submitted anywhere? Or - did he submit somewhere but nothing's been accepted yet? If it's the latter, as for a draft and promise you will read it in confidence.

and then asked me to give him some work by which his application can be assessed.

That is a bit of a weird request, although understandable if he's legit. Here's an idea: You probably teach some course in your field of research, no equivalent of which he has taken so far, being from another field. Give him some reading material, then finally when he says he's ready - a homework assignment from that course, with a limited amount of time for submitting it. Hopefully he would not be able to "cheat" effectively, or at all; and it would not be too hard; and maybe it'll help you see what his thought process is like

I am very unsure about this - I am afraid to get stuck with a bad student that takes too much time to supervise.

Hey, hey, you haven't committed to anything yet...

So my plan is to give him an open problem that I and some colleagues tried to solve in the past but failed.

Terrible plan. Even a legit Ph.D. candidate would likely fail. And if he resolves an open problem that even domain experts have not been able to crack - then he doesn't need much of your supervision, now does he? I'll chalk this one up to you being an inexperienced faculty member.

But, he asked for it,

He asked for something to prove his worth as a green candidate, not as an independent resolver of open research problems.

and of course he is not obliged to take it if he does not want to.

Very weak argument my friend...

Is this plan reasonable? Is there a better plan?

Not reasonable. Try the plan after the phrase "here's an idea" above. After doing that, consider inviting him for a visit, with him preparing a talk on the connections between your field and his old field (assuming one exists) for your research group or other such forum of people. That would be an opportunity to get to know him better. If you can, consider funding the visit.

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Yes, this is reasonable and ethical, if you are willing to give serious consideration to an attempt at the problem that attains a standard manifestly commensurate with what you would require of a PhD student upon entry. Setting a very difficult problem/task can, framed properly, be a constructive method of assessing someone's capability and commitment, as long as you take interest in the journey/method rather than the result.

Tell the candidate that you do not necessarily expect him/her to be able to deliver a solution, but you want to see what he/she can do with the problem. You may want to set a deadline (I can see arguments both ways on whether to make it subject to a deadline or open-ended). Ask him/her to send you his/her worked-out attempts, and then schedule a video interview to discuss them (the latter part is important, to verify that the attempt is the candidate's genuine work).

  • I'm inclined to agree with this approach. The main problem I see with the OP's plan is that it's not going to provide any useful information about the student if he fails to solve the problem and it might not even provide useful information if he delivers a solution. – Elizabeth Henning Jul 29 at 0:36
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You will get more of these e-mails than the number of students that you are able to supervise. So, you should compare potential students to one another. It is likely that your university/department has a PhD application process; if so, refer the students to it (and then read the applications obviously!).

Also, talk to your colleagues --- they have more experience with the PhD admissions than you do.

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I know there are many answers to this question, and there is likely overlaps in my answer and others' but I hope to give a different perspective.

I suggest you look at it from a different angle, instead of trying to validate the university and courses and degree, try to validate the "interest". It is not feasible for you or anyone to know all credible universities all over the world. It is however very feasible to discern a dedicated and well-informed candidate from a boilerplate application.

Some useful questions to ask might be:

  • "Why do you want to work with me/us?" - This question a lot of sense to see if the student has spent any thought on what working in your lab would give. It is especially relevant if, as you say, your current field is not immediately similar to the student's. I would say that if the answer is focused solely on how awesome your lab is or what the student has to gain by working with you, it's likely because the student just looked up some names and labs online, and applied to all/most. If on the other hand the student goes in to detail about your work, and why s/he finds it inspiring, you can get a better feel for if the student understands the key concepts in the field and has a "good-enough" prior knowledge. I feel people that have a good grasp of what they are interested in show that by their choice of words, and amount of detail they are comfortable getting into.

  • "What are your expectations for doing a PhD in my group?" - This is a twist on the previous question, by asking for what the student has for expectations, you can see if the student is actually well-informed about your current (not past) research, what type of a project the student is looking forward to work on. This question also has an additional benefit of checking if the student has realistic expectations for doing a PhD, for example with respect to amount of supervision, publications, conferences and courses, teamwork etc... Regardless of the level of prior knowledge, getting expectations aligned would be super helpful in mitigating future frustrations both on your part and for the prospective student.

  • "What would you like to work with, if you start in my group?" - Ask the student to pitch a project proposal. As I mentioned in the first point, by getting the student to elaborate on his/her goals you can see if they actually have a good enough grasp of the field. In order to avoid any kind of fraud, follow up on the project proposal with a skype interview. Ask follow-up questions on wherever the reasoning is "thin".

Obviously, my answer implies in taking some time into digging into the students intentions. If you feel like you don't want to invest the time to figure out if the student's interest is legit (which is fair enough since time is money) I suggest you politely decline rather than throwing tests at the student to see if s/he impresses you.

That approach is not entirely fair since if the student was capable of solving problems interesting enough for the field, it would be silly to apply for a PhD in the first place. A PhD student is supposed to be a student, learning to do science, not cheap labor for research groups produce results.

Hope that helps, or at least provides some insights

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From the information you have in your OP, you don't know anything at all about this person.

Anybody can make up a plausible looking story about an unknown university, and take of copy of someone else's thesis, change a few names on the front pages, and pass it off as their own. Don't be naïve enough to think nobody would be so stupid as to try such a thing in real life.

Interviewing job applicants in industry who (allegedly) have at least bachelor's degrees, we now give ALL candidates the following simple test:

They are taken to an empty room, given some paper and a pen, and asked to spend 15 minutes writing a one-page summary of their CV, and a statement of what post they are applying for and why.

Believe it or not, some of them can't accomplish that task. And some who can at least remember what was on their professional-looking application are incapable of writing a simple English sentence with reasonably correct spelling and grammar.

Personally, I would just file this application in the trash and forget about it.

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    So you're advocating to not even bother giving this applicant the opportunity to prove themselves, just delete it and continue on as if you'd never seen their email? That might be common practice, but it's not professional or courteous. And you're also not considering people who don't have English as their first language? There's plenty of intelligent and smart people that don't have a good command of English, yet are in ELL courses to get better. – computercarguy Jul 26 at 20:35
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    All relationships have to start somewhere. You don't you 'anything at all' about anybody that you don't know yet. – Time4Tea Jul 26 at 20:52
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    @computercarguy No, but if the initial application sets off alarm bells then you send them a "thanks but no thanks" reply. As nice as it would be to give everyone a chance, you have one slot and multiple applicants, and it's normal to start triage there. As for language skills, there's a difference between being able to communicate in a second language and not being able to. If their English skills stop them communicating, they fundamentally cannot work at a uni where they need to communicate in English, so they're applying to the wrong place and need to be rejected. – Graham Jul 26 at 22:35
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    The fact that some applicants in some industry are incapable of certain simple task does not at all mean OP's applicant is disingenuous or incapable. Your suggestion is completely unethical. -1. – einpoklum - reinstate Monica Jul 28 at 15:03
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I'm assuming this is a European thing for students to just cold-call professors about PhD programs. In North America, you go to the university's website and fill out the application. Of course, having prior contact with interested faculty is encouraged and sometimes can be required, but the professor is not expected to make any decision not contingent on the student actually receiving an admit.

The admission committee is supposed to take care of them "materializing out of thin air". They come up with standardized admission processes so that all applicants can be judged fairly, the best talent is attracted, that admitted applicants have the best fit and that they have the best odds of success. In exceptional cases (such as students who doesn't have requisite degrees from accredited universities) they can provide alternative means of verifying the student's eligibility, or make the judgment call that students who cannot satisfy the standardized requirements cannot apply.

I would suggest you not circumvent the admission committee by inventing your own ad-hoc application process just for this student. For one, the adcom might not appreciate it. Besides, there's a reason the current application systems exist.

Collaborating with this student, or giving him homework, is up to you. This should be done in the context of general edification of the student, rather than as in exchange of guaranteed admission (do you even have the power to give that guarantee?). You can say:

  • "Here's a problem we're working on, solve it with me and you can be co-author/acknowledgee".
  • "Here's some open problems in the field that are appropriate for you, solve them and you can publish on your own".
  • "I will pay you $x/hr to work on this problem for me, contract is attached".
  • "I volunteer to educate you, here is some homework that I will check for you, and also help you on if you get stuck".
  • "I volunteer to counsel you on your career, here are some books you should read and some topics you should learn, you can come ask me again about what to learn next"

You can choose from these depending on whether your goal is to actually collaborate and produce novel research, or if you are trying to selflessly help a disadvantaged student. Or if you are unwilling to commit any time, you can simply encourage him to check out the application instructions, and offer to answer any specific questions about the department and program/application process.

If you choose to associate with this student in the future, I suggest that you do this in the context of work that is itself beneficial to him. For example, if you give him a research problem, and he solves it, he can publish it. Don't make it so the main pay off is that if he gets admitted to your university's PhD program, he can become your student - then if he fails to be admitted, he has gotten no payoff for his work. Besides, once he does the work, maybe he will decide he wants to apply to other PhD programs. Or maybe he will dislike working with you and apply to your program, but seek other advisors. Creating a commitment to become your student seems a bit unethical and not really worth it.

0

You could as well request for his CV, then look into whatever you might be interested in from his background knowledge or something he has done before to have an idea into something he would like to do.

Then request a research proposal on any of two (or more) areas/topics that he is likely to have some basic familiarity with.

Access the proposal and you can ask him questions from the proposal via a Skype interview (as some others have suggested). That I think is a reasonable test of sincerity.

You might also need to ask about what motivates him most to do a Ph.D. and what he thinks a Ph.D. is like. Those things would hopefully give a clearer picture of who you would be likely working with.

Finally, you could seek to know two/three of those who have taught/supervised him in the past, then seek their opinion on his character and his level of dedication.

So many people "come from thin air" and publish very good contributions in prestigious venues. Peoples sincerity, dedication, background knowledge, interests, skills, and willingness to learn I think matters a lot in such circumstances.

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