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I sent an e-mail to a professor that I did undergraduate research about 9-10 years ago wondering if he could write a letter of recommendation. He replied saying that he didn't think he would have anything meaningful to say, which is completely understandable. I didn't really do any publication with the undergraduate research, but I did something that he called a sanity-check, which was work on a coding assignment on developing a Distributed File System using FUSE. The idea was that if an undergrad can do it, then the grad students should be able to do it.

He also asked if I submitted anything to him. I sent a reply on two e-books I published. One of the e-books was referenced in a Russian Defcon (I didn't write it in Russian). I also sent him a link to my blog. After that, I asked if he could be a Ph.D supervisor.

I should have asked here before sending him the e-mail though. I'm not really sure if this is the appropriate way to go about finding a Ph.D supervisor.

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    I would ask the opposite question ; how should a professor propose a potential PhD student to be her/his advisor – Open the way Jul 27 at 8:34
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I don't think that your approach is not good. It is always preferred to be straight to the point with direct focus on your aims and how would they fit into your potential hosting lab vision and goals.

Always, Keep It Short and Simple (this is called KISS principle).

However, Some suggestions to enhance your odds:

0- Set your objectives and your target areas.

1- Get prepared by identifying your potential advisor' research interests by visiting his web site and his lab activities to see if it's fit to your needs.

2- Make a balance sheet between your strengths and weaknesses. Don't be shy to identify your weaknesses, because you shall be providing an improvement plan on how to address them.

3- Try to come up and suggest some research topic that sticks with your potential advisors research interests.

Like this, your advisor will be more than glad to offer his/her expertise and embrace your proposal.

I believe by doing the aforementioned steps, you show that you are already on your way to a PhD. Such thing would be visible to your potential advisor and would be certainly appreciated.

Good luck.

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Proper way is the simplest, no bs way. The main objective is to work in an area of research which is also of interest to the professor.

1- Indicate your somewhat broad research area of interest. (e.g quantitative finance/option pricing)

2- Point out similar research that the professor had published.

3- Sketch 2-3 ideas with specific purposes (e.g. hedging derivative portfolios with etfs), write something brief about what was done before but how your ideas can be novel.

4- Ask for a face to face meeting to discuss further details and prospective phd studies. Indicate even if it is not possible to do a phd together some discussion would be helpful. Perhaps he/she can refer to a more proper advisor.

Of course this only works if you already have a starting idea to dabble on in the following 4-6 years.

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Don't overcomplicate the issue, just say what you are looking for. A potential supervisor will want to establish a number of things: that you possess the basic qualifications to do the research that you want to do, that you are sufficiently motivated to take on what is a very big personal project (and that you can finance it), that the subject of your research fits in with the professor's own interests, and that the professor can be bothered to take on another research student (grad student in American English).

Consider my own case. When I decided I wanted to do a PhD in statistics, I had not done any formal academic work for many years. Although I had graduated in mathematics, and taken masters degrees in pure mathematics and in operational research, I had no academic referees (the people who had taught me were all long since retired, if not dead).

I sent very short emails to four (full) professors whom I selected by looking at university websites to check whether they were researching in the field that I was interested in. I had four responses:

  1. You must take an MSc in statistics before we could consider you;
  2. I have given up taking research students
  3. I cannot take on any more research students: I have too many already
  4. Please arrange a time when we can talk over the telephone.

In the telephone conversation with number 4, I explained why I wanted to do research in my subject, why I had selected that professor, and what work in that field I had already done (no publications, however I had given a talk at an academic conference). He then invited me to visit him. We then discussed in more detail all the matters described above, and he took me on.

My guess is that if I had sent long emails to any of the professors I would have got nowhere: those people are very busy, they do not read long emails from people they do not know.

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