I'm currently in my last semester as a master student and planning to apply for phd degree. I'm going to have a first meeting with my potential phd adviser in a few days and I'm really nervous. All I know is I'm confident about what I've studied and I'm prepared to do the phd study both mentally and physically.
I'm wondering what is the expectation for a professor to accept phd student in general? I've read several research paper of his. However, I only have a general idea about my future research but not a specific topic. Is that ok? What is a decent way to respond when the professor asks about that?

The field I'm studying is applied math and I'll doing my phd study in the US.

  • 6
    It would be useful if you included what country you are speaking of here. In the UK, because a PhD only lasts 3 to 4 years, you are expected to apply with your research proposal and, essentially, begin working on in on day one (though it will likely develop and change). In other places, where PhDs take longer, it is possible and even normal to begin your PhD without a clear topic. – GrotesqueSI Sep 22 '19 at 19:14
  • While the main question is a new one and a good one, I removed some parts of the question that are more broad and unrelated to the main question. You can find plenty of related questions by using the search function on this site. – lighthouse keeper Sep 23 '19 at 7:07
  • 6
    @GrotesqueSI It varies by field too. What you say about PhDs in the UK is true in some subjects, but isn't generally true in (at least pure) mathematics. – Christopher Sep 23 '19 at 8:54
  • This doesn't warrant an answer, but I will add that while it can look great to have an idea for a project in mind when speaking to a potential advisor, I wouldn't assume that this will necessarily be the topic you will work on. If you want to work with a particular advisor, she may have other ideas she'd like her students to work on. But it's still great to come prepared. – Michael Mior Sep 23 '19 at 12:51
  • @GrotesqueSi I confirm what Christopher said, I had no precise topic at the start of my 3.5 year long UK PhD in pure maths, just an idea of the area I wanted to work on. – AnalysisStudent0414 Sep 24 '19 at 13:03

In most fields in the US, coming to a potential advisor with a proposal isn't necessary. But with an MS, you should have the area you want to study narrowed quite a bit. I don't know specifically about how it works in applied math, but in theoretical math, you generally work out the project details with your advisor given some common interest.

The advisor, if interested in what you are doing can then be more than just someone who looks over you shoulder as you carry on by yourself and can become something of a collaborator. If you are too tightly focused when you first meet, you might hear: "Interesting, but not to me."

But if you want to work at the intersection of, say, analysis and health science, but without anything more specific, then you have a chance to find some common ground with an advisor. The field should be something that you already know about (since you have an MS) and that the potential advisor has previously worked in or has expressed interest in.

If you were a BS graduate instead, very little is actually required (in the US) and you have time to work together with potential advisors in a more general way to develop some common ground for a research problem.

For specifics, just say where you are (intellectually), and what your general interests are. Be prepared to answer about what you have done, and what you have considered.

For completeness, outside the US the answer might be quite different.

  • 1
    To complete on this answer. In many places in Europe, so for a general answer only, there must be a common general interest. In many cases the topic will be given or choose together among lines already established in that lab. Obviously when research doesn't require hardware it can be simpler for a candidate to show up with a more unusual topic. But again, even in Europe isn't necessary for a candidate to have his/er own project at start. – Alchimista Sep 23 '19 at 8:58

"Plans are worthless, but planning is everything."

It is a very advisable to have a clear idea of your future plans. Being committed to a particular project (or in some cases even area) is not necessary. However, this does not mean it's okay to not give it any thought at all. Also, all the thoughts and plans you have about your future research career may be summarily invalidated as soon as you actually join a lab - but this does not defeat the point. The more homework and soul searching you do about what you see yourself doing in the future, the better.

  • It demonstrates maturity and self-awareness
  • Discussing your plans gives you a chance to show off your knowledge about fields you like
  • Being able to grasp the concept of "backup research direction" is a very, very good thing for a researcher
  • Professors like it when a student can be self-directed
  • Professors like it when a student seems to have a specific interest in their lab's area of work, as opposed to treating it as yet another lab
  • You will have an easier time in grad school if you consistently think ahead

Keep in mind that there is also a broad spectrum in terms of expectations. Some advisors expect the student to be fully independent from day 1 (even day 0, ie. the day you first talk to them) while others expect a large degree of subordination to their own agenda. Some also have a broader appetite for the diversity of their students than others. So in reality, you will have to tailor your "plans" to each person. Because of this, you will have to come up with several parallel long term career plans in your head, one for every different person. You can think of this as "my future plans given that I end up being supervised by Prof. X...". This reveals 7th benefit: It shows you've taken time to understand the potential adviser and show empathy to their professional goals.

During rotations, you will be exposed to completely new research and likely all of your planning will be shattered. However, you should still be prepared to discuss your future research plans in detail at any time. You shouldn't expect to actually end up doing those plans (you will probably come up with much better ones with experience and your advisor's help), so don't get so committed that you can't let go of an idea that nobody wants to sponsor. Focus on exercising your ability to say:

If this is where I am, right now, where do I go next? And then? And after that? And what if that fails?

This same ability will also be tested and pushed to its limits during your quals, so you might as well start practicing. Not to mention that it is a key survival skill for any researcher in general.


Since you've read the guy's papers, can't you write down a few ideas for extension of the work or to take it in new directions? If you contribute that, you can have a meaningful discussion and also show off the prep.

  • Simple, efficient, to the point. – Cedric H. Sep 23 '19 at 12:50

I would say it is always better to have at least an idea or an outline of a project by your first interview.


All I know is I'm confident about what I've studied and I'm prepared to do the phd study both mentally and physically.

I suspect you may be mistaken - that is, you may not actually ready to engage in doctoral work. Let me briefly explain why:

  • Doctoral work is almost exclusively "research work" rather than "advanced studies"; it's not simply a higher level of what you've done as an undergraduate. And while a Master's is a bit more of a mix of studying courses and doing research, you can still get through your Master's having the wrong idea about being a junior researcher - for the PhD this typically won't do.
  • If you do not feel strongly about studying certain specific subjects, or proving the feasibility of some process/method/idea, or improving some features of established work - more solid objectives for your doctoral and future research work - you might not want to embark on the entire endeavor.
  • Continuing the last point - it's not clear what your motivation is beyond obtaining the title of "Doctor of Philosophy". Maybe you do have such motivation, but you've not mentioned it.

So, while you don't necessarily have to have decided on your exact specific research topic before you meet that adviser, I would advise you have a stronger grasp of your intentions and motivations before doing so. Also, the more you know about what it is you want to be doing, the more that will help you choose which potential advisors to seek out and contact.

  • 1
    This really does not answer the question, and is unnecessarily discouraging. OP is not talking about their motivation and is not interested in us evaluating whether they are suitable for a PhD or not. They make it clear that they are planning to apply. They have read several research papers, to this end. On what basis you discourage them so strongly? – Martino Sep 23 '19 at 12:20
  • @Bzazz: See edit. Also, the fact that OP does not talk about something, does not make it irrelevant to OP's predicament. – einpoklum Sep 23 '19 at 13:17
  • 2
    @Bzazz I do not find it discouraging. It is like a young person contemplating enlisting but complaining about pushups. Maybe that young person does not belong in the army. – emory Sep 23 '19 at 17:27

Truthfully I don't know, but with a general intuition... If you arrange a 0th meeting for advice from the person who knows what your advisor thinks is most sensible (the advisor) then you will be superlatively equipped for the 1st meeting.

You have to be careful though, you might have met at the bus stop in the rain last autumn - it was the guy with the funny red hat - and then it's all over 'cos you already met and you didn't even know you were going to do a Phd back then and the whole of your future is trashed because your 1st meeting didn't meet the rules.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.