In many countries there are funding sources that enable students or postdocs go study or work at a university of their choice, usually abroad. Usually for these applications, the applicant has to get in touch with a potential supervisor to get a letter of invitation and approve their research statement. More often than not, the potential supervisor is expected to discuss the ideas in detail, and also help improving the cover letter and research statement, since the award of the fellowship depends on it.

I have noticed the following situation recently: students from abroad approach me with interest to do research in my lab, and ask for help in checking their application and aligning ideas to my research. We have a call or two, we discuss the details, we come up with a strong application (that looks much better than the one they initially approached me with). As the application deadline approaches I don't hear back from them anymore nor they respond to emails. Soon I learn that in parallel they approach a more famous lab with a much better application (thanks to me). Since the cover letter and research statement are now of high quality (for someone at that stage in their career), they are accepted easily, and get funding (sometimes directly from the lab).

This is new to me, and in just a short period of time I had three similar cases. I spent at least a day on each (calls, emails and checking the application), so it is a waste of time, and frustrating.

Is this a new trend? What is the best way to avoid this, while not discouraging genuine applicants?

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    the potential supervisor is expected to discuss the ideas in detail Would you please clarify expected by whom? – scaaahu Nov 16 '19 at 5:01
  • Well, the obvious solution is to stop helping them write their applications and simply let them sink or swim on their own merits. Not sure if you’d consider that a viable answer to your question, though. – nick012000 Nov 16 '19 at 5:04
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    Before doing all the re-crafting, ask many detailed questions about why they are applying to your lab, where they want to live and why have they not applied to a more famous lab... – Solar Mike Nov 16 '19 at 5:46
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    @AnonymousPhysicist No, actually the question is good (except for the comparison part). One should not put oneself down. "Why do you want to work with me?" Once they do not give a convincing answer, you could just direct them to the more famous lab, and suggesting them to apply there. It's clear that they did not pick you for a good reason. – Captain Emacs Nov 16 '19 at 9:04
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    Are the students who do this coming from the same couple of schools/countries? I'm wondering if they've heard through the grapevine to approach you like this. – Kimball Nov 16 '19 at 21:39

A student contacts you and expresses an interest to work with you on your research. The student has funding contingent on your letter of acceptance and your approval of their research statement.

Ask the student to prepare a research statement. Tell him/her that you will provide all the necessary resources but that you will not write the statement for them or pre-grade it before it is to be submitted. Point them to the resources about your research, including Web pages, journal articles, and presentation abstracts. Provide them with a template research statement for a research project entirely unrelated to your field yet fully complete to be accepted in the other field. For example, when you are in a biology department doing research on gene expression, have a colleague in the physics department draft a statement on quantum dot fluorescence that he/she would accept as a suitable application. Alternatively, prepare a well-written application to a ballet theater group that expresses an interest to be Juliet in the upcoming production of Romeo and Juliet.

After that, let it be.

After all, do you really want/need to employ PhD students or postdocs who cannot initiate efforts on their own to prepare a coherent statement of their interest in your research?

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  • It is perfectly normal for students to apply multiple places.
  • You should examine how you are promoting your lab. What are you telling students about why they should work in your lab? If they are going elsewhere, perhaps you are not telling them the right things.
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    1. This is not about applying to multiple places with an application they prepared. I don't find it perfectly normal that they end up using my work intended for the application to my lab. I find that unethical. 2. I am not sure that is related to my lab. Students may prefer to go to another country or a university that is more prestigious, even if the labs there may not be as good as mine (students consider them more attractive just because they are at a better university). These factors unfortunately have nothing to do with me. – user116320 Nov 16 '19 at 6:43
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    @user116320, if it's your work, then it's not ethical for the students to use it to apply for a position at your university either. – Anonymous Physicist Nov 16 '19 at 8:12
  • @AnonymousPhysicist, I think you are really exaggerating the case. As stated by the OP, "the potential supervisor is expected to discuss the ideas in detail, and also help improving the cover letter and research statement" -- and this is exactly my experience. So it is unethical for me not to help. If student-submitted documents aren't good enough, I'd be criticized by our university administration for approving them. – rg_software Nov 17 '19 at 14:05
  • @rg_software The OP claimed the application was "my work." Helping and doing it for them are not the same. Yes, it is appropriate to help. – Anonymous Physicist Nov 17 '19 at 21:34
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    @AnonymousPhysicist, "helping" is also "doing work" in my book. However, it's just a speculation, of course, we don't know how generous the OP's "help" is... – rg_software Nov 18 '19 at 0:22

While I haven't experienced this exact situation first-hand (or simply don't know what happened to my potential supervisees), I can easily imagine it.

In my case, though, the resulting research statement we prepare is typically very much entangled with our lab's ongoing research activities, so I doubt it can be re-used elsewhere. I can understand that a cover letter or a CV is a pretty generic thing, but it is also the easiest part to write. A research statement is, however, a completely different story.

I wouldn't say I do it deliberately, but at some point I realized that my job is not only to support someone's ambition, but also to push forward the agenda of my own lab. Thus, we formulate research statements accordingly, and I don't think the students can get away easily with the same statement in another place.

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