I've been applying to doctoral positions in mathematics with a strong background. BSc and MSc in math, and a MSc in computational math/engineering. I've got research experience in my field and connected fields, a paper in preprint and more to come (with novel results), solid references, teaching experience, participated in international competitions representing my university/country, good grades. Still, most of the time I don't even get an interview. I definitely understand that there are people who are better than me, and I'm not mad about it. However, often when they publish who got the positions, and it can be someone who did their BSc over 6-7 years, or who had an adjacent degree (such as computer science or physics) but studied more mathematics, or who hasn't done any teaching or research otherwise.

A few professors I know have told me several times that it's not really fair, so what I have left are social skills. I just don't know what to say. I've had my CV, statement of purpose, application letters reviewed and they said it was really good.

How can I write an application that broadly speaking appeals to such a recruitment committee? What are some interesting forms of describing my ambitions? What catches the attention of a recruiter in terms of research ambitions? I have clearly stated my research topics, as well as why I want to do research in it and how, but I don't know how to spice it up.

Just to be clear, I'm in Europe, so I didn't drop out of any PhD program to get my master degrees. Also, most of the positions were open positions, so I just sent my application and then they will decide on what advisors should get new students.

EDIT 1: I'd like to clear out that I have a BSc and MSc in mathematics, and an additional MSc which is much more applied and incorporates a lot of physics and computer science. Thus, I do have the required courses to apply for a pure math position, which I even have checked up on on their websites.

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    If you aren't getting interviews, I doubt that it has to do with social skills. – Buffy May 10 '20 at 20:44
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    Do you know what went wrong during your interviews or was competition simply better? Are you specifically applying to positions that require your background? Not impossible, but it could raise some eyebrows when switching from applied to pure (not necessarily implying a flat rejection though) – Marius May 10 '20 at 21:54
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    When you say “have been applying” how many applications have you done? With a process that has some random elements like this, there is an argument that you just may need to do more to see the result you want. – Dawn May 11 '20 at 0:07
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    "most of the time I don't even get an interview" seems to be the default experience when using the "shotgun approach" of applying to many positions with very different topics. I made good experiences with writing few, carefully crafted applications, where my background was a 100% perfect match. – lighthouse keeper May 11 '20 at 17:35
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    ...then I would consider negotiating with them about the detailed topic to see whether there is common ground. However, a supervisor that does not see his research interests represented for the duration of the 3-4 years of a PhD, has no incentive to see a PhD studentship and supervision invested in a topic they have no stake in. It has nothing to do, in any case, with social skills, especially as they do not easily stand out of an application. – Captain Emacs May 11 '20 at 18:45

It sounds more like an issue of relevance and application strategy rather than a lack of your part, such as social skills.

To answer the question as is, showing that you can balance independent/ individual work and being part of a group of people - not necessarily a research group but that you can network on your own, seek and offer advice and take initiative in communication - is a good approach. With the experience you mention, I believe you can find tangible examples on both aspects.

However, not getting interviews is a different issue. Both applying for a PhD and selecting a PhD student has a significant personal element. At the very least, both you and the potential supervisors must choose whether you want to work with each other for at least 3 years and produce something never done before. The supervisors may rely on past experience to make a decision. Also, it is not necessarily the objectively best candidate ("strongest") who will be accepted, but the fittest (with or without quotes) given the approach and culture of the department and the academics. Your background can be both an asset and a hindrance. A mixed or checkered background may be a better match in multidisciplinary or far-fetching projects, and may also reveal something about the person (e.g. adaptability, perserverence, wider experience etc). A "pure X" background provides obvious advantages in expertise, but might look narrow or irrelevant at first glance. That is why your research proposal is so important: it is where you demonstrate which fields you want to focus on and your research criterion and insticts. It is important to keep in mind that a very focused proposal may hit an obvious wall, no matter how well-written it is or how good the candidate: the supervisor may simply not be interested (regardless of area of expertise!) or think that this is the only thing you are interested in and will not consider his suggestions or a possible change of course. Flexibility is quite important, and often disregarded.

It is like fishing in murky waters and so situational that common patterns are difficult to spot. Based on what you write, I would advise you to examine critically if your past applications showed that you were a good match for the project. Did you show relevant skills? Did you identify the important points correctly (e.g. was there a hint of multidisciplinary work that you missed, or did your proposal come across as too narrow)? Did your cover letter and proposal highlighted your strengths with regards to the project? Did you judge the relevance of the supervisors' past research correctly? If you have contact with an academic that can advise you (personal tutor, friendly professor etc) it would be a good idea to discuss the research proposal and the current situation in the field (e.g. you might be "out of fashion", if everyone is currently running behind a certain bandwagon).

  • As mentioned in the post, these were mostly open applications, i.e. I don't put forth a research proposal but rather apply to the department as a research employee. This is in Northern and Central Europe, so I'm basically applying for a job. In the application process they will determine if any projects are suitable for me, and there were several projects that matched my background. I both have experience in these topics, but also in physics and computer science for that matter, so I don't see how I would be lacking in those aspects. – Seal May 11 '20 at 7:34
  • I also want to mention that I've had both a supervisor and a friendly professor look over my application, and they could only find minor points that could be improved, otherwise they said I had a good application. Furthermore, the topics I'm interested in are "hot" right now, so there should be some incentive in looking at it. – Seal May 11 '20 at 7:41
  • In your post you mention "doctoral applications", which includes a wide variety of positions and situations. Regardless, there should be a way to demonstrate your research profile/strengths/interests/mentality, in a personal statement or in the application. I cannot judge on your suitability, but what I surmise is that oten you were not invited for an interview. This is more about your application standing out than relevance or competence, and my blind guess would be a detail that would let you in. Objectively, how much to you stand out from a "Good" PhD applicant, and how big is that pool? – user117109 May 11 '20 at 14:12
  • Doctoral application as in application to a 3-4 year paid position after which which you earn a PhD. Yes, most often I don't get invited to an interview, so they shortlisted me somewhere. As I mentioned in the original post, I have good experience in my own field and adjacent fields, all of which was included in my application. I don't exactly know how large the application pool is, my judgement and comparison came solely from whom they actually hired. – Seal May 11 '20 at 14:44
  • My main question is regarding what I can do make my application stand out in an appropriate way. This comes after learning that these institutions often went on to hire people with either standard or spotted backgrounds. Naturally, this makes me question the importance of my credentials and my approach. – Seal May 11 '20 at 14:48

In addition to Titus' answer which I believe is complete to the question posed.

You mention that students who get the positions are coming either from a straight Maths background or have other adjacent degrees, still with more Mathematics studied. Is it possible that you are missing some of the so called core Mathematics courses? It is mentioned in the question that you graduated an MSc in Computational Mathematics/Engineering. This leads me to believe that you could be missing some advanced knowledge from higher courses in fields such as Algebra or Analysis. Some professors/groups may prefer students who have acquired this type of knowledge over students with more experience in research, as there could be less training involved and candidates could "straightforward" jump into work.

Moreover, although it may not be a correct assumption, I believe you have oscillated a bit between fields over the last few years. From an application perspective, this could possibly imply some sort of inconsistency that could negatively impact your applications. Obviously you could turn this around in an application to look positive, but in the end it comes down to the committee to decide if they rely on a student who constantly changes his mind/preferences.

Best advice I could add, given all the good thoughts you've already given, is to contact some of the professors you are/were interested and ask what they are expecting from an applicant and ask for feedback for the interviews you got rejected. This may clarify in which position you are and what actions you could take.

  • Sorry, but I may have formulated it poorly. I have a BSc and MSc in mathematics (mostly pure mathematics courses), and then an additional MSc which is more of a physics/CompSci hybrid. My math department has a large selection of courses (the largest department in my country), and I've taken most of them, even PhD-level pure math courses. The others I mentioned could have a BSc in computer science and then a Math/CompSci MSc, or physics BSc and applied math MSc, which is why I made the presumption that I've "had more math" than them. – Seal May 11 '20 at 16:49

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