(context: undergrad/integrated masters student in a math-related field, planning on a PhD in a CS-related field)

In Asia (at least in India and Singapore), students are generally expected to personally know (and ideally have worked with) their to-be supervisors before starting their PhD.

So it's common for undergrads to try to contact professors for summer projects -- and professors generally like it, because they get free work done and get a good feel of who may be a good graduate student for them to take later.

In the end of my second year at a UK university, I emailed a couple of professors (in other UK universities) asking for a summer project with some semi-generic topic ideas, but quickly realized this was a major faux-pas since:

  1. I didn't receive a reply, positive or negative, suggesting that it was regarded as spam.
  2. I found that some other professors -- though not the ones I had emailed -- had put notices on their website expressing their dislike of summer internship requests.
  3. I saw a question here that seemed to suggest that such requests are considered spam, although that may only be for generic formats for mass-emailing professors (which is not what I did).

So I realize that I don't really know how "getting into a PhD programme" works in the UK. Are you not expected to know a supervisor beforehand? Or do students generally look for other (perhaps less time-consuming for professors) ways to network with potential supervisors, like emailing them about their work?

  • Note: I'm not in a UK, but I sometimes receive emails from students asking for a summer internship. For me during the summer, with exams, conferences, project meetings and holidays, is virtually impossible to take any student and I seldom answer. – Massimo Ortolano Jul 27 at 6:46
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    I wouldn't regard emailing supervisors asking for an internship as a faux pas (except in the cases you mention where they have indicated they do not want such requests, or mass emailing). I know personally of interns who have gained supervision this way, so while some academics may ignore the requests, and you did not have success, it is a legitimate strategy, and I don't think it should be considered rude. – MJeffryes Jul 27 at 14:15
  • Pro tip: Check with an ECR, postdoc or even PhD student in the group, they might be more accommodating to introduce you to the work. Sometimes they also have a better idea of what is actually going on in the lab at the moment. – Tactopoda Jul 28 at 4:19

It is not necessary to know a professor before applying for a PhD in the UK. I have so far supervised 8 PhD students, only one of whom I knew before they started their PhD.

There are two routes to a PhD in the UK. First is to apply for an advertised position or program. This is how the majority of PhDs are recruited, but it is also usually only open to home students. The second is to find the funding yourself (either through a non-UK government scheme, an NGO or a wealthy benefactor) and to write to the supervisor laying out your experience, your desire to do a PhD (and why with them), and what your source of funding is.

I don't take unpaid interns as I feel it unfairly advantages those that can afford to do an unpaid internship at the expense of those that can't. My university runs several schemes that fund summer internships and my professional society also has a summer studentship fund. Unfortunately, I only have the capacity to take one, or at a push, two summer students a year, and I would normally recruit these from our own undergraduate body. While I try to reply to all requests for internships, I get several a day during some parts of the year, and sometimes they slip through the cracks.

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    Thanks. Just to be clear, does "home students" refer to "undergrads from the same university", "undergrads from UK universities" or "UK citizens"? – user126254 Jul 27 at 11:41
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    It means UK citizens and for the next year also EU students - those that don't pay overseas fees. – Ian Sudbery Jul 27 at 12:21
  • it's worth noting that eligibility requirements for funding are frequently based on residence rather than citizenship, so a UK citizen living abroad might not be eligibble, when a foreign citizen who has been schooled (as in pre 18) in the UK might be. – origimbo Jul 27 at 22:37
  • Its a bit more complicated that that - applicants have both "settled" and "ordinarily resident" status under UK law. The full critieria can be found in section 2 of this document: whiterose-mechanisticbiology-dtp.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/… – Ian Sudbery Jul 28 at 8:38

It is relatively difficult to arrange such internships. The applicants usually look for a 4-6 week period which is usually not enough time to get any meaningful output (except for the very strongest students), but still requires quite some preparation and supervision if done well.

Then, often the visa issue is not resolved and the university does not usually handle internship visa arrangements (it is different with PhDs), so the prospective supervisor needs to help.

Third, it seems that a lot of students especially from India seem to require/seek experience abroad which means that you get a lot of such requests, and, even if the topic sounds reasonably well defined and relevant (which means they have read your website and actually refer to your work) it is incredibly difficult to judge CVs from that country (what does "top 1% in [some fancy national ranking]" or "1st prize of [impressive sounding competition]" mean? Is that good? Is it meaningless?). The extra work in having to supervise a weak/mediocre internship candidate can be astonishing.

I have sometimes accepted internships from students I knew from other channels, e.g. colleagues, or who have talked to me at conferences, workshops and summer schools, but I expected them to organize their visa, where required, mostly themselves - but they did not come from India, and that may definitely require a formal host for a visa; that being said, for a very strong student (i.e. where I would know from other routes that they are strong), I probably would be ready to contribute necessary paperwork (e.g. recommendation/hosting letters) where relevant as long as it is not excessive.

The story is very different if the students are already on location and, especially, if they have taken my course, because I can have an idea what they are capable of and they know my topics and style, so an internship can be ramped up much faster.

In short: external students constitute a significant risk to be a time sink, and especially for a short internship this is usually not worth the logistical and scientific effort, unless you know well who you are dealing with.

For PhDs, there are ads during the year and you apply for them. Getting to know your PhD supervisor is possible separately and outside of an internship. The latter could be a good idea, but, because of above reasons, is usually replaced by an interview. Many prospective supervisors, however, encourage getting in contact with them on applying for a PhD under their supervision.

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    I think another pertinent issue (at least in the UK) is that funding to support PhD students is often restricted to UK/EU nationals. In the present context, this more or less removes the 'try before you buy' incentive for the supervisor. – avid Jul 27 at 9:14
  • @avid This is an additional hurdle. However, we do not have this restriction, and the arguments above hold independent of it. – Captain Emacs Jul 28 at 0:05

Ian Sudbery mentioned that a secondary route to applying to an advertised position is to find your own funding and then solicit supervisors. I suspect this varies by field, but I would suggest a third viable route, which is that you can contact potential supervisors without having funding. In some cases there may be university specific funding programmes available, or they may have some idea for what grants to apply to. If you do impress them, they may be very willing to help you find funding and to help you apply. Therefore, I wouldn't be put off from soliciting supervisors without having gone through the difficult task of applying for a fellowship alone.

As for how to make the initial contact, I would suggest that you speak to your own lecturers, who may be able to suggest who to contact. The opportunity to "network" with academics in your own department is extremely valuable, and one that you should not miss out on if you are planning to do a PhD. Having the "endorsement" of being referred by a colleague (who would presumably not do so if they thought you were unsuitable as a PhD student) is likely to increase your chances of a positive response. Outside of working for someone as an intern, I believe being referred by a colleague is the next best thing.

I would also suggest you ask if you could attend research seminars in the area you are interested in. If there is a visiting speaker who works in an area you are interested in, it's a good opportunity to ask if they are seeking PhD students.

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PhD students actively look for posts which are on offer, by contacting departments/professors, but prior contact is not usual or needed.

Some students manage to get places in the university because they finished their final year and saw the post which they then applied for - may not be in the same department but the professorial contact comes into play "what's this student like"?

Other students see posts are available and apply, which then leads to interview.

Many departments do not have summer work available as the tech staff may be doing maintenance during the holidays. I know that it was very quiet for us during the vacation - just 3 of us doing research and the cleaners...

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One route to meeting a supervisor which is reasonably common in the UK inSTEM subjects, but which seems not to have been mentioned in other answers yet is the masters research project. Integrated masters courses are fairly common in both the 4 year undergraduate programme and 1 year MRes + Phd patterns, as are 1 year taught masters courses. The majority of these will include a dissertation project closely supervised by a member of faculty, which can act as an audition, as well as an introduction to that supervisor and their colleagues.

Having said that, outside of a few institutions, staying at the same institution for all three degrees is sometimes frowned upon (e.g. by funding bodies) as failing to broaden your horizons.

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