If I have already completed a master's degree, but no longer belong or have contact to the institution in which I followed my master's degree; how to approach one professor to see if he or she wants to supervise me? Actually I see lots of different areas that I would like, but I feel afraid of not having the enough background (I can only contact the potential professors by email because well I am actually in the North America area, and I would like to aim for an European university)

I know that some times there are some published open positions, but in those cases mostly the competition is really fierce.

Any advice, mostly based on experience, will be very useful.


3 Answers 3

  1. Apply to PhD programs in your area of interest.
  2. Visit the schools that accept you into their programs.
  3. During your visits, talk to professors about (a) whether they're taking students and (b) whether you share mutual interests.

You can also try emailing professors before you apply, to get a sense of whether their school/department/research group is a good fit. But be warned that many will ignore your email unless you've already been admitted to their program. (Expert tip: pay close attention to the warnings and admonitions posted on their personal home page!)

A much better way to make first contact is to attend conferences or workshops in your area of interest (and make a paper/poster presentation, if possible). These events let you meet many potential advisors all in one place. Plus, you get to hear about their work, and get a sense of their personality, hygiene, etc.

I feel afraid of not having enough background.

You and me both, pal. It's called impostor syndrome, and everyone* in academia has it.

Good luck!

*…except for the real jerk-Os.

  • thanks, but I have a question, you said that first I should get admitted and then contact the professors. In a lot of PhD programs is established that one should first get a supervisor, so that is also a drawback, because usually they get doctoral students from people they already know e.g. master degree students in their former groups. So how to overpass that situation? I have seen more than once that some students are picked just because they are there, and not because their research skills.
    – Layla
    Jan 10, 2014 at 13:29
  • 1
    Right—it would be helpful to know where in the world you are, Carmen Sandiego. But in any case, conferences/workshops are still one good tool in your arsenal. (And, oh yeah, you should be going to these anyway if you're serious about doing research!)
    – Dnuorg Spu
    Jan 10, 2014 at 16:45

While @Dnuorg Spu's answer is correct for the US (and Asia, afaik), it is not all that applicable for Europe. Around here, US-style PhD programmes are still more the exception than the rule. In many european universities, one applies directly with the professor before getting admitted into any sort of formal programme.

Essentially, what most professors do when they have openings for PhD students is the following:

  1. Talk to their own (good) master students (sidenote: a master is a minimum requirement for PhD admission in most places here)
  2. Failing that, contact friends and ask them for good master students interested in doing a PhD
  3. Failing that, write a job announcement to DBWorld or a similar mailing list

Step 3 usually brings in plenty of candidates. However, weeding out the bad from the good is time-consuming and error-prone, hence, most professors are not happy at all if they have to fall back to step 3.

Blind applications are usually ignored, simply because the chance that a given professor that you have applied to blindly currently has open funding and is looking specifically for somebody with your skill set is not very large.

I know that some times there are some published open positions, but in those cases mostly the competition is really fierce. Any advice, mostly based on experience, will be very useful.

My advice: give applying for some posted positions a try. Competition is fierce in numbers, but not necessarily in quality. We have had cases where we received 50+ applications, and decided to not hire anybody. Your chance is certainly better than villy-nilly mailing (or even worse, calling) professors out of the blue.


In Europe, usually you have to apply directly in a PhD program.

EPFL (in Lausanne) has a special PhD admission procedure that can be good in your case. They can take you for 1+3 years:

  • In the 1st year, your goal is to find a PhD advisor and a lab. You have to do two 6-month research projects, take some courses, and you're expected to find a lab for the PhD that way;
  • At the end of the 1st year, you pass a candidacy exam where your topic and advisor get accepted, and you have 3 years to complete your research program.

Note that you get paid during the 4 years of the program.

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