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What is the correct way for a new PhD student to approach an interested faculty member to discuss becoming their student?

Is it better to come with a few thesis project ideas prepared to pitch? Or is it better to come in expecting to have the faculty member to pitch them to the student?

Typically, the student has a year or two after joining a group to formulate an actual research proposal - but at the beginning of the program, when approaching potential advisers, there is only limited time, and limited knowledge of the lab's current focus and planned future projects.

Of course, the answer depends very much on the actual faculty member in question. But in what ways does it depend? Are there any aspects to the decision that remain invariant?

I am in the physical sciences (biology) but to make the question useful to more users, perhaps it may be better if we could have answers covering the peculiarities and commonalities of this question for different fields.

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    This is going to depend highly on your field, so you might want to add that into your question. – user10060 Feb 15 '14 at 8:47
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    This will also depend on individual department cultures. For example, my grad department (Chemistry) ran a reverse lottery. Students had to meet with a number of faculty. Faculty generally tried to sell their research to the students (and not the other way around), who then ranked their top three choices. Faculty took every student who ranked them first if there was room in the group. – Ben Norris Feb 15 '14 at 13:58
  • @BenNorris for my field (biology), it is common for students to do "rotations" to briefly work in a few labs, before deciding which one they like best. While often there are seminars where they present research to all students (to attract rotation students) I wasn't sure how it works after the rotation. Perhaps this would be a better question if I rewrote it to make the context of rotations more clear? – Superbest Feb 18 '14 at 17:38
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(This is for Computer Science and Medical Informatics, I suspect that most STEM fields are similar.)

Is it better to come with a few thesis project ideas prepared to pitch? Or is it better to come in expecting to have the faculty member to pitch them to the student?

In my experience, if a faculty member is looking for a PhD student, they already have one or more projects in mind.

I think one reason for this is funding, and what faculty need to do to get it: The process of coming up with a grant proposal, submitting it, and getting a response takes months, and some grants can only be applied for once a year. That means that when you, the student, are joining the lab, there already is funding for you from a grant, and some general research goals are outlined in the grant proposal that your research needs to fall within. Some grants are more general than others, and there are also "training grants" out there the goal of which is to train you in a field (almost no constraints on the research topic).

The other reason is that faculty also have research interests.

I seriously doubt that you will need to pitch an idea out of the blue. It's possible that the faculty member will give you a general idea of what the direction of the research will be, since it would be under the constraints of their own interests and under the constraints of whatever grant is funding you, and then you would need to propose something more specific within those constraints. It's also possible that they will have something much more specific in mind and it will just be a matter of saying whether you're willing to do that research.

[A]t the beginning of the program, when approaching potential advisers, there is only limited time, and limited knowledge of the lab's current focus and planned future projects.

That's why you need to read up on the potential advisor's interests, look at their publications, look at the publications coming out of the lab, and figure out what the research focus and direction of the lab seems to be.

  • Thanks, although obviously one may question the wisdom of making a decision because "someone on the internet said so", I think you've answered my question by providing a clear argument phrased such that I can easily verify and reason about (especially the point about how grants tie in to the project selection process). I do of course try to perform my due diligence and understand their research, but you can only glean so much about their future plans from papers detailing what they have done in the past. – Superbest Feb 18 '14 at 17:32

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