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A buddy of mine who lives in Amsterdam told me that it is not a good idea to apply for a PhD as an international student because the chance of getting admission is narrow these days. I would just pay for the application fee and other things without getting tangible results. He said although we are free to apply, it is highly unlikely to get admission because of the pandemic and borders' restrictions. He also added that because as Iranians we have a lot of other problems regarding studying online and getting student visas due to a myriad of reasons.

Is a PhD application under the current situation less likely to succeed, and should I therefore rather wait?

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    I'm voting to reopen the question because I don't think it depends on individual factors. The OP brings forward a number of general aspects which could, in principle, make applications for international students useless. The available answers address these aspects in a meaningful way. Aug 18 at 18:44
  • @lighthousekeeper I based my vote a bit on the title question "is it a good idea"; I'd also vote to reopen if it was instead focused on the various specific concerns raised in different answers, however it's a bit complicated to edit the question now that it's attracted a bunch of answers already without making parts of those answers unrelated to the asked question.
    – Bryan Krause
    Aug 18 at 18:53
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    In Australia, Iranian students have no problems getting a visa and admission, unless they are working on projects with military applications. The situation has no changed with Covid-19. The only problem is the border closure, meaning a student would have to enroll remotely if they wish to start now. Otherwise, they can defer until the border opens. Aug 19 at 1:01
  • There are no university programmes or positions with application fees in the Netherlands.
    – Servaes
    Aug 20 at 10:44
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I suggest you should do some (more) research, at least to validate the assumptions in your question:

  • Application fees and other costs. Some Ph.D. programs in Europe don't have any; for instance, when I was applying, many in my area (German-speaking European country / physical and natural sciences) did not have any costs at all.
  • Visa issues. My institute has admitted as many international students as ever these last two years, including Iranians, and the students have been able to get visas. (More specifically, internship admissions have been affected by visa concerns, but Ph.D. admissions have not, as far as I can tell).

Another perspective: how long are you willing to wait for things to improve? Unless you have strong reasons to believe that next year will be any better than this one pandemic-wise, I would strongly consider applying now.

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    Re. vias issues: The Netherlands specifically has recently made it harder for Iranian students to get admitted, for example delta.tudelft.nl/article/…. The friend in Amsterdam is likely referring to such measures.
    – BrtH
    Aug 19 at 9:59
  • @BrtH Makes sense, thanks! I suppose it depends on where specifically the OP wants to study, which isn't really specified in the question.
    – Jen I
    Aug 19 at 10:20
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    @BrtH That's a very relevant comment that might be worth turning into an answer. But it seems to apply only to a small fraction of all students, namely those in sensitive studies. The mentioned examples are related to building rockets and nuclear physics and chemistry. Aug 20 at 7:44
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You have two options:

  1. Apply for a PhD position and risk not getting the position
  2. Not apply for a PhD position and be 100% certain of not getting the position

The choice is yours.

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    There may be costs associated with applying that may not be insignificant for someone living in Iran. Aug 18 at 18:23
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    @AzorAhai-him- Can you explain more? OP says "application fees and other costs". I'm not aware of any European country that has application fees for a PhD program. A brief Google search brought forward that some US universities seems to have them... Aug 18 at 18:39
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    @lighthousekeeper I'm not sure what else there is to elaborate on. I don't know which/if any EU/Dutch universities have fees (or tests that cost money in order to apply), but they will be a larger percentage of an average Iranian's income than a Dutch person's. Aug 18 at 19:06
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    @AzorAhai-him- If there is no application fee, then it will not be "a larger percentage of an average Iranian's income than a Dutch person's" — they are both 0%.
    – Earthliŋ
    Aug 20 at 7:33
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    There are no university programmes or positions with application fees in the Netherlands.
    – Servaes
    Aug 20 at 10:43
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From the perspective of a professor who has hired PhD students during the pandemic (coincidentally, in the Netherlands -- where we don't have any "application fees" for PhDs):

Our ultimate goal is to hire strong candidates. If there is a chance to hire a strong candidate, we do what it takes to make the hiring possible and overcome possible limitations. Therefore, the potential limitations you cite either don't apply, or only apply to a limited extent:

  • "because of the pandemic" - That's a non-issue. There might be fields in which starting any PhD research currently is difficult per se, because they require physical attendance in the lab. But that's not specific for international students.
  • "because of border restrictions" - That's mostly a non-issue as well. The border restrictions are generally set up in a way that allows people to immigrate to start a new job, including a PhD. There could be temporary issues when the border to a high-risk country is closed entirely, but experience has shown that these will ultimately be lifted.
  • "because of visa issues" - This could be an actual issue, especially if the visa offices in your country are closed down due to the pandemic situation. Potentially, visa issues can delay the starting date of your position by many months. In that case, I as a hiring professor would be patient and show lots of understanding, in the hope that you will eventually arrive and start your PhD.
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International student that did actually apply for PhD positions during the pandemic here. I have one now.

  1. I didn't get the impression that chances were too narrow. Three international students were admitted to my professors group alone this term including one non-EU.

  2. Universities are aware of possible visa problems. According to the welcome email we got, mine seems to be dealing with these cases individually (offer distance learning e.t.c.). I didn't get the sense that it affects whether or not students are admitted.

  3. I applied mainly in Europe and didn't have to pay any application fees at all.

  4. The only test that I had to take and pay for was my CAE English certificate. You would need this after the pandemic, too (for those Universities that require an English test). So even if you don't get a position right away, you can still use it after the pandemic.

  5. Simply contacting the potential advisor is always a good idea. They probably know more about the specific situation at their university.

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You're asking the wrong question.

The point is to make a connection with a potential advisor and talk about potential research work as a Ph.D. candidate.

If there's interest on both sides, the potential advisor would suggest when (or if) your friend should apply.

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