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This question is an extension of this particular question: Is this way of writing e-mails to professors asking for funded PhD positions to work under their supervision good?

I am a person in an Asian country who plans to write to professors in Europe for a PhD position in Pure Math. I know Europe has a lot of countries and is certainly not a uniform block but I think the way of writing e-mails should be similar to get a favourable response.

I previously sent e-mails that were somewhat generic and was unsuccessful in finding an advisor.

I want to know how I should read the papers of profs I want to work with and write about them in the e-mail so that they are convinced that I have done my work and this is not a spam mail.

I thought about reading the paper of a professor whom I wanted to work with. I could read only 1 paper (16 pages) in 1 month (I am doing some courses in math also), although I understand the paper but I think this is not a feasible process as by this process I will be able to mail only 3 professors by February. I mailed him and he had already committed to another student for next year. The papers I read for masters thesis were also quite hard and it took me 4 months to read 3 papers because I had to read other papers also as they used results from other papers also.

So, for other professors I am thinking of reading Abstract, Introduction, Notations section completely, then very briefly seeing other sections (mainly headings) and then reading conclusion section for 2 papers. Is this strategy fine?

But the problem is that in this way I can't write that I have read those papers as that's a lie and if they asked anything from which I have not studied they it will lead to a really bad impression. So, if I just write that my interest align with them then it will be a generic and useless statement. So, how should I phrase the statement when I am reading only what I mentioned?

Also, if you have better strategy on how should I convince them that my interests align with their work and I am a good candidate kindly tell me that also.

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  • @Buffy how? I don't think so.
    – user135061
    Oct 28, 2021 at 13:24
  • If you are unfamiliar with their work (have not read their papers) how are you selecting them as potential supervisors? That choice is very important. For context, I have never emailed someone to work with them or study under them without having read multiple articles they have written, as well as their research pages etc.
    – The_Tams
    Oct 28, 2021 at 14:09
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    There may be a confusion in the language here. You write: "writing cold e-mails which were not replied", and then later: "I came to know that the mails were cold". But the phrase "cold emailing" only means that you send an email out of the blue to someone who you never met before. It says nothing about the tone, or warmth, of the message itself. All the occurrences of "cold" in the linked question refer to this meaning of "cold emailing" as sending an unannounced message to someone who doesn't know you.
    – user116675
    Oct 28, 2021 at 14:27
  • @The_Tams I saw their webpages and titles of their research papers to know if the work in my specialization or not.
    – user135061
    Oct 28, 2021 at 16:30
  • I am not sure whether I understand the meaning of the blockquotes in your question. Moreover I do not think that I fully understand what exactly you are asking.
    – Christian
    Oct 28, 2021 at 16:32

2 Answers 2

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+50

This answer is particular to pure math.

I second most of what Alexander Woo says; indeed as a prospective advisor, I would not expect an applicant to read my papers in any amount of details prior to the application.

Rationale: I understand you are probably applying in many places, with limited chances of success in any particular one. Therefore, the time you have spent reading my papers is anyway negligible on the time scale of a Ph. D. project, so, heaving read my papers does not really make you a more qualified candidate.

We all know that in math, to read something in detail requires a lot of time and effort. Also, papers are written for experts who know background, understand their context and so on, they all have different places in the literature and varying degrees of importance. So, just starting to read a random one of them is not the wisest time investment from the objective point of view. A starting Ph.D. student of mine may benefit more e.g. from reading lecture notes or seminal papers by other people than my own most recent paper. To require someone to read and understand them to apply for a Ph. D. with me is just an unreasonable waste of their time. If anything, browsing abstracts and introductions of several papers will give you a much better understanding of the research of a particular person than reading one of their paper in detail.

It will be clear that you have read my papers only because you decided to apply, and there is no way you can phrase the short initial e-mail so that I can reliably discriminate between someone who really read it and someone who only browsed the title and abstract. Plus, I don't really care, as once again it only speaks to your job search strategy and not your qualifications.

What does speak to your qualifications is prior exposure to the relevant field. If I am convinced of that you have such an exposure that gives you a real head-start, then it is a big plus for your application. So you better focus on e.g. your master thesis topic and courses you have taken in the relevant area, or what you self-studied. If you can then signal that you understand, very broadly, your potential advisor's research area and how it is related to what you have done before, that's already very good.

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  • can you please tell in which country you are professor?
    – user135061
    Dec 29, 2021 at 11:26
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I think you are approaching this question from the wrong angle. You're worrying about appearances rather than any actual needs.

There are reasons completely outside of the application process for you to read a prospective advisor's papers. One is because you are actually interested in the contents of the papers. The second - hopefully a reason on top of the first, not a reason by itself - is for you to learn if your interests are compatible with those of the prospective advisor.

A prospective advisor doesn't actually care if you have read their papers. What they care about is if any of the reasons in the above paragraph apply, and your reading their papers is a signal about those reasons, not valuable in and of itself. Now you could "lie" by giving this signal without the underlying justification for the signal actually holding, but then you risk going into a PhD that you actually have no interest in.

Now, this situation is a problem in pure maths, because the subject has gotten so specialized with so much background around any problem that most papers take a lot of effort to read. Probably a majority of people who finish PhDs nowadays don't really understand the full context of their own dissertations, because they haven't had the time to learn it at their pace of learning. (It's a by now classical joke that, for the average dissertation, only one person understands the contents, only one person cares about the contents, and they are not the same person.) That means, realistically, you have to find some other way to find out about, and signal, your interest in a prospective advisor's research other than by reading their papers, and a good Masters student might simply not have enough background to make a good decision for themselves.

(But you might want to reconsider doing a PhD. The job market is terrible. Only people who are amazeballs brilliant are getting jobs in developed countries.)

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  • So, how should I prove that our interests really align?
    – user135061
    Dec 22, 2021 at 18:55
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    I think your problem is most likely that your application is not strong enough. Professors in pure mathematics don't generally expect that their PhD students come in understanding specifically what their research is about. Dec 22, 2021 at 21:28
  • Can you please tell how you are sure about this:"A prospective advisor doesn't actually care if you have read their papers" ?
    – user135061
    Dec 23, 2021 at 6:09
  • Can you please give a reply if you have some time to spare?
    – user135061
    Dec 26, 2021 at 12:59
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    I'm a prospective advisor, and I certainly don't expect students starting work with me to even be able to read my papers with any level of understanding. Dec 27, 2021 at 21:14

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