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I live in an Asian country and completed my master's in Math in June 2020. I want to do a PhD in Europe, but I have had some difficulties in finding a suitable position. I do not believe doing a PhD in my country is a good option due to racism and corruption and related issues.

I have been thinking of writing to professors in Europe whose interests align with mine to discuss the possibility of an internship. This would help me get my foot in the door, and hopefully strengthen my PhD application. However, I don't have funding.

My thought was to send an e-mail that explained my situation (including past hardships, issues in my country, etc.) and providing my CV and master's thesis.

Is this the best way to approach professors in Europe about the possibility of an internship? Is this likely to work out (assuming I am qualified, etc.)?

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  • @Arno Can you please tell how exactly I use the information given in this question?
    – user135061
    Apr 26 at 10:20
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    I expect that visa issues alone would already prevent doing an unpaid internship in Europe for you.
    – Roland
    Apr 27 at 10:24
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    The chance of a paid internship in academia is approximately zero.
    – Roland
    Apr 27 at 14:16
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    @Roland, This does not match my experience. From what I can see in France, some wealthy institutions or groups having flexible grants (e.g., industry projects) can have money available, both for internships (in France these are cheap, e.g., 500 EUR/month and untaxed), and other pre-doctoral temporary positions like salaried internships or a temporary position as a research engineer. This is not the norm but it does exist, and I see people use it for shorter projects with prospective PhD candidates to try out how it goes before starting a PhD.
    – a3nm
    May 6 at 14:44

5 Answers 5

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+100

As other answers have already pointed out: In general you don't. There is really very little formal room for such an appointment in the European system, and from the profs point of view, any resouces (money and/or time) would most likely be wasted on such an endeavour. Sorry that this is not the answer you were looking for, but this is the truth.

However, there are other options. And while I don't know the best options for math, I suspect that some amount of past experience can carry over. What you need to keep in mind is this: You are coming in with a level of competence equivalent to a Masters student (roughly). When I, and most others I think, take on Masters students, it is not because we expect a large amount of research output from them, but rather because it is a part of our teaching obligations. This means that you need another selling point, which in my case has been things like this:

  • Summer student programmes. I have mentored summer students from Google summer of code, and various more local summer student programmes. Here funding is provided by the programme, and any output is thus "bonus". Try to apply for some of those.

  • Find volounteer projects that you can work on, and thus get in contact with professional academics, and work with them. There are many math software packages around, that needs competent contributors with time on their hands. Find something that suits your interests.

  • Apply for those PhDs anyway. Any application you don't send, is a job you certainly will not get. Not only top students get into PhD programmes, especially if you are not extremely selective.

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There is no good way to approach a professor in Europe about the possibility of such an internship because most professors in Europe do not spend their budget or don't have funding for these type of "positions". In most places in Europe, funding for research work is only available for PhD students and higher levels. If you are not yet qualified to start a PhD there are no funded positions, because on that level the norm is that students self-fund or get support from a national funding / stipend program. There are some research / teaching assistant type of jobs aiming at levels before PhD (undergraduate and master students), but to be eligible for these you typically need to be registered at the university as an undergraduate / master student already. "External" applicants cannot be considered for these.

Because in general there is no funding for these type of internships allocated by individual professors, the chance of success with this approach is extremely small; practically I would say it's zero.

A more realistic option I see in your case is to apply for a master study program or exchange program in Europe. If you have good academic qualifications it should not be too difficult to get admitted at a reasonably good university in Europe, and many have English language master programs which take a year or two. Of course you would need to self-fund, but study fees are mostly none to moderate, so you would mostly need to cover your living costs. For that you can then also take one of the student jobs I mentioned above, and a student visa should also allow you to take a side job with a limited number of hours which can offset some living cost.

Once you are in a European study program and you keep up a good academic performance there, chances to get a PhD student position will be much higher.

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While there is no particular problem with asking for an internship position, you probably shouldn't use pity for your situation as a reason. Instead, focus on the positive, especially your qualifications, but including your desire to study in Europe. Even if people feel sorry for your position they still want qualified people.

I can't predict that you will be successful at this because funding is probably a limiting issue. If you have sufficient funds yourself, then an informal arrangement might be possible, allowing you to get some experience.

If you contact anyone blindly, make the initial mail very brief, without flooding the reader with information. Say what you want, indicate your experience, and say that you can provide additional information. I possible, end with a question that might induce some to respond.

But, if you can manage it, an introduction to someone elsewhere by one of your trusted professors is preferable to a blind email from yourself. If a professor asks for help for one of their good students it is harder to ignore the mail. And another person can say things about your situation that don't make it sound like pity.

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  • Ya, I am also tensed about funding.
    – user135061
    Apr 26 at 12:33
  • I have mentioned about my qualifications in detail in CV and SOP. The reason I mentioned here have been written very briefly in SOP. I don't have a funding myself.
    – user135061
    Apr 26 at 12:38
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    I agree with this post and just to add to it, contacting people you haven't met previously can have a very low response rate and an even lower positive response rate, so you may need to email a lot of people (e.g., 30 from a kind of similar personal experience) in order to get a positive response.
    – AudreyL
    Apr 26 at 13:15
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Sadly academics receive many emails from students in similar positions to you. If you go this route (and I agree with previous comments that the response rate will be low since most will not have funding to support you), make sure to personalize your email and make sure it is appropriate for the academic you are emailling.

One particular problem with such emails is that they are often formulaic in nature and have shown very little effort on the writer's part to look into the work that is done within my group. For example, the email will lean on the student's work in the laboratory, whilst they send it to a theoretical group where such experience is less relevant. Alternatively, they will say they are highly passionate in some field e.g. "thermodynamics", but that field is incredible broad and could apply to 100 different groups. Together this tells the academic that the student is mass emailing and thus the level of interest and passion in their work is minimal. The motivation of the student is thus one about "getting out of their home country" as opposed to genuine interest in the work. An academic will likely always pick someone that is interested in the research than isn't.

A personal connection/recommendation from one of your professors would however be better received.

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    Also, often these emails implicitly expect the academic to do quite a bit of work. They have to (help) design a research project that fits into their other projects and they have to at least be involved with acquiring funding. The return of investment for this is very uncertain if you don't know the student at all.
    – Roland
    Apr 28 at 5:14
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To second @a3nm answer, in France if you are doing an internship longer than 2 months you will be paid. Depending on the partners, the duration of the internship, you can have more or less but in any case you will have a minimal salary. If you are at ease with French, you can read this article.

In my opinion, the best approach to do an internship (at least in France but most of other unis have a tab where they post internship/PhD offers) will be to go on the websites of the labs/institutes/unis and look for their opportunities. They usually post internship offers on them, you will have to check if you can apply and then just apply to the specific offers. There are other sites that gather internship or PhD offers such as ABG and most of the time PhD posted there are already funded.

I agree with all the other answers: emails targeting the specific offers, ask about the visas, recommendations, ...

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  • In France, you will get ~500€/month (as a "compensation", not as a "salary"; you will be considered as a student). If you need a visa, you will have to demonstrate that you have more money in your bank account because otherwise they will consider it is not enough to live there and they won't give you the visa. Details: france-visas.gouv.fr/en_US/web/france-visas/student . I believe it might easier to enroll for Master program with the internship at the end of the study year.
    – Noil
    May 11 at 10:47

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