20

I will be applying for PhD positions towards the end of this year and maybe early 2023. My query is specifically about cold emailing professors in Europe about possible PhD positions. Until now, I have sent out a few ~10 emails to some professors in the field I am interested in. The general format of these emails is

  1. Who I am, and my qualifications
  2. Their general area of work, and mentioning some publications/works that I found interesting
  3. My interests
  4. Questions about their research projects, and open positions.

I can't make a lot of changes to the first 1st and 4th, but I do make very significant changes to the 2nd one, and maybe a few to the 3rd to appropriately highlight my own research that relates to the professors'.

Now I recently came across a post here that linked to a BlogSpot article on how this kind of a format with "it claims to have read the recipient's work in detail, then goes on to profess an interest in a range of topics none of which related to anything I know about" are considered to be off-putting and are instantly deleted (it also doesn't help that the post talks about Indian students, and I also happen to be Indian).

The problem is...what am I supposed to do? I do need to email quite a few professors asking for PhD positions (a lot of them might know each other, but I try to not mail the same professor in the same department). And from my perspective, I am not mass emailing.

I have deliberately chosen these professors after a somewhat careful exploration of the people out there. The content about my details and interests can't change, and my queries about positions doesn't change, so the format invariably ends up looking almost the same from mail to mail. I do not have enough time either to draft different formats that talk about the same things in different words.

The only changes I make are what interests me about their work, and I can't (maybe I can) go through 10s of their papers and read them in detail to concisely summarise them in my email so that it doesn't sound like a generic email. I generally read the abstracts and end up saying something like "I was interested by your work in their field of work and especially your paper on (name of their paper)".

So my questions are:

  1. Is this format generically ignored by professors and instantly deleted?
  2. Could you suggest any changes to the format that might help?
  3. Does emailing multiple professors in the same field, who know each other and maybe talk to each other, count as mass emailing?
  4. What should be the approximate contents of my 2nd section?

That BlogSpot post has me scared that I might have upset certain professors whose research I really do like, and create an impression of a desperate candidate.

8
  • 17
    Cold emailing is usually a waste of effort.
    – Buffy
    Oct 1, 2022 at 13:14
  • 35
    Please, do not use this approach to contact potential supervisors in Europe, nor indeed anywhere. Do your research. Make a list of 5-10 potential supervisors. Evaluate them and make a short list of 3-5 people. Write individual emails to each of them. Proofread. Re-read. Then send. Good luck. Oct 1, 2022 at 13:32
  • 10
    At risk of sounding prejudice or stereotyping, id like to maybe comment since you mentioned that you are indian that the tone of your email can maybe make a difference. Just in my experience in grad school people from india sometimes used what came across as extremely formal greetings and sign offs in their email such as “respected prof X and ending with “thanking you, X”. And generally using overly flattering language in body of email. I think what the answer by Leitix said is good, that less is more. Over formal language can make it seem more like you are buttering them up and insincere
    – user74671
    Oct 1, 2022 at 21:49
  • 10
    Your answer is in another castle. You need to apply to open positions, not send unsolicited emails. Probably via an application form, maybe by emailing an email address listed on the job ad, with reference to the job ad.
    – Clumsy cat
    Oct 2, 2022 at 5:59
  • 1
    @Clumsycat Please write that in an answer rather than a comment. Oct 2, 2022 at 7:09

5 Answers 5

45

As somebody who has received quite a few of these emails in their lifetime (most clearly mass mailings, but occasionally also from people who seemed genuinely interested in my work), I would say your "format" is about as good as it can get (assuming that your 4 parts are a sentence or a short paragraph each, at most). The distinction between "mass emailing" and "genuinely interested" is whether these few sentences demonstrate that the candidate has read my work (at least a few of the newer pieces) and shows some clear understanding of it.

Note that this entails a lot more than randomly inserting "my lifelong dream was studying ..insert word frequently mentioned in my paper titles..", and, at least for me personally, less is often more - saying "I'm interested in X, and I like that you often use approach Y to study X" comes across a lot more authentic than "X is the most important topic of our time, and I need to study it using Y under the guidance of a famous professor ... blablabla".

However, even for the ones that seemed like they generally cared for my work, my answer always is a polite variation of "I'm sorry, I can't help you". In my university, and in most places in the Western world I believe, we do not have the option to accept students arbitrarily into the PhD program of our universities. There is a process, and it needs to be followed.

In my university in Sweden, each PhD student is an employee, and hirings on these positions need to happen through open calls. In other universities / countries, the PhD school might organize central admission rounds. In any way, it rarely is the case that professors even have the option to read your email, get excited, and then directly offer you a position (the only exception I am aware of are the German-speaking countries, where this is indeed possible).

If you are applying for PhD positions, here is what you should do:

  • Understand that Europe is a heterogeneous region, and different countries, sometimes different universities, have very different customs when it comes to how students enter PhD programs.
  • Decide which countries are most interesting to you, and find out how things work there. Most of this stuff isn't exactly secret, there are plenty of descriptions on the Internet if you know what to look for. Or you can ask - to be frank I am much more likely to answer an email that is asking for how one becomes a PhD student at my university in general than an email "application" of any form.
  • Adapt your approach to your target countries / universities. For instance, should you decide to apply in Sweden you can stop all your attempts to email people. Instead, you need to make sure to be registered to the right job portals or subscribe to the recruiting sites of the universities that interest you, and then you can simply apply for a project / position that is relevant to you. You'd still need to do your research and write a customized application, but at least then you know that there actually is a job.
8
  • 9
    Great answer! But please be aware that in Germany not all universities offer doctorates. It is a waste of everyone's time to write to many people at UAS, for example. Not all, so you must do your research. Also, calling a woman 'Sir' will trigger the delete button very fast. Oct 2, 2022 at 0:22
  • 2
    There are cases where the standard process is not followed when hiring a PhD student, but in all cases I am aware of, the student and the professor already knew each other, e.g. through thesis work in a previous study. Oct 2, 2022 at 22:46
  • 3
    Without intending to contradict your advice: it is not uncommon in Norway and Germany that a professor has a favourite candidate, and even if they can't directly affect the hiring decision they can at least help the candidate target the application to maximize chance of success, which can well make the difference. (I've heard in Sweden the process is particularly bureaucratic, so maybe not there – though on paper it seems similar enough to Norway.) As Jordi Vermeulen said, this happens most often with a known master student, but can also begin with a particularly convincing cold call. Oct 2, 2022 at 23:28
  • @leftaroundabout I don't disagree with that, but that really doesn't help a foreign candidate with no existing connections. Your chances to excite somebody with a well-written email sufficiently to circumvent processes and/or create a position for you are 0+epsilon%. Not worth going through the hassle of even writing these emails. OP's best chances are going through the process - in fact, at least the Swedish processes are defined precisely so that candidates with no prior connections get a fair shot.
    – xLeitix
    Oct 3, 2022 at 7:33
  • 3
    In the UK, very often a department won't even consider your application unless you have a potential supervisor whom you know is willing to supervise you. It's quite often stipulated to be the case when giving advice on applications.
    – user163276
    Oct 3, 2022 at 13:56
16

I used to get quite a few such emails. They were long and detailed and immediately trashed without reply. It was obvious that the senders weren't really interested in what I do.

First, apply to those who have already expressed an interest, say on their web pages, that they are interested in accepting students. Make a detailed and specific reply only to those people. They will respond.

For other that you find, and that you would truly like to work with because you have seen their work and you have an interest in that subfield, send a very short and easy to reply to mail...

Professor X: Are you currently accepting doctoral students or likely to in the near future? If so, I have some background and a lot of interest in <topic> and might make a good fit. If you are interested, I'm happy to send more information.

A note like that can be read in a few seconds and would be more likely to be responded to immediately.

But make sure you do your homework first, so that you aren't just "blowing smoke" about your background and interest.

1
  • Sorry for confirming your edit - I don't feel right editing a much more experienced editor having only attained this "status" yesterday ! - but maybe I was the only one available online on a Sunday afternoon. Only corrected a couple of OP typos and confirmed your corrs.
    – Trunk
    Oct 3, 2022 at 23:16
12

What are you trying to achieve? If your goal is to get an offer for a PhD position which suits your skills and matches your goals and expectations, you need to spend more time researching each potential lab/PI before submitting your application. This means writing fewer applications, not more.

If your goal is simply to contact more Profs with minimal effort - this is mass emailing. As Buffy correctly mentioned, this is a waste of effort on your part --- best Profs receive such messages by the dozen and will quickly ignore them. You will be left with subpar options, which is probably the opposite of what you are trying to achieve.

2
  • 1
    My goal is to convince the said professor of my good enough candidacy and ask about any possible positions. The places I am trying to apply, usually require an agreement with a prospective supervisor before the applications are filled out. So I need to send out emails asking for them. The problem is, I'm unsure if the effort I am putting in is enough or in the right direction. Could you elaborate more on what you mean by "more time researching a PI"? and how could I demonstrate my effort in an email? (also I need to email more, cause last time I didn't and got rejections from everywhere) Oct 1, 2022 at 13:40
  • 4
    Collect enough information about your potential Profs to make a short list of 3-5 people you really want to work with. When you have a short list, white them individual emails and make yourself available for a zoom call to discuss details. Oct 1, 2022 at 13:45
8

Perhaps this is not satisfying as answer, but, when asking "how to" do a thing that is doomed, or even sometimes viewed as obnoxious, ... the genuine answer is that you can't do it that way.

Yes, this appears to be a Catch-22/paradox, namely, that students cannot connect with the people who (it seems) are exactly those they need to connect with.

But, what it is, really, is that there is no short-cut. In most cases, there will be a requirement of "open-ness" in applications for grad school department-wide (as in the U.S. these days), or other versions of "open-ness/fairness" in UK and EU.

This tends to mean that applicants have to be considered, uniformly, in the pool of all applicants. Anything jumping outside the system is not legit.

(Indeed, not so long ago, the only really successful "applications" did EXACTLY step outside the system... but this was/is reasonably interpreted as bias. I agree.)

4

A1. Generally cold calling is doomed unless you're calling a graduate school that has a known commitment to the field of research you want to pursue. And that's assuming they have no formal application process and that your letter is very well-written, i.e. both from the heart and mind. Naturally there is also the matter of funding in the case of a student from overseas - I'm assuming that you do not have means to fund your own PhD and pay the university's exorbitant overseas fees. Any letter of application from an overseas student will have to discuss and, if possible, provide an answer to the question of funding the studentship.

A2. I think parts 2 and 3 of your format can be melded as you would be more likely to succeed in the area of your major interests (since you'd work harder at it) than elsewhere. And there is no sense in just applying for a PhD in some topic just because it's obtainable to you and serves a purely existential purpose: a PhD programme will sort the committed from the uncommitted very quickly. You may have more than one interest. If so state them in order of preference and if there is a topic within which they overlap and it's a plausible and feasible project, consider mentioning this in passing but do not posit this as a research proposal - leave this to the professor.

Do NOT patronize senior researchers on their publications. And do not evaluate research approaches - you are too young to do this for senior people. Talk about the approaches to a topic that you feel/think are "interesting", providing your reasons. In some topics you may not have such reasons but may still feel that the topic is so important scientifically and/or socio-economically that any plausible approach to its development is justifiable: I see nothing wrong in saying this - honesty is a virtue after all - but do not say it if you don't really feel it.

The last part of your letter must briefly cover funding. If you have applied or intend to apply for an Indian government overseas studentship, British Council fellowship, etc then you should say so. If you have no immediate prospect of getting such a support and would be willing to work as a Research Assistant while working on a PhD based on your day work plus additional work evenings/weekends then you have to state that.

But in all you write you must not lose your self-respect or dignity. Don't plead, beg or whine between the lines of your email or letter. Don't inflate your CV or claim an interest in something that you honestly do not feel. You are making a reasonable application. Write it in the tone of someone who (modestly) believes in their own professional worth but understands that it is the graduate school's prerogative to decide.

A3. Answer obvious. Write to Dean of Postgraduate Studies in that Graduate School and he/she will either send you formal application forms or else refer the letter to either or both.

A4. Already largely covered in A2 answer.

But make your letter brief and write only in general terms to your own interests. You can reference a separate document where you elaborate on your own perspective on the research topic and associated views as described in A2 above.

Sign the letter Yours Faithfully, (Your Name).

2
  • I agree with much of this answer, but the last line rings strangely to me. I have never sent or received a letter signed Yours Faithfully. Sincerely is much more common in my experience.
    – 2cents
    Oct 4, 2022 at 15:20
  • @2cents Over here (North Atlantic drift, IRL/UK) it is said that when the gender of the addressee is unknown, you should sign yourself as Yours Faithfully. A woman in an office in Birmingham told me that one summer day when she was doing my CV and cover letter. It may well be different in USA/CAN or other continents
    – Trunk
    Oct 6, 2022 at 10:42

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .