PhD hunting is not an easy task. I have to search a Phd position on several PhD portals and social media groups. For each application, they ask to write some sort of research proposal, motivation letter or statement of purposes. Apart from research proposal, other essays can be easily managed because they need a little editing w.r.t. the university, country, research group etc. However, I am not sure how to write so many research proposals for many PhD positions that are available. Each supervisor or a research group differ. How can I read papers in those fields and propose something new. Most often, during Phd, students don't really work on what they write in their PhD application proposal. Is the system broken? I wonder if the high IQ students really want to do this boring (apologies) stuff? Best I can do is to prepare one proposal in 3-4 days in a research field. If a student takes help from ChatGPT or senior researchers in that field, is this a fair game?


2 Answers 2


The places that are keen on very group-specific research proposals tend to be places where PhD students are admitted by specific professors for specific projects (as opposed to the North American model where students get admitted to a PhD school and find their advisor afterwards).

Is the system broken? I wonder if the high IQ students really want to do this boring (apologies) stuff?

It absolutely makes sense to ask for personalised research statements in this context. Speaking as a PhD advisor, we generally are not looking for the abstractly "smartest" students, but the ones that do not find reading and thinking about our research boring.

We also generally do not consider it a problem if our model disincentives scattershot applications, where the same student applies to 25 different positions - we would much rather have everybody apply to the 3 - 5 positions that they actually are interested in and qualified for. Generally speaking, at least here in Sweden and in applied computer science, it is not extremely competitive to find a PhD position as long as you are actually qualified - I would say, for any of my positions I never had more than 3 candidates that I seriously considered. In that sense, I do not believe that the sometimes-read conventional wisdom that you need to apply to dozens or hundreds of posts to have a chance applies in our system.

If a student takes help from ChatGPT or senior researchers in that field, is this a fair game?

No, but (at least for the ChatGPT part) I doubt it would help. ChatGPT is great at producing nice-sounding but uninteresting "fluff", which is exactly the kind of thing we are generally not looking for.


While I can appreciate the advantages of tailoring a research proposal to the existing focus of a research group, you should consider taking the alternative approach of developing a few potential research proposals that are interesting to you and then using one or all of these for all your applications. This would limit the volume of research ideas you need to conceive, which would allow you to put more time and effort into each one. It would also mitigate against the risk that you will end up being accepted to a PhD candidature based on a topic that you find uninteresting.

For a PhD candidature, the supervisor is teaching a lot of basic research and writing skills, so it is usually the case that a panel can handle supervision effectively even if the topic is a bit out of their specialist area. Thus, it is not necessarily a problem if your research proposal is outside the bounds of the existing research interests of the department. (Others may chime in with dissent if they think I'm being naive.)

As a secondary matter, if you decide to be in academia/research in the long-term, you are not going to be harmed by having too many research ideas developed. Even if only one of these gets used for your PhD topic, the rest can stay on the shelf for now but you can come back to them as future research topics when you have time. At worst, even if you never get around to them, you will have some ideas that you can throw to your own PhD students later in your career.

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