I was wondering how common it is that advertised PhD positions have actually already been given to internal candidates and if there are any signs indicative of this.

I am currently looking for a PhD position in microbiology and had this happen to me and some friends. I find this rather frustrating. Nothing feels particularly “fair” about having students spend their time and thoughts on submitting an application thinking they stand an honest chance, when really the position has already been promised to someone. My research area is quite specific, so there are by default not that many positions available. Now after a lot of research and patience, I found two positions that fit quite well, but the application periods are only two weeks long and one of them is supposed to start in “only” three months time. Is this a signal that the positions are already taken? I also had a professor tell me this is very common and I should contact potential supervisors directly, but another I actually mailed directly told me to look out for job postings. So what’s the truth here? How many advertisements are actually genuine? And what’s the better approach to land a position: apply to posted vacancies or asked supervisors directly? Also, do I need to write a cover letter for the latter? Seems like a lot of effort for not knowing if there’s even funding available.

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    What field/country?
    – Bryan Krause
    Mar 31, 2023 at 19:28
  • Microbiology/Molecular biology and I am mainly looking for positions in the Scandinavian countries Mar 31, 2023 at 19:37
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    Regarding to "how common?", what answers do you hope for? It happens, but does that mean 5% or 75% of the time? I suspect you're not going to find out a specific number. Mar 31, 2023 at 19:41
  • I don’t expect an accurate number, but was rather hoping for an insight from “the other side”. The professor I talked to made it sound like it’s the default unless it’s a young group or one that is trouble. But this may be a biased opinion because of his way of hiring people. Applying to posted positions was my approach before this conversation. Now I am worried this was the wrong approach and I lost time mailing to professors. I was also wondering if maybe there are indicators such as the length of the application period or how detailed a post is that hint towards a position being taken Mar 31, 2023 at 20:21
  • My personal recommendation is to not base any action on this and not worry too much about it. I have no idea how often it happens but for sure there is a good number of genuine adverts, and I'd be very surprised if there were something like a secret code that could tell you one way or another. You may occasionally waste time but that's just a fact of life. I'd think local knowledge is really the only way to know, and not even that is always reliable, as sometimes there may be baseless rumors, or an internal candidate may unexpectedly jump ship. Mar 31, 2023 at 20:56

2 Answers 2


Generally when a position is "earmarked" then the advertisement is oddly specific as to the wanted expertise etc. Basically to make the candidate fit well and others not. Once you look at a good amount of advertisements you can recognise these. They exist because of public advertisement rules, and in principal if you can fit the slot you could get it, but you'd need to shoot the intended candidate out of the water. If you correspond with the advertiser (the academic contact, not HR) you can mostly get hints as to what is what. Just ask a question, in particular if you need to put in a proposal it is helpful to ask for expectations (in any case). It should be clear enough from the response if there is little point in applying.


Some PhD positions are essentially equivalent to jobs; what you described is common for jobs. Hence, if I win a grant with one or more PhD scholarships, and I so happen to have a good student who did some work for me, then I will allocate one of these scholarships to the student.

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