Pleas forgive me if I am at the wrong place as I am asking on behalf of a friend from his account and I don't have much experience in higher education.

So here's the story. My friend went to university with me for engineering. He flunked classes and was like at the bottom of the class for first 2 years with mostly Bs. In his junior year, he got serious after talking to one of his professor and started working on the subjects he ignored before. He started getting grades in his 6th semester and was getting all As. In his final semester, he decided to go for research but knew that since his grade was 3.32, he won't get into a good university. So he planned it out and worked for 1 year and then went for MS at a public university in the US.

Now I know he worked really really hard as he audited a class on differential equations to build his fundamentals along with the regular classes. After first year, his grades stood at 3.9 with A in all classes except one. After his first year, he joined a lab as volunteer to get some research experience. The work was good and he was enjoying it. Now sometime in May end week, he was recommended for a paid position in the lab for the fall 2023 semester. During his interview he disclosed that he wants to go for PhD and although he was hired, the lab director told him that he will not get a single admission if he doesn't have any publication before applying.

He started working around the clock. The only relevant conference he can aim for has its deadline in September and he is saying he is sure that he won't be able to make the deadline as research is new for him and his the lab director is refining problem statement again and again.

I know him for 7 years now. He is one of the best guy I can ask as a friend and it breaks my heart seeing him so depressed. Last week around he went for a free counselling session. I am asking him to take a break but he says that it already is impossible to finish things on time.

I started reading online about PhD admissions and understood that one has to show his research potential. I would really really appreciate if someone could help me with this.

  • "he was recommended for officially joining the lab" do you mean a paid position?
    – EarlGrey
    Commented Jun 23, 2023 at 12:25
  • @EarlGrey Yes, he was volunteering with a PhD student in that lab. Now he got a paid position for 6 months. Commented Jun 23, 2023 at 12:50

2 Answers 2


First the great thing: you do not mention anybody saying anything about his GPA or whatever marks: so it is of no relevance now, the past is past.

Let's start being pessimistic and unnecessarily demotivated:

the lab director told him that he will not get a single admission if he doesn't have any publication before applying

looks like a crap advise, unnecesarilly putting stress on a person.

Or it may simply mean "stay with us, you will be co-author of some publication and then you will have a potentially good CV to apply for a PhD position".

But I would be Looking at the bright side of thing, they gave him the lab position, so your friend can take his time and work toward a publication (maybe not on his own). He may be a co-author, or even a first author, if he has some idea on how to interpret the data, or how to collect the data, or to find out valuable informations for data being "discarded".

Your friend is very lucky because he is already doing things that a PhD would do (i.e. working as a lab technician) without the expectations they would have from a PhD (work at least 8 hours a day, 7 days a week as a lab technician and please also do some teaching assitant for this course and do not forget about working towards your PhD).

Even the part:

he won't be able to make the deadline as research is new for him and his the lab director is refining problem statement again and again.

is fully belonging to a PhD's life, constant running with an "unsatisfied" advisor it is what PhD life is but your friend can at any moment step out of this and say he is not ready, no one is forcing him to attend the conference, it's his own decision.

I have a gut feeling that after 3-4 years in the lab either he will go through a smooth PhD with the current lab director or he will have enough understanding of how lab research and PhD works to find his own path through (or outside) the academia.

  • I understand. But the position was offered until the end of this year and the PhD applications are usually due in December. What can he do to prepare himself to get a good admit? Again I apologize if I am not able to understand what you are implying as I have almost 0 knowledge about this. Commented Jun 23, 2023 at 12:53
  • To puit it shortly: with this 6-months contract he has been offered a sip of PhD's life: poor paid, a lot of lab work, some abstruse deadline to present some undefined research, the pending threat of the end of the expiring contract. If your friend manages to survive and he likes enough the positive aspects, then he is ready to pursue a PhD. If not, it is time for him to reassess what he though research life is and what actually really is. He may not see it, but he is extremely lucky. He is getting a 6-month paid trial version, with the non-zero chance of extending it into a PhD position.
    – EarlGrey
    Commented Jun 23, 2023 at 13:06

First things first: your friend should familiarize him/herself with the graduate school admissions process, because they seem to be making some unfounded assumptions.

Admissions criteria vary greatly among schools, but most candidates need to be accepted (1) at the administrative level, say, by the "Faculty of Arts and Sciences" or the "School of Engineering" or whatever administrative structure exists; and (2) at the lab/PI/research group level. At some universities, all admissions are at the admin level (e.g. a committee made up of professors and admins), then professors pick students from those admitted. At the other end are universities where individual professors admit students directly into their labs/groups, and the admin just rubber stamps their decision. Most universities have an admissions process that is somewhere in between.

What this diversity of admissions process means is that there are as many criteria for admissions as there are admissions committees and professors. Some professors might only want students who have a proven publication record, for example, first-author publications. Others just need expendable cheap workers to run experiments, and will admit any warm body. I know of a professor whose only criterion for admissions is that the person be a young white thin woman. But in general, professors and institutions want students with proven intellectual potential and discipline (= good GPA and GRE), who know what they are getting into (= research experience), and who are easy to get along with (= can manage an in-person interview.) There are no set criteria or cutoffs, like having a GPA above certain threshold or certain number of research hours or publications. It is absolutely not true that you can't get admitted to a graduate program without publications.

Your friend is already doing research, so he presumably has a lot to talk about: the process or refining a research idea/project, research techniques he learned while working at the lab, and presumably some research ideas of his own. This means that he should be able to talk intelligibly with prospective advisors about possible projects. You also mention that he has been working "around the clock" to please his advisor based on vague promises, which shows he is primed for exploitation. He will fit right-in as a PhD student.

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