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I sent an email to a professor to ask for a PhD position for one of his "few listed" projects, in which I am genuinely interested in to pursue my future research career. He responded that he would want to see my academic transcripts, which I provided. Next, he shown interest to talk over Skype and suggested a date and time. He confirmed and sent me one of his publication link and asked me to read it meanwhile and will discuss during meeting.

I want to know what are professor's expectations? What would he want to discuss about already published paper? Is it the methodology or possible extension of the work? Should I try to go in depth about the topic or study techniques? Also what questions should I ask from him in that meeting?

I consider this upcoming meeting as an important step for my PhD position.

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    I don't think anyone here knows what the professor is thinking. I think you probably know the real answer, which is just read the paper and other relevant material as much as you possibly can, make sure you understand all of it and think of some interesting questions about the methodology and study design.
    – user438383
    Commented Jul 14, 2023 at 12:30
  • Thank you @user438383 for your kind reply. Yes you are right about the common answer which is to just read paper and relevant material and understand it. Of course no one knows what actually the professor has in mind but I am asking in hope if some professor can elaborate who tend to send paper to his students or potential students and how does he expect and evaluate them. That would help me at least to be prepared better.
    – Wolfie
    Commented Jul 14, 2023 at 12:41
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    I guess my point is "If you don't know, then prepare as much as you possibly can and you can't go wrong" :)
    – user438383
    Commented Jul 14, 2023 at 12:43
  • Got that @user438383 :) Thank you.
    – Wolfie
    Commented Jul 14, 2023 at 12:45
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    I personally know people doing this in the field of theoretical machine learning (with a lot of math). If the paper is very technical, the reason is simple: be aware that these are the kind of things you're going to do with me. If you're scared, we're probably not a good fit. If you are excited and find these things interesting, then good. And if you can follow the steps, point out critical arguments, spot delicate points, and ask intelligent questions, then great and welcome on board.
    – Bob
    Commented Jul 15, 2023 at 22:31

7 Answers 7

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Don't Overthink This

You're going to have something like a job interview. It will probably be relaxed and informal, but that's what's happening. Among other things, your prospective supervisor is doing you a favor by telling you where the conversation is going start, so you can give yourself a leg up and come prepared. They're also doing themselves a favor by sparing themselves the time and effort of bringing you up to the point where they can talk about what they want to talk about.

No one except that professor can really say what they expect, especially without access to the paper. (I am not asking for a reference to the paper.)

But the professor is considering taking you on, and your task is to start with this paper, and let them mostly guide the conversation while convincing them that you're a good fit for the research group.

So as a baseline, you're expected to read the paper as well as you can. Not the normal skim you might give a casual recommendation, but really read it. If you have any relevant prior experience, they will definitely want to know that. If you think you have skills adjacent that could help, that too. Beyond that-- what interests you? What do you think? What confused you or made you curious? What would you do next?

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There are a few possibilities. One is that the professor wants your assessment about the accuracy of the claims made in the paper and the validity of the methodology.

More likely, perhaps, if this is an interest of the professor and not just a test of applicants, is about your ideas about possible extensions and related work suggested by the paper.

You should give it a critical reading and be able to summarize it succinctly, along with any objections or holes in the arguments made. You should think about possible extensions, but that is a much harder task, especially in some fields.

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  • Yes, "read" in this case means study. Familiarize yourself with the field, research approaches applied to it, relevants hypotheses and so on. Then consider the paper's approach, results and conclusions. In short, get up to speed with this research field and how the professor approaches it. And save the professor the bother of explaining it all to you at interview. That way the professor will be seeing what added value you can bring to his programme.
    – Trunk
    Commented Jul 24, 2023 at 16:23
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A similar situation occurred to me, but when I had to find a supervisor for my master's thesis, who was a professor in another university. After I asked him which were his research lines, he sent me various papers from his lab to read. I don't think anything exceptional is expected here. Most probably, the professor wants you to have a better grip and knowledge of what are the methodologies and general research directions. Read the article carefully, and try to formulate a few questions (e.g. "Why did you use method X instead of method Y, since they are both similar?", or "These results are interesting, it would be nice to do some further research about result X, from a different perspective"). Perhaps the professor wants to extend the research project described in the paper, and wants to see what you think about it.

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    You make an important point that the professor may just want to help bring you up to speed so you can better decide whether to apply.
    – Buffy
    Commented Jul 14, 2023 at 12:49
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    Thanks @Acherontia. That's a nice angle to look from. Really appreciate your feedback.
    – Wolfie
    Commented Jul 14, 2023 at 12:51
  • @Buffy, Indeed. I am pretty much decided to work with this professor for his previous work and research interests.
    – Wolfie
    Commented Jul 14, 2023 at 12:52
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The professor wants you to be able to discuss the contents of his paper in an informed way.

Read it. Do you understand all the terminology? If not, do some research to see if it's just a different word for something you DO understand, or a truly unfamiliar area of study. If the latter, it's not necessarily a deal-breaker, but come clean. 'This isn't a branch of the subject that I've explored yet. Do you think it's relevant to my project?'

If you're comfortable with the topic of the paper, what will you say if asked for an opinion? Are you excited by any of the points, and their relevance to your project? Can you quote other sources that either reinforce or challenge his arguments?

But I said it all in my opening sentence.

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As someone who both had a similar experience with my PhD advisor-to-be, and who has used this for prospective PhD students, I can think a few reasons:

  1. As in Acherontia's answer, they want you to read some of their previous work as a way to inform you about the topic you are applying for. This can be both to give you the opportunity to decide you aren't actually interested, and to help you get started.

  2. Reading papers critically and being able to discuss them is an important part of being an academic, and they want to test that you can do this at a basic level. If this is the goal, then what you need to do to "pass" is to express comments, questions, criticisms, ideas to take the research further, etc., which show that you actually read and thought about the work. (Here there may be some caveats... Asking questions is good, but asking very basic questions which show you are not at all familiar with the field is probably not; likewise, harsh criticism for the basic premises of the research is probably not going to convince the professor to take you on to do more of this kind of research.)

  3. If the PhD position has some room for you to chose the exact path of your project, the advisor may be trying to get some idea of what direction is most interesting to you.

  4. The advisor may just want some framework to talk to you about science, so that they (and you!) can see if you fit together personally.

  5. It's what their PhD advisor asked them to do when they were interviewing, and they don't know any better way to structure an interview with a prospective student.

You haven't put a location tag, but I do suspect that some of these may not hold for every professor in every culture. For what it's worth my experience is in the US and Northern Europe.

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My PhD advisor does the same thing and views it as some kind of interview/test to see if the prospective student would be a good fit for the group. What he always looked for is how well the student understood the paper by going figure by figure and asking them to explain the reported findings. I can't say for sure what your potential supervisor is looking for, but I think if you read the paper and understand their methods and the conclusions they arrived at, you should be good.

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As a professor I might do something similar, the purpose to me would really be to get an idea if the student has a sufficient background to read and understand a research paper in the general area where they will be working. In order to gage the student's understanding I would ask questions about some technical aspects of the paper... however, I wouldn't actually expect a future PhD student to a great idea for future work or to make meaningful criticism on the methodology.

In general I find it really hard to gage whether a prospective student will be any good, and this sounds like a reasonable way of conducting an interview. I would also ask the student to describe some of their previous research or project-type work, and ideally I would also ask them to write something, to get an idea of their writing skills.

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