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I am looking to apply for a PhD position at a UK university but I desperately feel I am in a catch 22 situation. What I've read online, is that supervisors are very busy and receive many such emails so before contacting a PhD supervisor, I need to get familiar with their research.

I contacted several supervisors, becoming familiar with their research beforehand. One had no PhD students and said he does not take PhD students. Another had 2 and said he's not looking to take more. Another supervisor with 5 students said he's at maximum capacity. The picture continues.

It takes me awhile to become familiar with a supervisor's research. In addition, it is not like I don't have anything else to do and I feel I am shooting in the dark here.

I am an experienced professional, I've got a good level of academic knowledge and commercial experience, an undergrad from the top university in the country and I am looking to self finance a PhD - in effect to pay to work. I don't understand why it's so hard.

Do you have any advice for experienced professionals applying for a PhD?

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    It's hard because a lot of people want to get a PhD, and because it's a lot of work to properly mentor a PhD student. That means a battle for limited advising resources. Self-funding isn't much of a carrot to offer, and I do hope you've considered the advice on one of your previous questions that a PhD is typically expected to be a full-time commitment.
    – Bryan Krause
    Aug 22, 2023 at 19:53
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    Building on what @BryanKrause says: prospective supervisors may be seeing red flags. Self-funded -> will you run out of money and give up? While working -> Will you make progress? Even if you do, how long will it take? Are you still going to be my problem a decade from now? From the supervisor's perspective, it's a buyers' market, and "sorry, full" is an easy excuse.
    – avid
    Aug 23, 2023 at 7:49
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    Which field are you interested in going into?
    – Joe
    Aug 23, 2023 at 18:33
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    @avid I am an adult, I can budget. I will not run out of money and it is in my self-preservation interest not to run out of money so I won't be applying of there was a chance of this happening. Will I make progress - I'm 35 years old, I come with experience and habits that should make making progress more likely than a 21 year old undergrad.
    – s5s
    Aug 24, 2023 at 21:53
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    @s5s Sure. But a prospective supervisor knows nothing about you specifically. You are just an unfamiliar risk profile. Perhaps the key point is this: PhD students are - on average - fairly neutral in terms of their benefit to the supervisor. So the fact that you would be a 'free' PhD student for someone is not as big a selling point as you might think.
    – avid
    Aug 25, 2023 at 9:42

8 Answers 8

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Further to @Cheery's sound advice: In the UK, academics who do have places available for PhD students often publicly advertise the fact. One common location for such advertisements is <jobs.ac.uk>, more specifically https://www.jobs.ac.uk/search/phds.

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    +1 Also a lot of universities have fixed application cycles for new PhD students, even if self funded. This is mainly for organizational reasons, as often this involves more than one person dealing with the application. At my institution this deadline is typically in January, for an October start (if accepted) and you must apply through the official channels. Aug 24, 2023 at 14:22
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In the UK, a very large portion of PhDs (particularly externally funded ones) are on a reasonably strict schedule, and must be externally advertised and filled through a (semi-)formal recruitment process. So it's relatively uncommon for a supervisor to have a funded PhD in their back pocket that they could offer to a cold-calling candidate.

Instead, it's worth looking at advertisements - on university websites, Jobs.ac.uk and particularly FindAPhD.com for positions which are coming up. This will at least guarantee that the potential supervisors both have an interest in supervising, and the resources to do so. You should also bear in mind timelines - most PhDs are aimed to roughly align to the academic year, so starting September-October, and will have already recruited for the upcoming round.

(This advice may be less relevant in some fields where funding and projects are more student-led, as in some areas in the humanities.)

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    If I understand the question correctly, the questioner can fund themselves and doesn't need funding. When I was in the UK (Statistics) I could take on self funded cold-calling PhD students that fulfilled certain minimum requirements, and occasionally I did, if I found them promising after some exchange. Aug 22, 2023 at 22:54
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    Ah, you're quite right, I misread that bit of the question. That makes it a bit more surprising they're having such difficulties, but it does mean the above is only indirectly useful then. Job listings can still give pointers to people who are actively recruiting, even if you don't need that particular job. Aug 23, 2023 at 8:18
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    The (home) fees for a PhD in the UK are only about ~£5000 pounds a year. (If you are an overseas student, then all bets ar off.) Depending on the subject, that might not even meet costs. It also doesn't generate any more time which is what most supervisors lack. Aug 24, 2023 at 14:12
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I know that academia sometimes resembles a closed union shop: you need to be a union member to get a job, but you can only get membership in the union through having a job in the first place.

What you describe is normal. It is common for professors to have a full lab, not be taking students at the moment, etc. It is also common for famous professors to receive many emails from strangers saying things like "My dream is to get a PhD from Prestigious U., would you take me as a grad student?", and answer those emails with "not taking students now."

What you need is a way to narrow down your list of prospective professors to only those that might be taking students, and then to try get an introduction. A few ideas:

  1. Speak with your professors at your undergrad institution, tell them about your academic interests and ask if they know anybody looking for a good graduate student in the subject. If they don't know, ask if they can recommend someone who does.
  2. When you first contact a professor, just say that you have interest in their subject, and if they can recommend any other person in the field who might be looking for graduate students.
  3. Attend a few conferences in the field, and approach people with interesting posters, and introduce yourself as a prospective graduate student. Again, ask if they know anybody who has graduate student openings.

Once you have a reference, write to that person saying that so-and-so said they might have an opening for a graduate student, and that you'd like to learn more about the research they are doing.

Remember that just like in any negotiation, this is a dance. You send feelers out there to see who's hiring students, and professors send feelers through their network asking for students who might be looking for a PhD position. Once the two meet, the professor tells you a bit about the deal, you tell them about your interests and goals. If you both like what you hear, you go on to the next level and visit the lab/research group, etc. And so on.

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    I would also recommend open days. We hold regular open days (organised by research group) for prospective PhD students. Aug 24, 2023 at 14:23
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    1st sentence you said twice the same thing, I think you meant to swap one: "you need a job to become a union member". Aug 24, 2023 at 17:58
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    @MarcGlisse fixed it, thanks
    – Cheery
    Aug 26, 2023 at 15:10
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I am an experienced professional, I've got a good level of academic knowledge and commercial experience, an undergrad from the top university in the country and I am looking to self finance a PhD - in effect to pay to work. I don't understand why it's so hard.

Me neither! And I led a large STEM research school at a top UK university.

Assuming the above in italics is all true, it really should not be hard to find a position, and you should feel no hesitation in contacting academics who evaluated your work in your final year at uni - they may be able to advise on who might be a good fit for you, and willing to take you on.

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    OP finished their MSc 1.5 years ago, so this advice is very good. They will even remember them!
    – Davidmh
    Aug 24, 2023 at 21:22
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As someone that walked away from my PhD despite getting funding from EPSRC and doing the full 3 years, I would like to highlight some alarm bells here. I chose not to submit my thesis.

I have to explain away all the different reasons of why I don't actually have the final PhD when I apply for contracts/jobs but that's actually gone down ok. There is a big threshold in Data Science for candidates to have a PhD and I'm literally having to work in the opposite direction to explain why I, effectively, failed mine. I'm doing ok from this.

My concern here is that you're scatter-gunning to try get a PhD for the sake of it. "Oh, you study flimflams? I can probably get behind that; can I be a student of yours?". There's nothing in your question that suggests you have some burning desire to study a specific thing, and that probably comes across to the academics for someone of your age, and I question the utility of the qualification unless you're looking for a career shift into academia.

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The alarm bells for me at least would be your self funding. You need to expand on this in your contact emails.

How exactly is this going to work, will you have a full time job alongside a full time PhD? This will not be attractive to a supervisor and verges on impossible.

Or does this money already exist? Just the other day I had a request for supervision from a student with funding from the Saudi government, we get a lot of these of varying quality (and I'm not yet a group leader so this one really had not done their research) so you'll need to stand out from them.

Is the money just to cover your fees, or are there other costs involved in the research you're not even aware of? Lab PhDs for example will need bench fees, consumables, and potentially other overheads that the university charges for support staff etc.

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Your situation does indeed sound frustrating, because from your end, it is the ideal scenario. You want to work for free, and you already bring in a set of experiences and a useful background, so why does nobody want you?

Perhaps if I can offer some perspective as to why you may be encountering these issues.

#1 as faculty, I get about 5-10 unsolicited PhD inquiries per week, with 1-2 postdoc ones. Sometimes this just gets overwhelming and admittedly, on days when I get 3-4 of these, and I already have 200+ emails for the day, I will just ignore them, or they slip through the cracks. This is the downside of everyone cold-emailing faculty all the time for positions, it makes you a bit numb to it.

#2 I often find myself at capacity, as do others. Personally, I keep a medium group, but others prefer small groups so your odds are naturally lower to get into one of those.

#3 Are you sure everyone you are emailing is research active and not teaching faculty? The latter will obviously not be taking on doctoral students.

#4 Self-funded can go either way, and some have been burned by poor experiences. It can be an eager self-motivated student that doesn't require salary (which is usually the biggest part of the funding drain, especially in the US where it's about 65K per year for faculty). Alternatively, it can be someone who you cannot rely on. You ask them to do something, but they are on their own dime and their own time. Unreliable group members, even if "Free", are a big drain (space, time, resources, and general frustration for the PI). I have personally only ever delt with the latter, though I certainly hold out hope for the former.

My best advice, as I believe another poster here alluded to is to reach out to contacts from your undergraduate and ask for advice, or help making connections. This may ease some of the apprehension noted in point #4. Alternatively, have you considered attending relevant conferences to network with potential faculty directly? There you can explain your plans and what you can offer in person which will very likely lead to better outcomes.

Good luck!

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Here’s how I did it—though I was (and am) in the US and was already enrolled at the university. I just started taking a fairly broad range of courses that would help me eventually pass the qualifying exams anyway and, more importantly here, struck me as really interesting and exciting to study. In this way I also got to know the faculty members who taught them, and they got to know me.

Unless you must have a relationship with a supervisor locked down before you leave the starting gate, I warmly recommend this approach. The faculty member who eventually became my advisor had by then concluded for himself what my abilities were. And another benefit was that when it eventually came time to enlist the members for my dissertation committee, I had more than enough great choices of individuals who knew me, my work, and the fields to which it was relevant.

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    UK universities do not allow general enrolment, you have to enrole for a specific degree that will dictate what courses you can take Aug 25, 2023 at 20:55
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    That much, anyway, is the same in the U.S. for graduate programs. I was in a computer science program, accepted to work for that Ph.D., and that’s the point when a grad student in the U.S. needs an advisor. It’s only our undergrads—seeking bachelor’s degrees—who can exist without a “major” for even a year or two. (But obviously, if our systems are too different, then my comments can’t be of a whole lot of help.) Aug 25, 2023 at 21:14
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    How is that applicable to someone who is no longer an undergraduate as is the question? If your not an undergraduate you can't take courses without first getting enrolled. Aug 25, 2023 at 21:17
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    Yes, that’s exactly the same here. You must enroll in a Ph.D. program in a specific department. It’s in selecting and taking these graduate-level courses, I’m suggesting, that one can arrange a match with the faculty member to serve as one’s advisor. Myself, I thought I would do my Ph.D. In computer graphics, but in taking courses in combinatorics and graph theory (both important in theoretical computer science), I ended up meshing with my eventual advisor and working in a more mathy topic than many of my fellow comp. sci. students did. Aug 25, 2023 at 21:47
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    In the UK, the expectation is you start with a supervisor from day 1. Thus you need a supervisor to be able to take PhD courses. Aug 25, 2023 at 22:04

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