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I'm a 4th year physics major from India. My degree is a dual one - 5 years and both Bachelor's and Master's. I want to take up theoretical physics in the future and pursue a PhD after I graduate - around 1.5 years from now.

I am a decent student with a somewhat decent CGPA. My undergrad research experience was mostly carried out at my home institution and a couple other places I visited during the summer - both in India. I presented some of our work at an international conference this year (albeit online since it was a question of funds that I didn't have) and another of my work is currently on the arXiv while me and my supervisor look for journals. My summer experiences were more passive - one was a basic reading project and the other involved some work but nothing too novel.

I am inclined to look for a PhD outside of India and convincing potential advisors is a big thing, of course, along with compatibility with said advisor. I was wondering if I should email potential advisors in places abroad to ask for a summer opportunity. The way it seems to me, it would be a good way to convince them and it would give me a good idea of how compatible I am with them. Even if I do not finally pursue a PhD with them, it nevertheless counts for a good experience and is good networking. Of course, I'm going to apply to the international summer programmes as well but they tend to be very selective and there can be a clash of timings.

This is especially important because I'll complete my Master's as well when I graduate - as far as I know, places in the US or Canada do not actually have a direct PhD program and one needs to spend the first 2 years taking courses. I was looking at pure research institutes like Perimeter - it doesn't actually mention a lot about its PhD program except that you've to convince a professor and manage to get into one of the affiliated institutes and qualify for their personal criteria for a PhD as well but I've seen it being mentioned that Perimeter prefers students if they've gone through their 1 year Master's program. In case that is true, having a summer experience with one of the professors may also help since I don't think I'm going to apply for another Master's program, especially since I'll need to undertake two years of courses again if I get into a PhD there. In Europe, I'd guess such an experience would definitely give me an edge since they have mostly direct PhD programs but if I'm not wrong, they don't have a lot of vacancies or funds to support summer students - so unless I do secure funding from international programs, it'll be for naught.

The cons to this are that I don't know if mailing people like this is even common or looked upon favorably. Then there is the question of funds. I'm also not sure what to say to a professor with whom I manage to spend the summer but decide not to do my PhD. Finally, I'm aware that getting a reply, and a positive one at that, from such mails is very difficult - I've mailed a lot of professors (even at my home institution) over the last 3 years and haven't really gotten a lot of affirmative replies.

So, I would like to ask if this is a feasible option to look at or not and any advice for the same.

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You are more likely to be successful in securing a research opportunity through funded summer research fellowships rather than emailing professors out of the blue. Some funded research opportunities I know about:

  1. DAAD Working Internships in Science and Engineering (WISE) program (Germany)

  2. Caltech Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) program (Caltech, USA)

  3. MITACS Globalink Research Internship (Canada)

Nevertheless, if you do decide to email professors, check with your current supervisor if they know the professors you are interested to work with. An email from your supervisor recommending you is likely to be taken more seriously than you directly emailing the professor. It's also a good idea to have a conversation with your supervisor, if you feel comfortable enough, about your area of interest and future plans, because they know more, and can provide you with good recommendations.

If this is also not feasible, then email only those professors whose work genuinely interests you and with whom you see yourself working. Send a succinct email talking about what you like about their work, and how your past experiences are relevant and useful. Do NOT send no-effort emails with the intention of casting a wide net, you will not get a response.

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  • Thanks for the advice! Unfortunately, our institute recently started their undergrad program (they've had a PhD program for a long time), and they aren't yet eligible for either DAAD or MITACS (apparently the latter will not register any more institutions from India). I will definitely ask my supervisor if I decide to mail people though.
    – ShKol
    Sep 12, 2023 at 13:29
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    Sorry to hear that those programs won't work. There is still the SURF program, and many universities and research institutes have info about summer internships on their website. Be sure to check them out as well.
    – justauser
    Sep 13, 2023 at 5:28

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