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I contacted a potential supervisor for a PhD at the University of Cambridge via email (PhD was advertised on find a PhD). Surprisingly, the supervisor showed interest in me even after I had sent my CV in a follow-up email. The PhD is competitively funded and he offered to help me with the application process to maximise my chances.
I am really not sure how to evaluate this contact. Is this a typical response that supervisors send to many students in order to get one candidate funded, or is it rather unusual? I am an overseas student so I am currently thinking about applying knowing that my chances are very slim. It would be great to hear from someone who had similar contacts!

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    Why did you contact them if you did not expect them to contact you back? Am I missing something?
    – user126108
    Oct 27, 2023 at 0:57
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    It doesn't mean you are admitted, but your chances went up considerably. Not sure what else there is to say though ...
    – Allure
    Oct 27, 2023 at 5:32
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    Heya, I work at Cambridge. Supervisor attitudes are however not university dependant, people are people. In any case, it looks like that person liked your CV and is willing to give you a hand on getting funding so you join. Stop listening to your impostor síndrome and trying to find excuses to believe it's not you, in particular you, that the supervisor seemed to like. Oct 28, 2023 at 10:58

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To add to the excellent general answer above, I would like to add some UK- and Cambridge-specific contexts.

Most UK PhD funding for international/overseas students is made available on a competitive basis. Across the whole of UK there is simply a much smaller pool of funding designated to students with an international/overseas status compared to 'home'/domestic/UK-based students. As a result, the potential supervisor can rarely decide solely; a multi-stage, committee-based approach is common. Navigating the process (see below) is nearly impossible without a supervisor already interested in you and helping you.

Most universities have set up competitive schemes to make sure that their limited international funding goes to the best international students that they can attract. To help the supervisors + admission tutors (and students), there are extensive lists of international qualifications to help decide whether a student has good qualifications. For example, here is the list from Cambridge: https://www.postgraduate.study.cam.ac.uk/international/international-qualifications Note that these lists are institution-specific so another university may have markedly different criteria and cutoff points. If you are interested in doing a PhD elsewhere in the UK it is worth spending a little time checking the requirements for other universities.

For a good chance at securing PhD funding as an overseas student in internationally well-known universities in the UK, you need to ideally have undergraduate grades a comfortable margin above the standard for a first, which is short for "first class honours degree" in the UK system. The description of the PhD course might make some mention to "minimum requirements at 2.1" which is short for "second class upper honours degree", but ignore that. What the minimum requirements mean is that your application will be rejected immediately if it is not met, but it is far below what would get you through to the interview stage.

Assuming your CV states clearly that you are above the first class standard, and accompanied with a reasonable cover letter or email indicating why you are interested in that area of research, you will likely receive a friendly-toned email to invite you for a preliminary chat/interview, which I think is the stage that you are. I would still not worry about your chances at this stage. Take the opportunity to chat/email further with the supervisor and ask questions about the proposed project, talk at least briefly about your plans after PhD and figure out whether this supervisor can help you get to that envisaged future. If anything concerns you at this stage, raise it. If at this stage you realise you absolutely would not be able to work with this supervisor, thank them for their time and find someone else (can also be at Cambridge!)

Assuming the chat goes well and you are excited to work with this supervisor - great! But still a few more steps. You will now have to go through the process of actually applying to do a PhD and applying for the funding. Your application will get checked that it is above the minimum requirements. Then your application will get ranked with all the other international applications (across the department and university!) based on your grades, but also various statements that your potential supervisor will help you write, and possibly also your references, any publications and other achievements, etc.

From this ranking, they will shortlist a certain number of people to interview. Now this is the place where your chances can be slim. For a university such as Cambridge, which is very well-known, that list is always many times longer (I expect ~5-10x) than they have PhD student funding for. Everyone on that list will have first class+ grades and supportive statements from their potential supervisor and most of them probably would go on to be amazing PhD students somewhere. But to state the obvious key point: if you don't apply, you won't have a place on that list. Moreover, if you don't have the support of a supervisor, you won't have a place on that list.

If you get invited to the formal interview, that's great! Know that you are truly among the few already and that it is an achievement to get to this stage. My feeling is that by the interview stage, they probably interview no more than 2-3x the number of students that they have funding for. Your chances by this stage are no longer slim, but still not yet certain.

If you get to the end of all this and receive a funded offer: congratulations. It really should mean more than people realize but any academic at Cambridge/UK would know the magnitude of what you have achieved.

If you fall through some point in the process, you may still (in fact, most likely will) receive an offer, but it is called an unfunded offer. It may be tempting to take it up but really, unless you are independently wealthy and you "just want to go to Cambridge", don't. Doing a PhD is hard intellectual labour and can cause significant stress even when it all goes well, and you should be paid for your work.

Which brings me to the next key point: you should continue with your application, but you should also apply to places beyond Cambridge. If your CV is good enough to potentially get through the competitive process at Cambridge, it is likely good enough to get through the process elsewhere. Moreover, your chances of receiving a funded offer are unsurprisingly, higher elsewhere than at Cambridge.

Source: I am a UK-based academic and despite being relatively junior, have received a fair number of international PhD applications. I can say that what you have received is not a typical response (which in my case is actually "no thank you"), but it may be a more typical response for established academics (who would still reserve this response only to good candidates).

Good luck!

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'Competitively funded' can mean a few things, but assuming it's the classification typically used on FindAPhD, this means that there are fewer funded PhDs available than PhD projects, and positions are assigned to the best candidates and the projects they choose.

In this context, the supervisor has a clear incentive to try and help people who are applying for their project - if one succeeds, it means the supervisor is getting a funded PhD student they wouldn't otherwise have gotten. So it would not be unusual for a supervisor to offer to support the application of candidates who are applying to such a scheme with an interest in their project.

That said, a bad PhD student can be worse than no PhD student at all, so the supervisor has at least some faith that you'll be able to make a useful contribution. But given the nature of competitive PhD schemes it's a much less strong signal than if the potential supervisor was also the decision-maker choosing who gets the position.

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    Agree, though few supervisors have time to waste - so if they actually do invest meaningful effort into helping you improve your application, that suggests they think you are competitive for a place. Of course, they might choose to support two or three people at this stage, knowing that (at most) only one of them will get a place.
    – avid
    Oct 27, 2023 at 8:36

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