I am trying to look for a PhD position by contacting potential supervisors through email. I have made a list of professors who I found interesting through searching some papers and their department websites. Now I decide to write to them for asking opportunity and in order to show my sincerity, I would like to attach a research proposal.

I know it seems not necessary to do this if my credentials are good enough, but in order to stay out of the crowd, I don't know if this is actually a good idea to attach a research proposal. Anyway, I want to have some advice on writing a research proposal in this situation.

  1. What should the appropriate length be? 2 pages, 20 pages? with cited reference?
  2. How much deviation is allowed with the professor's research interest? Because if everything are the same with the current papers, it seems I am just copying its content into the proposal.
  3. Should I include all necessary experimental steps? (I am from engineering)
  4. Any other suggestion on writing research proposal in this situation.

I don't know if it is worth the time to do this, I would like to know if you have also some suggestions in impressing potential supervisors solely through email.

  • 4
    What should the appropriate length be? 2 pages, 20 pages? Maximum 2 lines in the mail body. You are vastly overestimating the patience of the average busy professor for unsolicited mail.
    – xLeitix
    May 9, 2014 at 20:13

3 Answers 3


In most branches of engineering, sending a research proposal to a prospective PhD advisor is not particularly helpful, unless you are providing your own funding.

The reason for this is that most PhD students are funded through grants obtained by the professor, either from traditional research funding agencies (NSF/DOE/DOD/NIH and their counterparts in other countries), or through industrial contracts. In such cases, the projects that are to be worked on are well-defined, so the possibility of deviating from those projects and using the money to fund other projects—such as the one you propose—are remote.

On the other hand, if you can provide your own funding, things change significantly. Under such circumstances, you could propose a project of your own design, so long as it fits within the general scheme of the professor's existing research (or moves slightly outside of it). However, proposing a project that lies too far outside of the mainstream typically is unlikely to be well-received, since the professor won't be able to provide much useful support.

However, even under such circumstances, the initial proposal should be more like a "white paper"—a faculty member, if he or she reads such a document at all, is not going to spend more than a few minutes reading it. So the initial idea will need to be compellingly presented in a short amount of space—two or three paragraphs at most.

The best way to show your interest in a professor's group is to explain how you could contribute to ongoing research in the group—that is, do you homework before writing to the faculty member. Your email should make it clear that you are writing the specific faculty member, and addressing the concerns and interests of their group. Anything that has the whiff of being a form letter will likely be ignored, unless your CV looks like a perfect fit for the research group!

  • 3
    +1 for keep it short. Professors are busy and get lots of these emails.
    – Mangara
    May 9, 2014 at 17:24
  • 1
    I mostly agree, I would just like to add that "projects that are to be worked on are well-defined" may be very field and department-specific. In my experience, such projects can also be extremely vaguely defined (and intentionally written like that when the funding is applied for, to keep any options open), providing no more than a general topic of the work to be done, while the PhD supervisor actively encourages that PhD students spend as little time as possible (i.e., just as much as necessary) on concrete project tasks to avoid any restriction in research topics by the project. May 9, 2014 at 20:09

I would strongly suggest not using email for your pitch until you know the professor. Use email to setup a short (make the 'short' clear in the email) meeting with the professor. Attach your CV to the email.

Think of this from the professor's viewpoint. If they give you funding and a place in their research group, they are committing to you for 3-7 years. That is a long time. Meeting in person will give them a chance to see that you can work together well.

Some professors are strict about the topic of their projects and some will go for anything. You need to ask around to see how this is for each professor. For professors with narrow topic spectrum, you'd need to show them how you could benefit what is already going on in that field and in his/her group. For professors with wide topic spectrum, come up with some topics that you'd like to work on and that are relative to that professor's area of expertise.

In the end, show the professor that you can do good research. That is really what they care about. Professors are generally good topic generators, they just need some expert researchers to do their dirty work.

  • Meeting in person would be the best, but many times I am looking for professors in overseas.
    – bingung
    May 11, 2014 at 7:31

The proposal should not be long (1/2-2 pages), or at least should have a summary that can be read in one glance.

It should show your interest, but not be so narrow that it creates the impression that you are fixed on what you want to do. Often supervisors may have ideas which are related to what you want to do, but are better informed. If they think you have locked in on an idea, however, they may not be interested in supervising you.

Finally, if the proposal implicitly demonstrates particular skills that you have, that also may interest a potential supervisor, even if their topic is per se different.

Generally, it is a good idea, if you have a very specific supervisor in mind, to talk to them in person, or try to ask for a conversation per Skype. Don't try to do that for a generic application, academics are very busy. But, if you have a very specific topic and supervisor in mind, they may agree to that, in their own interest.

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