How much do a student's interest and enthusiasm matter when selecting or getting interested in a student? In research position cover letters do professors care if a student has read details about their research, took time to search around related papers and background ?

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    Browsing your earlier question you seem to be from India and study physics. Are you asking specifically about that place and field?
    – Buffy
    Jan 29 at 19:59
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    Some people respond well to flattery and obsequiousness. Personally, I hope a good applicant will have a general sense of what kinds of things I've worked on, and will be able to identify which aspect(s) of my work they would like to get involved with. (Theory or experiment? Method 1 or 2? Application A or B?) Why do you want to work with me and not the guy in the next office? But I don't expect you to have read all my papers in detail, or to propose "an extension" to my work. (Really, don't do this. I know more about my own research than you. You're just going to make yourself look stupid.)
    – avid
    Jan 29 at 20:28
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    @JAMES213 They are students asking what they should do, which obviously depends exactly on the professors' minds.
    – Bryan Krause
    Jan 30 at 19:21
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    I don't particularly like @avid's comment about flattery and obsequiousness either. But the point about knowing what I do generally, rather than having an encyclopaedic knowledge of everything I've ever published, and not telling me how to extend my own work, is well made. I think the key is to look like someone how is generally interested in the field, not someone who is following a formula to make themselves look like someone who is interested in the field, even though they could really care less. Jan 31 at 14:38
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3 Answers 3


This depends on place, field, and an individual's judgement. In my case (US, math) it had no effect at all. I was recommended to the professor and he to me by other professors who knew me well. He had time and ability to take me on so it was an easy choice for both of us.

In some lab sciences, perhaps in physics, and in places like Germany where a student needs a masters for admission to a doctoral program and also joins a professor's lab or working group, it might be quite valuable to know what sorts of things that lab does. A student might well be working on problems already established in the lab and so familiarity would be a plus and maybe part of the selection process. You are doing more in such labs than just working on your own research, also contributing to the work of that lab.

In math, on the other hand, even in Germany, where students mostly work on their own problems, even when suggested by the supervisor, it might make no difference at all, as long as the supervisor has some interest in the research topic. It is unlikely to be a negative, in any case, and it can help you choose an appropriate advisor to get an idea about their interests.

I don't know about India, but if it is like Germany and you join a specific lab then the more you know the better off you are. It is also good to have an idea of what you want to work on and whether that meshes well with the advisor.

  • My interest is in math-related physics or applied math and not just looking for answers from India but anywhere. So in math, professors don't care much if a prospective student knows about their research as they can shift their interest in another direction easily?
    – JAMES213
    Jan 30 at 9:10
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    It depends. If someone has applied to work in a particular group and their background does not fit with that, they will get rejected. This does not mean that they are unsuitable for a maths PhD, just unsuitable for that maths PhD. Jan 30 at 9:49

(Disclaimer: not a professor, so this is secondhand)

If you're asking about Europe, "demonstrating interest and enthusiasm" for the specific PhD project that you're applying might be very helpful. One of my previous Universities is very well known in some subfields, and offers very good working conditions. These are very often third-party funded (i.e. the project can't be changed too much). Professors get a lot of applications from abroad; if it's a field where publications during the MSc are uncommon, and your academic networks don't overlap, hiring you is a bit of a gamble.

In that case, showing that you're able to read and understand papers from their field, and that you care enough about the position and topic to familiarise yourself with it, can be a strong green flag. Your potential supervisor is aware that you'd be moving to a new country (and culture!) for what is universally agreed to be a challenging experience: having done the academic due diligence can be interpreted as a sign that you have some idea of what you're getting yourself into. PhD studies also require a high degree of self-motivation and initiative. If you're not motivated enough to read the group homepage and skim 1-3 relevant papers before applying, that might be taken as a red flag.

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    Just to add to this, just copying text from the website or cut and pasting article titles into your cover letter is even worse than doing nothing. I looks like you are trying to trick me into believing you are interested in my field, while probably just spamming every professor in the country. Jan 31 at 14:34

No, but I prefer it when the student are at least aware of the area(s) my group works in, and has published in recently.

If you email me praising a paper from 7 years ago that I am a collaborating co-author on, and which is clearly not aligned with anything else I have done before or since.... and then you go on and on about how that's what you want to do your PhD on... I will likely ignore you.

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