I am sure this question has been posted somewhere in SE forums before. If not here is my contribution, otherwise please show me the pointers to similar well-voted questions.

Here is the actual question: In case someone is interested to apply for a Phd degree, what would be the parameters that head of the research group (i.e. professor) will consider when comparing different candidates?

Some of the factors that come to my mind are the following:

Grades, Reference letters, Publications, Closeness of previous studies to the actual research taking place in that research group, Quality of final thesis (Master/Bachelor), Thesis adviser etc.

How would a professor prioritize these factors. I am sure here in the forums we have some experienced members who might have participated in acceptance committees, which can provide useful insights.


  • Related: PhD Admissions Importance: Research vs. Grades
    – Mad Jack
    May 27, 2014 at 22:56
  • Research, research, research, recommendation letters, research, baked beans, and research.
    – JeffE
    May 28, 2014 at 0:58
  • I believe this is a duplicate of the linked question. If that does not answer your question, please edit your post to indicate how it is different and then flag for reopening.
    – ff524
    May 28, 2014 at 6:39

1 Answer 1


The answer is, as usual, "it depends". JeffE provides a perspective for a top US research university (Research, research, research, recommendation letters, research, baked beans, and research.). In my lab (small-but-good swiss university) PhD admission certainly works a bit differently.

First a bit of context: our lab usually consists of less than ten members, 2 of which are professors and one to two more being postdocs. We select our PhD students ourselves (there is no department or faculty-level hiring). Hence, PhD student selection is not something we do all the time.

Generally, the single most important factor for hiring for us is whether we already know the candidate. Broadly, potential students come in four tiers:

  • Tier 1: students that we personally know to be good, for instance because they have done courses or their thesis with us. This means that we mostly hire from our own university, but as I only moved recently from a different university, we currently also like to hire from my old institution. Generally, if you know somebody in the lab (even other PhD students) and the other person vouches for your qualities, you are almost certainly in.
  • Tier 2: students that people that we know know. If we need a position filled but don't have a strong internal candidate at the ready, we reach out to our personal networks. Usually, we don't cast the net particularly wide -- the recommendation of a professor that I met once at a conference likely isn't enough. We mostly contact personal friends and close collaborators here.
  • Tier 3: students that applied because of a job announcement we put out. We generally only do that (putting out job announcements) if we really need a position filled and we could not find somebody in our network. In most cases, my lab head is more ready to leave a position unfilled than hire somebody that does not come with a strong recommendation.
  • Tier 4: students that applied with a cold email. As far as I know, we have literally never hired somebody that applied cold.

Which of those "tiers" you fall in is the single most important factor that leads to whether you will be hired or not. In the rare case that we have multiple students that come with strong personal recommendations, and we cannot hire all, we usually select roughly following these criteria (roughly in order of importance):

  • Research experience. A master is a prerequisite for PhD studies in my current country. However, most master students don't publish. If you did, it is certainly perceived very positively as long as the paper is at least ok. (publishing in predatory journals or other really bad venues might be perceived negatively actually)
  • Relevant industrial experience. We do research on software engineering, so if you worked as a software engineer before, this will be perceived positively. However, note the "relevant" here. Standard internships or jobs may not help much (most have done those at some point) -- it needs to be something that we think will clearly give you better insight into our area of research.
  • Technical skills. We don't expect future students to know how to do research yet, but we expect a strong programming background and fluency in standard tooling.
  • Perceived compatibility with the team. Finally, we also typically consider whether a student is a good fit for our lab culture.

The last two bullets are typically assessed in interviews. We generally interview candidates via Skype beforehand, and (when we are almost certain we are going to hire a student), we also fly her/him in to give a talk in our group and spend some time with us beforehand. (both things we only do for Tier 2 - 4 candidates)

We don't ask for letters of recommendation (of people we do not know), research statements, statements of motivation, or anything like that. Neither do we look at previous grades (except maybe in a corner case, but to the best of my knowledge it has not happened yet).

  • how would you relate it to Phd hirings in Germany and Austria? I think the Swiss approach should not be much different than the other two, or is it? @xLeitix May 28, 2014 at 18:58
  • @WolfgangKuehne Depends on the lab head. But yeah, my old group in Vienna operated similarly, with the main difference that the lab was larger, and hence had to recruit people from the outside (via job postings etc.) more often.
    – xLeitix
    May 28, 2014 at 20:02

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