I am a student who graduated with a Master from a German university in April this year, majored in materials science, willing to further pursue a PHD degree in a European university (or possibly a university in the USA if I can not get anything in the EU). I have already applied to a certain amount of universities´ PHD studentship programs.

I admit that there hardly are positions exactly fitting the thesis work and research activity I had in my Master study program, because materials science is a very diverse and gargantuan subject. Each different university has its own research preference and inclination. Sometimes you may say you can find between 20%-40% overlap with your past experiences, including the similarity of research content, or the techniques being used. So I tried to apply to all of them, the replies were mostly like this: "You can not fit the best of criteria.." It has been several months, there is still no slight improvement of my application.

My GPA is 3.4/4 (no publications so far), but according to the PhD advertisements I have viewed, some universities have rules about the basic grade requirement you need to have for PhD enrollment, some do not have. The universities I had finished my Master and Bachelor study have certain reputation in their own region or country. My Master degree is Master of science(M.Sc.), Master thesis is about metal-oxide nanostructures synthesis and its application (basically using different approach trying and trying again, compare the final results), on the one hand I am afraid of the simple and even boring thesis work could give people wrong impression about my research experiences that is poor and rudimentary, Professor will have some doubts about whether I am truly quantifying to do some sophisticated PhD work, on the other hand, if I stick to doing metal-oxide fabrication research or related in my PhD study, you need to have solid background in chemistry, which also is what I am lack of.

Unfortunately I do not have too much contact with my professor (thesis advisor) except having some discusses related to my Master thesis, because our group is very big one and each PhD student is responsible for supervising master students for their thesis work, so Professor could have time and energy doing other things, I only asked my professor for recommendation letter once, maybe I also need his suggestion about my applications.

After I have accepted some rejected letters, I started to think which kind of project could fit my profile, not only I can be accepted by them but I can also enjoy my project and stretch my muscle, doing some useful in materials science field.

Sometimes I am confounded by various projects and their fancy names offered in the webpages, and do not know what to do next. but I still have a dream about one day I could leave my fingerprints on the TEM machine and my thoughts on the scientific papers.If you are a PHD student (have successful application experiences) majored in materials science or related area, I kindly ask for suggestion (any suggestion and any opinions will be useful to me).

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    You can read this post if you'd like to understand the reason for this policy. Basically, it's that questions asking "What are good Xs for Y?" are not considered a good fit for a question and answer site that's meant to be a canonical reference for future users with the same question (as opposed to, say, a discussion forum where they'd be OK)
    – ff524
    Jul 23, 2014 at 22:22
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    What number is "a large number?" Get someone else to look at your applications materials and help you detect whether you're doing something that is hurting you.
    – user1482
    Jul 23, 2014 at 23:02
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    @BenCrowell thanks for your concerns, this is the titles someone edited for me, it is not what I really meant, I actually applied to several positions (not "a large number", that is too much exaggerated) related to materials science, what I needed is good suggestion from PhD students in materials science who can give me certain direction or good advice..
    – Daniel
    Jul 23, 2014 at 23:14
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    General requests for "suggestions" tend to be too broad to get answered here. If you highlight a very specific, answerable question, you will probably get more useful advice. As you can see, we're having some trouble understanding what your specific question is.
    – ff524
    Jul 23, 2014 at 23:18
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    It depends on how qualified you are. Jul 24, 2014 at 10:25

4 Answers 4


I am surprised there has been no mention of your Master's thesis advisor. Judging from my humble experience, your advisor's support can be very important for finding your next position.

This support could come from their scientific network (e.g. by establishing contact to a group you want to apply to), writing letters of recommendation, or even just looking over your CV and cover letter. They will know better what a “good” application should look like in your field.

Of course, all that is assuming that you have a good working relationship to your advisor. If not, maybe another professor / experienced researcher would be prepared to help you. You say you already graduated in April, so I do not know how much contact there has been since then …

  • thanks for your insight, my advisor is a little bit of busy and "lazy", sometimes it is even difficult to locate him, but anyway I will try to contact with him for my PhD application.
    – Daniel
    Jul 24, 2014 at 14:53
  • @Daniel you best bet for getting a Phd position is to convince those who are supposed to offer the position, that you posses the basic requirements to become an established researcher/scientist. Looking at your grades, I assume throughout your studies you have had some projects and seminars where you could have convinced you supervisors that you are capable of doing research. Now is the time to ask those supervisors to write recommendation letters (not general ones, which just substitute the name) emphasizing your research performance and capabilities Jul 29, 2014 at 13:16
  • @WolfgangKuehne thanks for your comment, yes, you are right, I will do like this..
    – Daniel
    Jul 29, 2014 at 15:41

As for the question in your title (which originally was: "Is it really that difficult finding a funded PHD position?") the answer is it depends on the field and the country. As an engineer, in countries with a well-developed industry, the job opportunities for graduates outside academia are good, thus diminishing the competition for PhD positions. This being said, a grad student is not just hired to lay bricks because there is a wall to be built. It represents a substantial investment for professors who will thus rather have no student than a not-so-good one.

To the point, previous experience in the specific field of the PhD study is almost never a requirement, so I doubt it's the limiting factor in your case. Your grades might be though, or your written english proficiency, but these are guesses.

I think your strategy might be inefficient. From your text it sounds like you sent a large number of applications and are waiting for someone to bite the bait. A personal interaction with people in the labs you are interested in would be a better approach, for example via an internship or a visit, if you can afford it.

So I would narrow it down to a few places where you really would like to work, gather the reasons why you like them, and start establishing a contact via email, say what you like about their approach or research topic and how you think you could fit in. They will then be able to let you know what is needed to be accepted in the graduate program (note that you will still have to comply to the department, university or graduate school requirements in order to be accepted).

  • Thanks Jigg for your advice, it is very useful to me.....
    – Daniel
    Jul 23, 2014 at 17:20

Mostly depends on your GRE score (if below 1000, try again), and your letter of intent. Add those up with some good recommendation letters and it should not that hard to get a scholarship (unless you are aiming for top 10 schools).

The topic of your MSc is not the limiting factor, looking at your courses list, they should get an idea of your background and educational knowledge. Maybe it is good to contact the professors that you are interested in first, and afterwards let them know that you will apply. Worked for me.

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    Is GRE used in Europe? I had never heard of it (and still not sure what it is) before I moved to America.
    – Cape Code
    Jul 28, 2014 at 12:23
  • (or possibly a university in the USA)... and I can only speak about the US PhD system, but it might be an option to look into if EU does not work. Entry into the program is not so much focussing on how well you know the professors... :) GRE is not used in Europe and in US it is testing your basic knowledge (all grad school prospects have to take it)
    – user20087
    Jul 28, 2014 at 13:46
  • 'Entry into the program is not so much focussing on how well you know the professors' I don't understand this sentence. Where is graduate school admission focussed on how well you know a professor?
    – Cape Code
    Jul 28, 2014 at 13:51
  • @user20087 ok thanks for your answer..one small question though, from uni´s official website I know that we only can apply to US graduate school for summer-semester or winter-semester PhD program, not like in Europe we can apply at any time only if there is vacant position available, is that true?
    – Daniel
    Jul 28, 2014 at 14:53
  • Yes, rather fall and spring admission though (september or January), but most admissions are with the fall admission.
    – user20087
    Jul 29, 2014 at 11:52

You yourself know what you are falling short of! You have specified yourself about your interests, your research work till today and expectations. You would score an accept letter if you apply to a PhD position that better suits your profile and your future expectations! It is like finding a job. You cannot be a doctor if you studied history!

Yes, PhD admission is competitive. It depends on you whether to make it difficult or easy. The PhD programmes are looking for researchers who deserve to be in that place, not for random people asking for acceptance. Your graduate advisor might help with the selection and application. The PhD supervisors during your MS thesis, might also be good guides. Identify the weaknesses of your profile and improve them before you fall into the abyss of rejection into PhD!

Wish you the best!

  • thanks for your insight and words of encouragement, it is very nice of you, I also wish you best...
    – Daniel
    Jul 24, 2014 at 21:11

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