I am applying for a PhD to top schools in engineering. Whenever I talk to my peers I hear the word 'connection' very often. I started thinking that it is almost impossible to be admitted to these schools without knowing a professor ! (I am an international applicant)

How important is having a connection when applying? What If I don't know one and I believe that my profile qualifies me for admission? Should I apply or just not bother?

  • You should specify which country you are looking at. For the US, @aeismail has it right. For Europe, "knowing somebody" is indeed extremely helpful.
    – xLeitix
    Dec 2, 2014 at 12:03
  • Dont get dis-encouraged! I got my degree with somehow good results (but nothing amazing, just a bit above average) and I started applying around Europe for a PhD. After some time a quite a lot of applications (of course, you are not going to get accepted in the first try) I am now in one of the best universities in UK in a very important project in medical imaging. I have a friend that did the same and also is in my situation. I didnt know ANYONE and here i am. Keep trying, its possible! Dec 2, 2014 at 15:45

2 Answers 2


At least for schools in the US, it is not necessary for you to have a direct "connection" or contact at a department to be admitted.

In general, where contacts can be useful is if one of the people who writes your letters of recommendations for you knows a particular person in the given department. If that "connection" is good, and you get a good letter of recommendation, that will carry more weight than a typical letter of the same quality, since you will be better "known" than someone who the department doesn't know at all.

That said, though, there is no expectation that you would directly know someone already at the school—although your research interests should align with the department as a whole.


In my experience it differs from school to school, but since you specifically stated "top schools in engineering" I would totally agree with @aeismail that a "connection" is not needed, but might be helpful.

Also, I have come across the fact that it is common that PhD positions are "created" with a particular candidate in mind, ergo it is very hard to get a position at first try but an application will often get you to a meeting with the prof / research group representative for the department you are interested in, and will dramatically increase the chances that a position might be "created" for you.

Should I apply or just not bother?

You should apply, worst case somebody at least had a look at your resume and you will be higher up on the list for the next PhD recruitment ;)

Do note that top universities have the same issues as many other top tier employers, how do you sift through thousands of applications in a responsible manner? The answer is that you don't; you pick the first and best one, which usually is someone known from previous relations.

  • 1
    This advice might be true in Europe; it's certainly not true in the US. And positions are not "created for" someone; it takes a lot of planning to open up a new position. It may be, though, that they do have an "intended" candidate for the position. If that candidate turns down the offer, then they will open it up to others.
    – aeismail
    Dec 2, 2014 at 11:26
  • @aeismail Do note the wording I used, I said "created with someone in mind", not "for". The way I interpret your wording you are actually agreeing with me?
    – flindeberg
    Dec 2, 2014 at 12:25
  • No. What I mean is that the creation of the PhD position is independent of having a preferred candidate, since the timing of getting a PhD position is so unpredictable.
    – aeismail
    Dec 2, 2014 at 15:38

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