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Lets suppose that I see an open PhD position in the field of Machine Learning, area whose I have only some very basic or general knowledge, but that I am willing to learn more about it. I wonder what I should put in my cover letter to show that I have a genuine interest in the subject and that I am willing to learn more about it. I mean for what I know, the first year in a PhD program is for a student to gain knowledge about the theoretical parts that will help him or her to continue their PhD studies. I have seen that also some of them receive aome training that will help them to narrow their interests into one specific topic before the writing of the thesis start.

I am somewhat traumatized after once I applied to a PhD position and in the interview when I mentioned that "I was willing to learn more, enroll into courses and being self taught for the research that they were making"; and the professor in charge reply to me in a harsh way "You are not here to begin to learn, we need people that already know what we are doing". That shocked me somehow.

So bottomline, how can I express in a cover letter my genuine interest in learning the field in which the research group is working, without being rejected?

Thanks

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Florian is completely right - the level of knowledge of the field typically expected from new PhD students varies a lot. In many places in Europe, for instance, a Master's degree is a formal requirement for starting a PhD, and the first year is most definitely not there for gaining fundamental knowledge about the field. You are supposed to have a solid working knowledge of the field from the start.

"I was willing to learn more, enroll into courses and being self taught for the research that they were making"

There is also the other problem with this statement that it is (sorry) incredibly bland and generic. Of course you are supposed to learn more about your field and do related courses. If that is the best you can say about how you are going to get up to speed in the field, I can understand that the professor you were talking to was not exactly blown away by your zeal.

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  • so what would be your recommendation to put instead of that phrase – Layla Jan 9 '15 at 0:12
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    @Layla You have to put yourself in their shoes. In all likelihood, you're going to be competing with a math, stat, or computer science BA (or, outside of the US, with a masters), who has already studied that field at an undergraduate level, has probably taken a handful of graduate classes, and has possibly even had a taste of research. That candidate has already expressed interest in the field by actually studying it and is much more informed about what the field is. What makes you more desirable than that candidate? – Roger Fan Jan 9 '15 at 2:12
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Might I ask what country/countries these programs are in?

I think the professor you quote was a bit harsh and that PhD applicants do not need to already know what they're doing completely. If you already knew everything about the field, what would be the point of the PhD?

At the same time, I would be cautious about applying for a PhD position just because it exists or because you just want to learn more about the subject. A PhD is a long and hard degree to obtain, and most successful PhD students have a certain level of passion for the subject of their PhD (this is a useful post for you to read on that subject). There are definitely easier ways to learn about machine learning than getting a PhD in it.

I don't think anyone has a magic formula to guarantee you getting accepted to the programs to which you apply. The best you can do is put together the best application possible and hope for the best. In terms of the cover letter, you should highlight what attracts you to the field of machine learning and possibly how a PhD will help you in your future career in the field. You might be rejected from a few places, but if you never apply, you can never be accepted.

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    xLeitix is right though, a professor shouldn't support your application on the grounds that you are "willing to learn more." Do you expect the rest of the applicants to be unwilling to learn more, or only willing to learn more if absolutely required? – user18072 Jan 8 '15 at 21:38
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"I have only some very basic or general knowledge, but that I am willing to learn more about it."

This tells me that you should take a couple of courses in the field (which might or might not carry graduate credit in a program later) in order to see whether this is a field you really like and want to spend years mastering (PhD and after). This would also show not just vague interest to schools, but real interest.

I'm reminded of a woman I interviewed for a job who had four masters' degrees. I asked her why, and the conversation went something like this:

I thought I was interested in X, so I got a master's degree in X. But then I got a job in X, and it wasn't that interesting. I got interested in Y, so I got a master's degree in Y. But then I got a job in Y, and it wasn't that interesting. I got interested in Z, so I got a master's degree in Z. But then I got a job in Z, and it wasn't that interesting. I got interested in W [the field the job was in], so I got a master's degree in W.

Her flaw was that she jumped into programs without really understanding what the ultimate work would be about.

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    Interesting anecdote. It's not clear to me that that's a "flaw" though; if she didn't realize she didn't like it until she got the job, it implies she enjoyed the programs themselves. So the only real downside might be if she took on debt or made other sacrifices in order to pursue those degrees. Otherwise she just had a good time learning! :-) – BrenBarn Jan 9 '15 at 4:13

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