I've recently finished in Masters in Neuroscience in Germany ( & bachelors in pharmacy), and I'm trying to find a PhD position in European countries like Belgium, Sweden, Switzerland, etc. In most of them, I have to contact the professor I'm interested in working with myself. I've already emailed a lot of them ( app. 20, with 6 replying no positions available).

-The problem is, I'm afraid if my emails are too generic. Here's the part from my emails where I have some concerns:

"As you will see in my resume, I have steadily oriented my education and experience towards becoming an accomplished researcher of regenerative medicine/technologies for the nervous system. Being a pharmacy & neuroscience graduate gives me a unique perspective that is useful when exploring the regenerative capacity of the nervous system, whether through manipulating neurons directly, manipulating surrounding glia, or the use of stem cells."

For the rest, I clearly stated that I'm looking for a possible position in their group, what my previous accomplishments are, as well as who I am in a brief description. Naturally, I only emailed professors whose research I like and is linked to what I want & mentioned in this paragraph. So, is it inferred that I like their research/field, or is it still to generic?

Of course I read their about their projects on their group pages, but I'm not sure if I can go as far as reading their articles, since it would take too long, they may have no positions, and I don't know how many should I contact. So I wrote it in a more general manner, and if a professor/group leader expressed interest, then I would read in a lot more detail about their work (their articles & reviews). But is this truly the only way for them to consider someone?

-Another point is how many emails. One acquaintance mentioned that he had to send upwards of 300 emails to find a position. I simply can't believe he can send that many emails, without them being a single copy, but with each professor's name. I think it would be in the range of 20-50 emails, but that's pure conjecture on my part. I need to know from your experience, since if they're not so many, then I can read more about the professor's work in detail.

4 Answers 4


Quite simply, if your email to me does not explain why you want to do a PhD in my group, I am probably not going to respond to your "cold" email, unless your CV is so outstanding (several papers, good grades, working with people I already know, etc.) that I can't help but take a closer look.

So you need to make sure that your email not only expresses your research interests, but also explains why your profile makes a good fit for the group to which you're applying.

Also note that if you're sending a "cold" email and the professor isn't in the process of advertising a position, you still may not get a response.


The volume of emails requesting a lab position received by most professors in my field is large and unceasing. This means that you have at most a few moments of attention from the prof who is skim reading your email. By far the majority of emails read along the lines of "my name is X and I would like to do a PhD in your lab", usually followed by "I have graduated from [insert foreign institution] and would value the opportunity to perform my PhD in your lab". There is usually no information that describes why the work your lab undertakes is an important part of the decision process that lead the applicant to email the prof. Nor is there a description of what the applicant brings in the way of unique ideas/approaches that will forward the work the prof performs.

Cold emails from excellent candidates will always have to compete with those from less exceptional candidates, and are out numbered by the latter by at least 20:1. Spend the time to personalise the email. Suggest approaches/experimental plans that will address areas of interest to the prof. If possible, go to scientific meetings and initiate a face to face contact that will notify the prof for your intent. Maybe try writing a traditional "snail mail" letter (you know, written on paper and sent by post) - this at least will force the recipient to spend a moment or two longer on the correspondence and may provide a novelty factor that aids in distinguishing you from the rest.


I agree fully with the previous answers, but there are a few things that I would like to add to them.

Note that this can be very cultural and what works in one area may not be appropriate for another, but this is my take on things.

Firstly I would always show some passion for the subject and demonstrate your background knowledge of the area. For example, in your case, why are you interested in researching the regenerative capacity of the nervous system? This may be obvious to you, but don't be afraid to spell it out. You can talk about benefits to society or possible applicability to other research or whatever you feel is appropriate. You mention many techniques, but why are they relevant / important? How is it related to the work in the specific research group? Always ask yourself why (and personally, I start by writing the why because it is the most interesting and compelling part).

Secondly, and related, people are (on the whole) vain - show genuine interest in the person and their work. Don't over-compliment, but certainly show that you know what they do and why it is important. Then you can talk about why you are the right person etc. etc.

On the issue of how many emails to send, I would say quality over quantity. Take the time to tailor each one to the specific professor / research group and really appeal to them rather than just sending out hundreds of emails (I would certainly not be proud of having to send over 300 emails to find a PhD!) Also, don't be afraid to send a follow up email if you don't get a reply. You really have nothing to loose from this - showing that you have the passion by sending a follow-up will certainly not harm your chances.

Finally, there is a lot of material around to help you with this. A particularly good (and classic) book is How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie - old but very very good (more about management, but the psychology is the same). There is also a lot of overlap with careers advice on how to write a good cover letter and how to send speculative job search emails so search online for these. Also, your previous University probably has a careers department so they can really be very helpful in providing honest feedback on your emails / letters.

TL;DR: Always show your passion for the area and talk about the recipient (and their work). This is the best way to capture someone's interest. Talk about yourself last.

Good luck with your search.


Stepping from a masters to a PhD program is a huge undertaking. While times are tough, research dollars are scarce, and busy under-funded professors may be unlikely to respond, consider consulting your advisor:

  • Take a printed copy of your application letter and ask for constructive criticism.

  • After sharing potential research groups you have targeted, ask him to recommend some others. Perhaps s/he might write a letter of recommendations to a colleague.

  • Read How to Win Friends and Influence People. It will accelerate your career.

  • Finally, keep your chin up. Changing institutions is hard work. Spend a little time every day doing something you enjoy, for a positive mindset will give you that extra edge.

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