As stated by the title, I want to know what a researcher in his early career, i.e., having not had any graduated PhD student yet, can do to attract good candidates. The reason I am asking this question is because PhD applicants usually look for supervisors who have many successful PhD students.

  • 10
    Do you work in a system where students are accepted by the department, take classes, and choose advisors later, or where students apply directly to advisors and begin research immediately? Commented Apr 24, 2015 at 21:10
  • @NateEldredge I work in a department where students are accepted by the department, begin research immediately, and choose advisors later.
    – JeffE
    Commented Apr 29, 2015 at 2:23

8 Answers 8


Presuming you have some way to fund their work, and you have positions to offer, I suggest you start by recruiting bright undergrads from your upper-division courses. Get them involved in your research before they graduate. Offer them positions as PhD students before they apply everywhere else*. I was so excited by my PhD supervisor's work (our work really), the lab environment, and the place where I was living, that I didn't want to apply anywhere but where I already was.

Some people will object that students should move around between their undergrad and PhD, and there's some merit to these arguments, but if you have funding and can't recruit, you may want to think outside the box a bit. If you don't have any money, or your department won't give you any positions (or whatever the system is at your university), get some!

If you want to recruit from outside, keep publishing. Publish in the best places you can. Become a hot shot. Advertise openings on your website and at the end of your conference talks (if that's acceptable in your field). Be aggressive about finding good students.

*: If they do want to apply elsewhere, write them the best letter you can and wish them well. Maybe they'll stay anyway. Don't be one of those profs with a reputation for trying to control the lives of your students by refusing to write recommendation letters!

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    In some fields it's highly frowned upon for an undergraduate to go to grad school at the same institution, and in these cases I presume it would also be highly frowned upon for a professor to try to recruit students from their own university.
    – David Z
    Commented Apr 25, 2015 at 10:24
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    @DavidZ In others, like compute science, it is very common, and diversification is expected only after Ph.D.
    – jakebeal
    Commented Apr 25, 2015 at 10:26
  • @DavidZ, I'm curious what fields it's still highly frowned upon? I've found that for every frowny anecdote we can find a highly successful counter-anecdote.
    – Bill Barth
    Commented Apr 25, 2015 at 13:06
  • @BillBarth physics for one, in the US. Or at least high-energy physics (my field), though what I've heard suggests that most other parts of physics follow the same convention. And I don't believe you can find a counter-anecdote to this - in other words, I don't believe you can find an anecdote which shows that there are no fields in which it's frowned upon for students to stay at the same institution. My point in posting the comment was not to suggest that your answer is wrong, only to point out that it's not universal and the OP should know their field's culture before taking your advice.
    – David Z
    Commented Apr 25, 2015 at 14:17
  • @DavidZ, no, the counter anecdote I was thinking of would be a successful prof who got their undergrad and PhD at the same institution. Just randomly poking around MIT's physics page, you can find someone like Joshua Winn who has their bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees all from MIT and is a professor there!
    – Bill Barth
    Commented Apr 25, 2015 at 14:38

Adding to Bill Barth's excellent answer:

Become known to other professors. Bright undergrads who may want to switch places for their graduate studies may ask their professors for good places... so be known to those professors so they can recommend you! (After all, few undergrads already have enough of an overview of the field to know an up-and-coming junior professor.)

Collaborate with people outside your institution. Become active in your scientific organization. Volunteer for program committees. Write good reviews. Offer to review for other things than journals/conferences, e.g., if a conference you attend awards travel grants to students.

Yes, all this is a lot of work, especially since you have your career to jump-start. But to be honest, forging connections now may be a much better investment of your time in the long run than yet another paper - both to attract bright grad students and in other respects.

EDIT: so, the above addresses attracting grad students "in general". What about attracting good grad students?

First, get enough applicants. If you have three applications for every position you can fund, you have the luxury of picking the best applicant. Fill your sales funnel with enough candidates!

Second, see the above advice. Once someone approaches you and says you were recommended by professor so-and-so, you can deduce something, at least to some degree. If you know that so-and-so is good in his field and you have a good relationship with him, you likely can trust the candidate that so-and-so sent your way not to be a total loss. It makes sense for someone at the early stages of his career to give a little more weight to this kind of signal than later on, after you have had your share of Ph.D. students. You will likely end up with some better, some worse students over the course of your career, and you will learn what to look out for in a candidate - but you don't have that kind of experience yet.

Bottom line: work on your relationships.


I joined a new advisor's lab; he was in his second year as a PI when I joined, and there was only one other graduate student. I am now in my third year and we have six graduate students, one postdoc, and potentially three new postdocs on the way. We have done very well in terms of funding so far. The plural of anecdote is not data, but perhaps this will be of some help. I nearly joined a more established professor's lab, but decided to go with the new professor for these reasons, not necessarily in any order:

  • Other faculty spoke highly of him.
  • Older graduate students who had taken a class from him spoke very highly of him.
  • The prospect of helping to build a new lab excited me.
  • He was excited about his research.
  • He had several interesting research projects available, with clear and understandable 3-minute summaries of each.
  • He comes across as intelligent, capable, passionate, kind.
  • In my first interaction with him, he handed me a paper containing the description of an experiment, and asked me to draw out the physical diagrams of how the system should respond to the experiment. He then pushed and challenged me for about two hours, and I wound up learning a lot. This gave me the impression that he would push me to become the best scientist I could be, while aiming to teach me along the way. I haven't been disappointed.
  • I wasn't worried about depth of knowledge after this interaction, but he went out of his way to mention that as a member of a new lab, I would be forced to gain a great breadth of knowledge and skills, as well. This was a plus for me.
  • The senior graduate student assured me that it was incredibly easy to schedule one-on-one time with the advisor, but that he did not micromanage.

Students interested in working for a new advisor will be looking for, among other things, a challenge, greater personal attention from their advisor, and interesting research. You might during the first few years feel a lot of anxiety about publishing, but you should hopefully be able to keep that anxiety in check to allow your students to grow and climb the learning curve for the first few years before putting them under too much undue pressure. You don't want to earn the reputation of the nervous overly-demanding associate professor.


Adding to Bill and Stephan's answers. There are many good PhD students who aren't just looking for advisers with massive reputations. Some sense of personal connection can go a long way in attracting students. Volunteer to teach introductory level grad courses and commit yourself to being responsive to your students. You will develop a following of people willing to pass up the opportunity to work with a more prestigious adviser for an adviser that has demonstrated a commitment to his students.


From the perspective someone who recently went through the PhD application process, I'd say that the best way to recruit good PhD students is to recruit good PhD students.

While I make no judgment as to whether or not I fall in the "good PhD student" set, I can say that my experience (and from what I've heard--most people's experiences are) was extremely opaque. The best way to convince someone to work with you is to make them feel like you want to work with them. There's nothing wrong with reaching out to students whose applications look promising in advance. In fact, most of the faculty I heard from before decisions were younger faculty. They often arranged informal Skype conversations with them and any current students they had, and they brainstormed interesting ideas for research projects that met our mutual interests. As an applicant, this made those groups much more appealing, as it seemed that the professors were excited to work with me rather than me work for them.

Then again, this answer is more specific to the US system where departments tend to make decisions about candidates rather than specific professors. I believe in Europe it's a bit different.

I would also say that if you're concerned about students choosing more established professors over you, maybe approach this the way some borderline applicants do: find the diamonds in the rough. That is, find the students that might be passed over by more prestigious/experience professors for one reason or another, but have some promise to them. This is kind of a hard thing to quantify, but sometimes a raw applicant can become your best PhD student (and similarly a new/young professor can be the best advisor).


All the answers above are good, but there is one more important thing I have learned from observing the woes of some colleagues who need graduate students. [Good ones, of course; no one that I know is actively seeking not-so-good ones!]

Good research! Ph.D. students are attracted to good and interesting topics. I have a colleague who thinks he is doing wonderful work but privately many colleagues are not surprised he's having trouble attracting students. Masters students have different goals and shorter timelines.

In my experience ultimately it has less to do with personality (exceptions, of course) and / or the stage of career you're at (early, mid or late). Students might come visit for the decor, the ambience, the attractive appetizers, but they stay only for the main course!


Well, the other way of looking at it would be the 'Theory Y' approach.

Instead of thinking 'what do I need to do to attract good PhD students', think 'what do I need to do to GROW good PhD students?'

Consider that how someone comes to you is relatively insignificant compared to what you can make them in five years. (especially at typical PhD age)

I knew a guy who was an executive at one of the largest companies in the country, and he told me "give me a rag-tag bunch of misfits, a project, and nine months, and I'll give experts, specialists, and a completed project"

I think the important thing is you have to have people that are willing to change, even if it means loosing face.


Given my scholarship I was relatively free to choose my PhD supervisor. What drew me to my current supervisor, is that although he is young he has an awesome publication list! this gave me the impression that

  • he is a successful researcher,
  • his work meets the standards of top conferences in our field and
  • I'll learn a lot from him.

These three points were enough to make me go through a long and risky procedure with my scholarship provider, in order to transfer to my current supervisor's department. It all worked well and indeed I am thankful that I work with him now.

So I would say, focus on advertising yourself and your work. His personal homepage was always updated with his most recent projects and publications, his name appeared everywhere when I searched for his research area, and his work was cited a lot.

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