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In Europe it is somewhat common to apply directly to professors for a PhD project at any time of the year. Specially in chemical engineering, bioprocessing, process engineering, material science and similar areas.

Assuming you are currently writing your master thesis (usually takes 1 semester), how early should you start applying for PhD's?

I found this related question Apply for PhD before finishing my Master's degree , however it deals with applying to US PhDs while doing a EU Master.

My doubt is about applying to EU PhDs while finishing a EU master.

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    Your generalization is too broad. It is certainly not common to apply directly to a professor if you are in mathematics, so you need to specify your field to get a meaningful answer. – Tobias Kildetoft Apr 29 '15 at 9:22
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In Europe it is somewhat common to apply directly to professors for a PhD project

I cannot speak for the whole of Europe (and I think you'd get better answers if you'd narrow down your question) but at least in Austria it is usually required that you apply directly to professors; you can only enroll at the university for the PhD program if a professor is willing to advise you (there are other ways, e.g., if you enroll in a graduate school type program; but they aren't all that common).

I know that in several (central) European countries, at least in Computer Science, it is very common to approach the potential future advisor before applying formally. A formal application is nonetheless necessary, since you will usually be employed by the university. In some cases, open positions are only announced once the professor has found a suitable candidate - so there might be (and there usually are) opportunities even if there are no listed open positions. If the professor already knows you (from courses or a thesis project) it shouldn't be a problem to talk about PhD opportunities. If the professor doesn't know you, it shouldn't be a problem either; but you should be able to show real interest in the subject.

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    Very true: "...it is very common to approach the potential future advisor before applying formally." – posdef Apr 29 '15 at 12:18
  • "approach the potential future advisor before applying formally". I am assuming that with "approach", you mean sending some kind of short letter/e-mail indicating your willingness to apply for a position? – Keine Apr 29 '15 at 12:52
  • @Keine: exactly. You could also call or visit the professor during his offices hours; though an email is probably the best and most convenient for both sides. – mort Apr 29 '15 at 13:10
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    @mort: Whether an e-mail is indeed the "best" way depends immensely on whether that particular professor has a tendency of ignoring or forgetting a percentage of the hundreds of e-mails they get every day, and whether that particular professor values and/or remembers face-to-face communication considerably over receiving e-mails from strangers. – O. R. Mapper Apr 29 '15 at 13:23
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    @Keine: "I can imagine sending one at 4.30pm is a sure way to get ignored." - e-mails are asynchronous. Even if you happen to catch the exact moment when the professor is at their computer and is actually reading e-mails, the professor would most likely first work through a large number of other e-mails from before before he or she arrives at the ones that have just now been received. (In particular, the fact that the e-mail arrived "just now" could even be an extra incentive to not react immediately.) – O. R. Mapper Apr 29 '15 at 14:49
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I don't really know the procedure for all countries but in France, the universities give priority to their own graduate students, especially concerning the scholarship. So, it is always better to do a MSc degree to be safe. Also, as mort said, it is mainly the professor who decide to enroll you in PhD. If a professor accepts your PhD project, it would be fine I think.

  • "...the universities give priority to their own graduate students, especially concerning the scholarship". I am not sure if this really is the case, and I am more tempted to say that it's actually not. And in France, you MUST have a master to enroll (and not apply) in a PhD. – PatW Apr 29 '15 at 14:18
  • I know that it is not possible to continue on PhD without MSc :) it is preferred that you have it in France, in the university to which you apply. I don't want to give the name of the university but as a PhD student, in 'one' of the university in Paris, this is absolutely the case. They give the priority to their own graduate students for giving the MESR allocation (ministère de l'éducation et de l'enseignement supérieur) – optimal control Apr 29 '15 at 14:28
  • "They give the priority to their own graduate students", is it because they are the best candidates for the job? If yes, fine with me. If no, then all I can say is that I find the selection process of this uni/lab/team fishy... – PatW Apr 29 '15 at 14:39
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There's nothing wrong with planning ahead, noone would blame you for not finishing your degree before applying.

However if you want them to take you seriously, and consider you for a position they might have, you kinda need to be not too far away from a speculative starting day. For that reason I'd say more than 6 months before graduation might be not optimal.

Also consider that in some countries, Sweden being one, PhD positions are full-time employment positions and they are announced publicly (even if a candidate is already present). From an employer's (or PI's) point-of-view, they need to show that they have the resources for the full-time employment, and that it's much difficult to "get rid of" someone, if the working dynamics aren't optimal, once a candidate is recruited.

What that means is that there are usually short-term, project assistant/worker positions that are meant to be "testing the water" for both parties (mine was about 8-9 months). It could also be so that the PI is waiting to hear from a funding agency for funds, and doesn't have the liberty to recruit immediately.

Such a "test period" is useful for the PI to check whether or not a candidate has what the job/project demands (academically and personally), and for the candidate it's a great chance to see the group dynamics, have a feel for how it is to work with that PI and his/her group, to work on that particular project.

So if the PI you contact does not immediately "accept" you for a position but instead offers a short-term position with the possibility of a full-term commitment, don't get dismayed :)

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