I am a masters student at a top-rated US university in electrical engineering. I have been working under a professor who joined the department last semester. He is quite happy with my progress, but can't offer me a PhD as he doesn't have enough money. He has agreed, though, to help me get a PhD by recommending me to other professors.

The task of finding a professor, however, is on me. The issue arises here, as in my department professors don't actively search for students. It works mostly like a referral system, where the professors take up recommended students. Thus most of the openings get filled up before they make a public announcement. One way to solve this is to write mails to several professors to ask for openings. What I am looking for is this: is there a better strategy?

  • Go talk to folks you would like to work with? – keshlam Jun 15 '15 at 14:36
  • Yes. This is what I thought. I mail them first and then get an appointment to talk to them. Is there anything else I can do? – GKS Jun 15 '15 at 14:41
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    Is the culture in your department such that you can't just walk into people's offices during their office hours. Do you really need a formal appointment? Surely you must know several of these folks from your courses as well such that you could approach them without having to make an appointment. – Bill Barth Jun 15 '15 at 15:20
  • During Summer time, I don't think, any of the professors hold office hours. Since, the field I am interested in is across 3-4 departments, I may have to go to the professors I haven't had classes with. – GKS Jun 15 '15 at 15:41

Rather than emailing lots of faculty asking for openings, I would recommend emailing a few faculty who seem most interesting to you asking for a discussion about the possibilities of joining their department. The reason is that rather than just polling for openings, you want to get connected to the referral network (which your current professor appears unwilling or unable to do for you). I would thus recommend approaching the discussion not as:

Hi, can you hire me?

but instead as:

Hi, I'd like to figure out whether my research interests and personality are a good match with you or others in the department. If they are, can you hire me or else can you point me to somebody else who is likely to be interested in doing so?

This way, instead of asking a simple yes/no question, you are engaging the person in a way that may also lead you to good connections that you wouldn't have even thought of asking about. By following the leads from such conversations, I think you are significantly more likely to find a good match than just by sending out polling emails.

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  • This sounds like an interesting approach. I am going to give it a shot. What should be subject of such an email? – GKS Jul 12 '15 at 23:46
  • @GKS When possible, I prefer an introduction to a cold contact. If your current professor is highly supportive of you, they are likely to be willing to at least help you out in that manner. – jakebeal Jul 13 '15 at 4:52

Well-known professors get too many emails from potential Ph.D. students from all over the world and they simply do not have time to respond to all of them. They cherry-pick only the most serious applications based on:

  • Quality of the application. Your resume, references, and may be a short statement of purpose in the body of the email.
  • Background match. The applicant did work in his masters on relevant topics. Ideally, the applicant did spend some time to skim through some of the professor's publications and discusses those.
  • Enrollment overhead. Applicants already enrolled in the same university have the lowest overhead since they do not need to relocate and can be interviewed face-to-face. On the other hand, overseas applicants have the highest overhead.

That being said, sending a simple email asking for a potential opening is not the best strategy. Choose specific professors and spend some time to send them concrete and serious applications.

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  • But in this case, the asker is interested in approaching potential supervisors in his department and with someone in the department willing to endorse him. I would think they would be more willing to make time for a casual chat before beginning a formal application process in this case than for any random applicant. – MJeffryes Jul 13 '15 at 11:41
  • @MJeffryes I think that attaching a resume and taking some time to skim through some publications of a potential advisor to identify some common interests would always make a better impression. – user36661 Jul 13 '15 at 12:09
  • For sure, I would attach a CV and check out their publications, but I really don't think the asker should be too afraid to send a short email. They should be aiming for a casual discussion rather than a formal interview, and I think the supervisor is likely to request any more detail they want. – MJeffryes Jul 13 '15 at 12:21
  • Attaching a CV and probably knowing enough about the current projects are indispensable. However, the concern is how much formal the first contact should be. – GKS Jul 13 '15 at 16:03
  • @GKS In the case of formal application you need to attach a well-written statement of purpose and prepare for a formal interview. In your case, however, that doesn't apply. You only need to briefly describe your case and prepare for a general chat just to get to know each other. – user36661 Jul 13 '15 at 18:22

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