What types of methods are available to students today who want to find a University for a Master, PhD, or postdoc program that supports the student's obscure/specific area of research?

For example, I am looking for PhD programs that specialize in software engineering metrics analysis and process improvement. I have looked at the websites of about 15-20 universities that offer PhD's in Computer Science. Sometimes, I'll find "software engineering" listed vaguely as a research area, but as I research the publications and activities of the faculty, there will be just a single faculty member who does work in an obscure aspect of software engineering, like applying CASE tools to data modeling, validation of aeronautic systems, etc.

  • 2
    Technique 1: (1) Focus on countries of interest, this reduces the possibilities. (2) Focus on the universities of interest in those countries. (3) Have a look at the profiles of the professors there and check both their research interest list and list of publications. Technique 2: Talk to professors, PhD students and posdocs (in person or by email) working in the area or related areas.
    – user3836
    Commented Nov 16, 2012 at 15:45
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    in an obscure aspect of software engineering — Careful! Almost by definition, most researchers work in obscure aspects of their fields. (That's your goal, too!) If a topic isn't obscure, it's probably too well understood to be a good research topic.
    – JeffE
    Commented Nov 16, 2012 at 17:31
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    – Hauser
    Commented Nov 17, 2012 at 18:58

5 Answers 5


Look at affiliations in papers.

When I was looking for a PhD position, I systematically did an extensive literature survey. I didn't really read the articles, looked mostly at the abstracts, but I particularly looked at affiliations. At the time, I simply wrote down all academic institutes I found that were in Europe. In a more extended version, one could somehow assign a score based on the number of papers coming from a certain institution and the impact of each paper.

The big advantage of this is that one will find mostly groups doing active research in the field. Whether we want it or not, published peer-reviewed papers are (at least in my field, atmospheric sciences) the method for determining impact. I won't find groups that fail to publish using this method, but I probably don't want to do my PhD there anyway, so nothing is lost from my perspective.

For my PhD I ended up staying exactly where I already was, but now I'm about to do the same for finding institutes with a post-doc. It's one degree more complicated now because of the two-body problem, but even there: my significant other and I both make such a list, then we'll plot them on a map and look at pairs that are close to each other. But it all starts with:

Look at affiliations in papers.

  • 1
    I've tried it but with little success. As: not being deep into field yet means not knowing many related areas (and publications), affiliation changes with time, not every institute has open positions, and when I don't know any common contact, (sadly) the answer is usually lukewarm. So - to learn institutes: yes (hence +1), to be considered there - it might be not a sufficient condition. Commented Nov 16, 2012 at 16:07
  • Papers have affiliations? Wouldn't it be better to google the authors directly?
    – JeffE
    Commented Nov 16, 2012 at 17:29
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    Papers have authors and authors have affiliations. Surprisingly, not all academics are easy to google. I've had occasions where I wanted to find out the current institute of the author of a 10-year old paper, and finally found it only by looking at a new paper he co-authored; google didn't tell me the answer (and I'm not bad at googling).
    – gerrit
    Commented Nov 16, 2012 at 17:38
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    @JeffE Hard to google ≠ no web presence, as they might just have a common name or be the victim of a search-engine-unfriendly university website (incompetent webmaster teams exist). But the OP asks for a list of institutes, then why go paper → author → google → institute if the institute is already listed with the paper?
    – gerrit
    Commented Nov 17, 2012 at 17:31
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    To quote Piotr: "affiliation changes with time". And if a CS professor relies on a search-engine-unfriendly university website, you really don't want them as your advisor (or their university as your affiliation).
    – JeffE
    Commented Nov 17, 2012 at 17:37

A surprisingly effective method (I've tried it) is mailing the people working in your field of interest, something like: "I'll be applying to grad school, I'm interested in areas X, Y and Z. What places for PhD studies can you recommend?" At worst, your email will get ignored [1]. Often, however, you can get quite detailed answers even if you don't know the person you're writing to. Esp. if you are specific in what area you'd like to work in - some people are eager to help prospective grad students.

[1] To avoid being tagged as "spam", send the mails one-by-one even if you're mailing a larger group of people at once ;)

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    I do this method, but not in email. I ask on the relevant subreddit, and you will be surprised by the suggestions.
    – Ooker
    Commented Oct 20, 2015 at 8:10

I have just been going through what you are describing. There is no specific way to go about it. I will be painful and daunting when you don't start from any specific point. I can tell you what I did:

  1. Location: if you have certain preferences that might help you make some preliminary decisions. For example initially I decided on certain countries/cities and looked at all major universities there. Then I extended the range to locations that were not a preference. I did find some nice programs , for example in Alaska, but I could not force myself to apply there, I just can't imagine living 5 years in Anchorage.

  2. Publications and google scholar: I am in ecology so what I did was going into google scholar and type certain species with which I would like to work and a few other keywords "conservation", "GIS", "spatial modeling", etc. I read the abstract and the authors affiliations. I also limited the search to the last 5 years because people change affiliation and also I want to look at latest research. Then I only investigated the ones that were in places/universities where I want to go or interested in.

  3. Specialist groups: not sure how this translates into computer science (even if I am a computer scientist myself), but there are special groups that work with certain species, that was another great source of people.

  4. Job posting websites: this came in later but I did manage to find a few positions that were related to what I wanted to do. For example the ecological society of America as a bulletin with PhD position advertised by university directly, nature.com, findaPhd.com.

  5. Ask people in the field about good research labs, they should know a few.

I know these are mostly related to ecology but should give you some ideas. I also wasted time going through school's websites one by one and unfortunately there was no way around that. It was time consuming and not the most productive way but I didn't want to have any regrets or places I missed. Also, I know have a personal database of labs I like for my future career and I will have to do minimal research for my post-doc, etc.


In the CS field, Microsoft academic search, google scholar and DBLP are good resources to give a general overview of different pioneers in the field.
Also, look for the research interest of the faculty members and the research groups in the department.

One last thing is: follow with the top conferences in your area (i.e. ICSE) and see who's doing something interesting to you. Then search for them; see how their past students are doing.

  • Is it better if we look for plenary talk or keynote speakers?
    – khk
    Commented May 5, 2017 at 16:50

The relevant professional societies may maintain databases of graduate research.

For graduate programs in chemistry in North America, the American Chemical Society maintains a database of graduate research.

The database is searchable by faculty name and institution. However, there are fields for specific topics in the faculty search. If you leave the name fields blank, you can search by topic. For example, a search of "repeating sequence copolymer" gives one hit - my PhD adviser.

If you are looking for a very specific project in chemistry in North America, you can find it. It's not perfect. A search for olefin metathesis doesn't find Robert Grubbs, who received a Nobel Prize for his work in it.

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