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I am from a relatively unknown university in an European country. I am one of the best performing students in my department and have won academic prizes and published several papers, which pretty much no one else does here before the PhD level.

I will be applying to good universities in other countries. However, I am worried that no one will admit me. If such thing would happen, how should I proceed to get a PhD at a widely recognized university?

I have thought to enroll on some summer courses organized by the universities I am applying to, to get in contact with people from there. What else could I try to do? Participating to conferences might be option as well, but it is difficult to get to talk to the people I would like to work with.

To be more precise, the awards are really large (4x my monthly salary), and the publications in mid-tier venues (impact factors in 2-3 range).

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    You may be overthinking this - your CV sounds strong, so just try and see how it goes. – Bitwise Dec 19 '15 at 14:54
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    @Bitwise I second. – Sathyam Dec 19 '15 at 14:56
  • Do you have a MSc degree? Most PhD programs in Europe, require a MSc degree to enter. – Alexandros Dec 19 '15 at 15:11
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    It looks more like you'll end up with the opposite problem of having to decide which of the many PhD position that you'll be offered, you should accept. – Count Iblis Dec 19 '15 at 15:48
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    Taken literally, your question seems to be "Suppose I don't get admitted to a PhD program. Then how do I get admitted to a PhD program?" Do you see why this is hard to answer? – Pete L. Clark Dec 19 '15 at 16:27
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I think that everyone who is applying for PhD programs should consider their backup options. Admissions are not a guaranteed thing (unless you have a truly exceptional record), and even if you get in many people decide that a PhD is not right for them partway through. Identifying a backup plan is an important insurance policy to have.

This is especially important if you are applying during your last year of undergrad. If your applications don't go as well as you hoped, finding a job or other opportunity starting in April can be an impossible task.

If you are sure that you would still want to get a PhD even after a disappointing application round, make sure to research 1- to 2-year opportunities that can strengthen your resume. Research jobs, RA positions, masters programs, some industry positions, etc. are all things to look at, though availability may depend on your field and situation. If possible, you should also ask your adviser if they know of any opportunities or can put you in contact with anyone who might.

Depending on the culture/positions, I would even consider applying to some along-side graduate school applications if you are unsure how they will go. I worked at a PhD stepping-stone-type job for a couple of years before applying, and we regularly interviewed applicants who were also applying to PhD programs. Many places won't be so understanding, so be careful with this, but we were fine with that situation.

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I should think that your CV, with the information you give, will attract attention and should earn you a couple of interviews. Having papers at your stage is a bonus.

I think you should just go and apply for positions. Or else, if you have someone in mind you would like to work with, you could send a (personalised!) email stating in brief your background (including achievements, and attached a full CV) and that and why you want to work with him.

In short: I think your resume, as described, is clearly better than par for the course and I recommend, go for it without too much worry.

  • When talking to a Prof, make sure you select ones that are close to what you would like to do as a PhD and indicate that and why you are interested in their topics. The best CV will not help you if they perceive you as disinterested or inattentive to what they want to do. – Captain Emacs Dec 19 '15 at 21:40
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I know of many international students with the same issue. They're very bright and have a great academic resume, but most of the professors at top US Universities haven't heard of their schools. Because of this it's hard for an admissions committee to accurately judge how good they really are.

What often happens is that they end up enrolling in a Master's program at a good school, get top marks, and maybe do a spot of research while they're there. Afterwards they can use that to springboard into a good PhD program.

  • That can be true, but the OP mentions numerous publications. If so, those (particularly the journal or conference in which they were published) should shed much more light on the potential quality of researcher than the name of a school and would probably be enough to pass the eye test – marcman Dec 22 '15 at 7:18
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Based on what you have said, I would tend to agree with some of the other commentators that you shouldn't have too many problems securing a position. However, if you do have some challenges with getting accepted for a PhD program at a top university it will probably be due to uncertainty about about (i) the credentials you have and thus your working ability, and (ii) your ability to work with a given supervisor, or team.

To provide more certainty about these abilities you could:

  1. Consider doing a masters or short course at the institution you want to attend, or one of a similar level. This helps as it can provide an accepted signal of quality (e.g., "I was ranked no.1 in my cohort within [relevant course], in [respected university]"). If doing this you should try to do projects/classes with a sample of suitable supervisors as doing so will make it a lot easier to convince them that you are a reasonable person that they could work with than could be determined via email/skype (as is the case now).
  2. Consider finding a professor in your area to work on a paper with. This could be a foreign professor that you would like to work under (e.g., one who is abroad), or one who is local but who has international contacts in places you want to go (e.g., has co-authored with academics at these institutions) and is known and respected internationally. If you work with a foreign professor and it goes well, they are much more likely to want to supervise you and invest the effort in supporting your application (and you will probably get in on that basis). If you work with the well connected local professor, your work with them will be a strong signal for the potential supervisors in their network, that (i) you are good worker, and (ii) that you are someone who is easy work with. Plus you can get a recommendation if you are lucky, and that could carry considerable weight.
  3. Find some reason to be in an area with good universities (e.g., do an English course in Boston), then arrange a meeting with the supervisors who you are interested in working with. This will give you a chance to convince them that you are genuine, and for them to get a sense of whether they can work with you. In my experience face to face meeting are much more likely to spark a desire to collaborate (e.g, within a supervisor student relationship) than email/skype exchanges.

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