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When hiring PhD students, what document is used most frequently for a 'first impression': the CV or the research statement/statement of purpose?

Context: I am currently in the process of applying to several PhD positions. A constant factor seems to be the necessity to submit both a CV and a research statement-like letter. As I can imagine professors who get a lot of submissions cannot read all submitted documents entirely, I was wondering which document would be used more as a first impression, and which one as a more detailed insight into the candidate?

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    My guess is that it would depend on the individual. Some prefer to look at CV, others at the statement, and others prefer whatever happens to come up first. Personally, I think I'd look at the main degree and university on the CV (to give me a quick impression on the candidate's background), and the statement second.
    – Davidmh
    Mar 31 '16 at 15:05
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    I have to admit that I can't stand statements of purpose. In the past, they were totally unknown in my country, but nowadays, sadly, they are becoming increasingly common in the PhD admission process. Sadly, because I don't think there has been any improvement in the selection process after the introduction of the statement of purpose.
    – Massimo Ortolano
    Mar 31 '16 at 19:28
  • Not posting as an answer because I haven't done academic PhD student hiring, but in industry the CV is by far the more important document. Half of the "statement of purpose" documents that we get sent are simply ignored, and the other half glanced at. The CV is the universal document used to advertise oneself. Again, though, that's industry. Not sure if that's the case in academic hiring.
    – eykanal
    Mar 31 '16 at 20:20
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The first impression is, ideally, when you first talked with a prospective adviser and/or researchers in the department or lab before applying. Some people have small interviews (such as by phone or Skype) before application time, and it varies by person whether or not anyone will have even seen a statement or CV before/during this process. This naturally varies by region and field, but this is not uncommon in the US.

Naturally this is not always possible, in which case you'll just have submitted an entire application packet and have no control of the first impression - so literally anything you submit with the package could be the first thing a member of the admissions committee sees.

The typical routine is that an administrative department (generally "admissions" or a "graduate studies" coordinator) collects all the materials and puts all the information into files. Admissions committees then generally split up the applicants into sets and distribute them to individuals on the committee, with usually 2-3 people reviewing each applicant. It seems this particular handling of the process is very common (I've heard it from dozens of people in different fields throughout the US).

The first read varies by committee member, and it seems that absolutely everyone has their own weightings and order in which they review packets. Some professors say they think the personal/research statement is silly and the first thing they look at is the reference letters. Meanwhile some say they look at the reference letters last, as they want to see what the candidates own words are and then only see if the reference letters agree with that image. Some people think the CV tells the true story, while others think the CV is little more than a laundry list and nutshell reminder of what's listed in the other materials. Some professors have been reported as saying "I only accept people I've already worked with in the past" so the application materials are really just there to make the bureaucrats complain less, and pre-selected candidates need to just not screw up too badly on anything.

So in the end, in writing your materials you cannot assume any proper ordering whatsoever - everything has to be suitable if encountered first, last, only, or not at all!

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In my opinion, I would say "list of publications" (for PhD students as you have stated) which is generally found in the CV. When I think of hiring a PhD student, I think of a student who was able to publish 1-3 journal articles (maybe same number for conference proceedings) during his MS. A student who knows how to design/conduct an experimental testing (or at least was a part of one) and have a good grasp on his field. keep in mind that different students have different background and each field is different (for publication purposes). But, a good work at the MS level can result (most of time) in publishing in 1-2 journal articles. Even if he or she have had some help (most likely they would) from their adviser in writing and publishing. At least I know that they know the process and "been there, done that". For me, a student at PhD level should somehow be able to think independently and has his/her own scientific charisma!

I'm not trying to disregard an industry experience (which is very valuable, depending on the field). However, it is my preference to see solid proof of academic achievement. I tend not to weigh academic awards such as "outstanding student of department X award" that much since a lot can goes into that. However, I would weigh other awards like "Best paper in a conference" more heavily. I would also like to consider students who I have interacted with or know their advisers.

Also, I would not weigh GPA that much, especially at undergraduate level. I'm an example of a student with an undergrad GPA of < 2.6! Been admitted under probation couple of times too! But, in grad school, I was a completely different person. I would like to work with a student that can "think, analyze and be passionate about research" than working with a student with 4.0 GPA that can not figure out "stuff" if they are to be different than a text book example. I would not dare to generalize this statement, I would rather agree to the fact that there will always be that "odd" student who breaks the general norm.

Still, I would read his/her research statement and consider it to some extent. As you can not be really sure if s/he wrote it on his/her own, had somebody to go over it etc. If you were to take your chances and only judge a 1-2 page research statement (that has been edited multiple times by couple of people to perfect it), rather than list of publication (if the student has any), awards, personal connection (that I trust and value a lot) and recommendation letters, you might not end up with a sound selection. I think one should evaluate the student as a "full package" rather than focusing on independent criteria.

I'm interested in seeing what others would post and share. Especially with different prescriptive and fields.

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In my opinion and experience, the CV is always more important than the statement (in some countries and specialties the latter is not even required). The CV appears in fact more objective, it is multidimensional, and it summarizes much more stuff than a statement.

In addition, it is difficult (or impossible) to fake most of the stuff contained in a CV (unless you have an identical twin), whereas a statement could have been written by somebody else).

The statement remains useful and may provide an original perspective, but it is mostly there to leave room for failure, in my opinion. In other words, I would never hire someone who presents a poor CV but an excellent statement, whether I could still consider someone who has an excellent CV but a poor statement (it could possibly imply bad communication skills or extravagant ideas).

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