When applying for PhD programs (or MPhil or MS) that require only a statement of purpose and not a research proposal, I was advised to first check if some faculty members (or is one good enough?) in the university have the same research interests as I do. I remember reading or hearing something like, it may be helpful to read up on the research that those faculty members have done and possibly contact some of those faculty members, and then incorporate the reading and contacting in the statement of purpose.

  1. So what could I ask those faculty members? What I think:

Hello Prof/Dr ___ .I'm interested in applying in your univ and am interested in X. Can I ask more about what you research? This is my background (I'm from blah blah blah. I have a master's, but it's in applied not pure math. I've done some self-study blah blah blah). Do you think I am a good fit for the university? Would you consider taking me on as a PhD student? Do you think I am better suited for MS/MPhil than a PhD?

  1. And then how do I incorporate the e-mails in my statement of purpose?
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    I'm interested as well.
    – BCLC
    Commented Nov 10, 2016 at 13:12
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    @BCLC Thanks for setting the bounty! Good luck with your applications! :)
    – BCLC
    Commented Dec 14, 2016 at 18:30
  • If I were a professor, I wouldn't accept a student who doubt his own suitability. I'm not gonna do any psychological counselling.
    – Michael
    Commented Nov 15, 2022 at 8:55
  • @Michael Lolwut?
    – BCLC
    Commented Nov 21, 2022 at 11:02
  • It's fair to expect that a student who doubt his own suitability would have some psychological problem during his pursuing a doctor's degree. Then his mentor would probably have to do some psychological counselling stuff. To avoid this, the best policy is not accepting the student at the beginning.
    – Michael
    Commented Nov 21, 2022 at 11:23

2 Answers 2

    1. Can I ask more about what you research?

      Don’t be so vague. You can find out for yourself what a professor is researching by reading some of their most recent publications. Think about the papers carefully and try and ask a pertinent question, for example:

      I was reading your paper X and have a question about Theorem Y. Is it related to Lemma Z as described in paper Q?

    2. Do you think I am a good fit for the university?

      Instead of asking what the professor thinks, I would emphasise why I know I’m a good fit for that university. If you don’t like the look of the department, why bother contacting them in the first place?

    3. Would you consider taking me on as a PhD student?

      I prefer “Will you be taking on a PhD student next year?”, although this may be just a cultural/ politeness thing.

    4. Do you think I am better suited for MS/MPhil than a PhD?

      Again, I feel this is something you need to decide before contacting them. Look closely at the program requirements and think critically about your own skills and knowledge and where you will fit best. If you’re still in doubt, contact the admissions tutor with this question, not a potential supervisor.

  1. Many of the PhDs I’ve been applying for lately strongly encourage inclusion of a potential supervisor's name in the statement of purpose, so they can direct the application to the relevant person. You could include a mention of the professor you contacted in the following way:

    My research interests lie in the field of pure maths, and more specifically how Lemma Z can be applied to Theorem Y. I would like to work with Professor A in research group B.

All of this is based on my own experience of applying to UK physics PhDs (which I am still in the process of doing).

  • Hey Natalie Hogg, great answer. I have some questions about your answer. Perhaps, you, OP and I may benefit: 1a. Okay so how does your suggestion fit into the SoP? 1b. same question. 1d. How does an admissions tutor know better about for example string theory than a string theory professor? 2. Instead of 'pure maths', why not a specific branch like 'numerical solutions to PDEs' or 'stochastic analysis' ? Are you going to say your research interests lie in physics/applied physics rather than a specific branch like 'string theory' ?
    – BCLC
    Commented Nov 10, 2016 at 13:16
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    1a and 1b: I would not include any other mention of a specific professor except in the way I described in part 2 of my answer. They should know why you're applying to their department based on the research interests that you have. 1d: In my experience (possibly UK only) the admissions tutor will be a lecturer or professor in that department. They just handle admissions too, so they know as much about string theory as any of their string theory professor colleagues....... Commented Nov 10, 2016 at 19:01
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    ...... 2. This was just an example, I don't know all the ins and outs of pure maths. In my applications I am writing something along the lines of "my research interests are in theoretical cosmology with a particular focus on inflation and dark energy". However, I can't write your SOP for you. You must decide how best to word it, and this may vary between fields. Commented Nov 10, 2016 at 19:04
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    From my reading here at Academia SE, this kind of self-recruitment letter may be appropriate in parts (or much) of Europe, but in the U.S. it is more common to simply apply for admission to the department and then match oneself up with a specific advisor after at least a year of student. (There are exceptions, of course.) Commented Dec 15, 2016 at 4:34
  • @aparente001 Not in Country A. Thanks and thanks astronat!
    – BCLC
    Commented Sep 2, 2018 at 8:59

I think you have misunderstood the advice you were given.

When you are advised to make sure your research interests align with those of some of the people working at the place you are applying to, people typically expect you to do the work yourself, not delegate it to random faculty members. If I received an email asking me what my research interests are, I'd either bin your email or, if I'm feeling generous, redirect you to my easy to find personal webpage where I've listed my research interests in great detail.

What you should do is go to the webpage of the institute/school/centre/unit/whatever you are applying to, and look through their staff directory. For each faculty member, there will often be a short summary of their research interests, and/or a link to their personal page, and/or recent/important publications (publications can be found in many other places as well, e.g. Google Scholar). If you cannot figure out the research interests of a faculty member using any of this information, perhaps graduate studies are not for you.

Or if that's too tedious for you, you can always look at research groups first to narrow down the list of faculty members. In this case, go to the webpage of each research group affiliated with the place you are applying to, and there should be a summary of the group's interests/goals somewhere there. If that information is not enough for your needs, but so far you think that group may be a match, go through the staff directory of the group and check the research interests of each group member. And if you want to know the specific things the group is working on, check the group publications.

So, contacting faculty for research proposals is inevitable, but completely unnecessary for research statements.

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    @JackBauer - Although this answer is a bit blunt/tactless, the procedure outlined is good. From what I've seen of your participation at Academia SE, you should not have any trouble following this outlined procedure. Commented Dec 15, 2016 at 4:31
  • "Can I ask more about what you research?" is different from "what my research interests are" ? Thanks 101010111100 and @aparente001!
    – BCLC
    Commented Sep 2, 2018 at 8:58

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