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Ad Lagendijk Ad Lagendijk 9 May 2012

Applying successfully for a PhD position by email

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Posted in Tips

job search Applying successfully for a PhD position by emailEstablished scientists receive numerous email messages from people applying for a PhD position in their group. I get a few per week and I am sure some of my colleagues get many more. At first sight this looks a burden, but it is not. More than 95% can be put aside after reading the first few lines. In the following I will give a few tips and I am sure that if you bring them into practice you will get a positive response of the scientist you have sent the application.

Your application should consist of the following:

  • body of the email (BODY, size 1 page)
  • attached cv (CV)
  • attached motivation letter (ML, size less than 1 page)
  • attached information about your grades (GRADES, size less than 1 page)
  • attached (PowerPoint) presentation (PRESENTATION, duration of presentation about 20 minutes or about six slides)
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Here are the guidelines (improved due to comments by Mirjam and Peter):

  1. Relevant expertise: Only apply to those group leaders whose field of research and your expertise overlap. I get regularly applications form people applying for an “organic chemistry” position, whereas my field of research is optics.
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  2. Show in ML your interest: Study the science record of the group you are applying to. Either by checking them on Google Scholar, Web of Science, or their their own web site. Check their successes in the media. Explain in ML in detail why you chose that group and what you like about the research – and mention some of their recent successes in your own wording. Make a connection between your expertise and interest and the work in the group. Explain why you want to work in that institute and in that country. Add something personal about why you study science and about your ambition in science. Do not iterate your CV in your ML.
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  3. CV : Make your CV very clear. No running text,  but more a collection of tables with headings like: ” Education”  ”Skills” and “Experience”. Do not blow up your cv with trash. No publications “in preparation”. Do not claim skills that you obviously Do not hide your weak points and discuss obvious weak points in your CV or in your ML like “During my study I switched from experiment to theory and that caused a delay”. The scientist reading your cv should be able to get the main points in 30 seconds.
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  4. GRADES: If you have all your grades readily available on official university certificates you can send a copy. But this is not really necessary. In any way summarize your grades in half a page or so. What the scientist who is receiving your application really wants to know is: are you in the top 10%,  or top 20% or top 30%. If you grades are lower you do not need to apply, unless you have a very good explanation.
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  5. PRESENTATION: Prepare a 20 minute presentation (pdf file, Open Office or PowerPoint) in which you present research you have been doing as a master student. Prepare it carefully and spend time on it. Do not make a mess out of the presentation.
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  6. BODY: Summarize in the body the main parts of CV, ML and GRADES
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  7. Make the email personal.  Do not start with: “Dear professor” or “Dear doctor”. But start with “Dear Dr. Johnson”.
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  8. Spelling and grammatical errors: Avoid these errors. Have a colleague student read and correct your application. Do not claim to be fluent in English if your application obviously shows you are not.
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If you follow this advice each application will cost time, a few hours, but the success rate is much higher than sending a hailshot, that is sending hundreds of identical emails to different group leaders. In the latter case your chance of success is zero.


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  1. Unregistered

    9 May 2012 23:09, Philip Chimento

    Another surefire way not to get a position: take a look at the group’s website and send your application to everyone listed there under “Grad Students” or “Junior Scientists”. Address them as Dear Professor Chimento and ask them to consider you for a position in “their” group.

    This is momentarily flattering, but it only reminds us of just how very far we still have to go for it to be real.

  2. Mirjam

    10 May 2012 9:47, Mirjam

    Or send it to an outdated email address…

    9. In your CV do not claim to be fluent in English if from the rest of the application it is clear that you are not

    10. Do not use ‘Madame’ in every sentence

    Btw, Ad, how do you know that those shots of hail *never* lead to success? Spam exists for a reason…

  3. Unregistered

    10 May 2012 15:57, Peter

    You write, that if an applicant is not among the top 30% of students, he or she has practically no chance of being considered. Can you also make a similar statement about an applicant’s age?

    In the next to last line of your post “later” should be “latter”. And the first sentence in your fourth item is not as clear as it could be.

    Kind regards

  4. Ad Lagendijk

    10 May 2012 21:57, Ad Lagendijk

    @Mirjam
    Thanks a lot. I have incorporated one of your additions.
    I never had people referring to me as Madame :-). Anyway I count this as a grammatical error.
    Indeed the similarities between spam and some of these applications are striking
    @Peter
    Thank you very much. I have corrected the error and tried to improve the sentence you referred to.
    Age of applicant: I notice that it is getting more difficult to get tenured positions and for that reason the average age of a postdoc is increasing. For a PhD candidate this different. The age limits are never explicit but I would say that a starting age of early 30 is in general at the boundary and mid-20′s is considered to be ideal. But I have seen numerous exceptions. I hear people talking about giving science teachers an opportunity to get a PhD. In my country technicians with a polytechnic degree can also accept a PhD position. In these two cases age could be well above 30.

  5. Unregistered

    18 May 2012 10:55, M Arifur Rahman

    Dear Prof. Ad Lagendijk,

    Thanks a lot for this useful post.

    Could you please post something about applying for a post-doc positions? As a last year PhD student, this could be very useful for me.

    Thank you again.

  6. Mirjam

    20 May 2012 1:22, Mirjam

    At least in The Netherlands and the US (and maybe in other countries as well) discrimination by age is forbidden by law. In the US one also does not give their date of birth in their CV (while the Dutch are obsessed with it, if you look at any official form). The actual CV should decide whether you are suitable as a PhD student. I am in favor of allowing people to follow unusual career paths, because life is not always straightforward for everyone and it ensures that you don’t kick out good people just because they did not follow the standard route (these may even be more interesting and possibly creative people!). Not judging by age supports this.

  7. Unregistered

    16 Aug 2012 13:54, Simon

    Great advice thanks. I will forward your recommendations over to the people we speak with.

  8. Unregistered

    20 Aug 2012 22:53, vipulgreattt

    A very nice blog. Thanks

  9. Unregistered

    13 Sep 2012 18:03, Matt

    Like, M Arifur Rahman, I would love to read some advise about looking for potential postdocs via email. Thanks!

  10. Unregistered

    10 Feb 2013 12:19, Edgaard

    Thanks for sharing, would you mind showing us a good ML as a template maybe?

  11. Unregistered

    9 May 2013 19:13, B.Gjonaj

    This post is extremely useful! If you follow the guidelines your chances are pretty high. In a realistic scenario you will also have the choice to pick up your group leader. This point I want to discuss: how to select the right group leader?
    I think that few tips in this direction will complete the goal of the post and save some time.

    Make list of the group leaders that inspire you (10-15). Rank them based on your information (scientific interests, works, papers, career …) .

    1- Send to each of them a short email (not an application) where you express your interest in their group and ask of available positions. Best time to send it: middle of the week during lunch time. Assign to each group leader a response time. Now you know who will dedicate you more time as a possible supervisor. It is critical information.
    In principle you can measure the same response time with the full application. Personally, I would not take the time to prepare an application for someone who does not answer at all.

    2- For each group leader find out how many PhD’s he has supervised. A good estimate: the first authors of the papers having the group leader as last author. Find out how many of these supervised PhD’s have their own group or are trying to. Assign to each group leader the success rate of his past PhD’s. Now you know who will prepare you better. (takes only few minutes using web of knowledge)

    3- Get in contact (email) with someone working with the group leaders. Tell them about your ambition to become in future their colleague and ask them some basic info regarding the atmosphere of the group. For example: how often do they go out for dinner as a group, how often do you make jokes with/of the boss, did anyone quit from the group recently.
    Now you now where you will find the best atmosphere.

    You can make your list shorter now.

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