I’ve previously written about applying to a PhD program, where I talk more about the logistics of the application. In this post I’ll write about a few things people try that are a bad idea, in my opinion, and my suggestion for how to apply if you’re really serious about it.
Many students will send bulk e-mail, i.e. spam, to every possible professor at every possible university asking to study with them – usually wanting funding. I started getting these e-mails while I was still a PhD candidate and continued to get them while I was a lecturer (teaching faculty with no graduate students), a post-doc (working as a researcher without my own graduate students) and as an assistant professor at a teaching university (where we only had a coursework based Masters).
Very often these e-mails were in a totally different subject and I only ever received one from a student that was actually interested in researching something related to my research interests.
Faculty view these e-mails as similar to penis enlargement e-mails and I can’t imagine the potential students who send them out ever get any traction from them. Some faculty felt obligated to politely respond – always declining – to the sender, while others would just delete them or flag them as spam.
It’s a waste of time and money to execute a mass mailing campaign like this. I would strong recommend to devote your energy elsewhere.
Most faculty are very sympathetic to applicants coming from impoverished environments. Students will sometimes contact advisors, say they would like to apply to work with that person, but that the application fee is a hardship. This is usually followed by a request for the faculty member to tell them whether or not they would accept them if they applied.
On one hand, there’s a clever psychology behind this. You basically grab the faculty member’s attention and force them to consider you. If they weren’t going to go looking for a new graduate student, you might get them to consider you anyways. If they were planning to take on a new student, you jump to the front of the line. Either way, you can save the $100 application fee.
I think most faculty members react to these requests with irritation. A big part of the application process is to streamline things and make it more manageable for faculty. The last thing most professors want is for the process to fall apart and for them to get bombarded by e-mails.
There also is the implicit assumption that the student saving $100 is more valuable then the professor’s time pre-approving them. Professors HIGHLY value their time, I’ve had professor who clearly felt 20 or 30 hours of my time was worth less than 1 hour of theirs, and many won’t be happy about a potential student trying to devalue it.
If you have a connection to a professor, such as a former classroom teacher or a Masters supervisor, who has a professional connection with someone you’d like to work with, BY ALL MEANS ask them to introduce you and inquire about working with them. This is probably the easiest and best way to start working with someone.
If you actually want to work with a former teacher or advisor, this is even easier.
Sadly, usually you won’t have such a connection early in your academic career.
In Person Meetings
I was interested enough in a school that when I was applying to do a PhD, I self-financed a trip out to visit them. I contacted the department, told them I was interested in doing a PhD there and asked if I could arrange meetings with faculty members. I met with a large number or professors, got a tour of the campus and although I ultimately went somewhere else, it was an excellent experience – and many of the faculty I met with expressed that they were interested in working with me.
Connecting with an Advisor
The following is the advice I give to students thinking about embarking on graduate studies. It’s more work than any of the above approaches, but I think it has a far better chance of success.
Determine any academics who you already know you’d like to work with. Then go to the faculty page of any institution you’d like to work at and go through the faculty directories and add to this list any professors you’d want to work with at that institution.
Moving down the list, person by person, look at their publications and read a few of their recent works. Start by looking at the titles, then read the abstract. Pick out 2 or 3 that seem interesting. Multiple people have provided instructions on how to read academic papers. Review some of these, and apply the techniques to reading these papers. If you find some papers easier to get into than others, that could be a good indication that you’ll find those research areas more interesting. If you find this a painful exercise and avoid the entire thing or hate it the whole time, it may be worth thinking whether or not you want to a graduate student (at least in this area). Reading papers is a big part of being an academic.
After you read each paper, make some notes about it. What did you like about what they did? What are you confused about? What would be an alternative (maybe better?) approach to what they’ve done? What would be interesting follow up work?
Contact the professors, and for the first message just write to them about 1 of their papers and discuss some of these questions and answers with them. I’d love to tell you that you’re guaranteed a good response, but even with this approach many faculty members will blow you off and either not respond or respond very tersely.
If you get a friendly response, continue with this discussion, and after you’ve exchanged a few messages, you can broach the subject that you’re planning to apply for a PhD and ask if they’re taking on new students. Some will encourage you and others won’t.
At this point, if someone is willing to take you on as a student and you want to work with them, you’re done. The application process is a formality, and basically as soon as your application is received, that professor will accept you as a student and you’re in.
For those in PhD program, how did you go about your application? What other ways to apply for a PhD do you think are good or bad?