How to Contact Potential Supervisor for PhD (STEM)

Finding and securing a fully-funded PhD abroad is a long process. One of the key steps, where the majority of prospective PhD students struggle is contacting potential supervisors. In this post, I will discuss a few strategies and tips on how to find and contact potential supervisor for PhD.

Before getting into our main agenda, let’s understand when it is required. Yes, you don’t always need to contact a potential supervisor for PhD.

Types of PhD Positions

1. Structured PhD Programs:

Structured PhD programs are the ones in which a team of supervisors look after a group of PhD students. Such programs often have a strong international orientation with English as the team language.

Unlike the individual doctorate model that can be freely structured to suit the individual research project, here doctoral students and their research proposals have to fit in with an existing PhD program. Usually, students go through lab rotation (work with 3 or 4 research groups/labs) in the first year and then decide the main thesis topic.

Structured PhD programs are extremely competitive. Typically, 500 – 1,500 candidates compete for 20 – 50 PhD positions each year. These programs come with a central application system and have a fixed deadline (only once in a year).

More often than not, candidates are not encouraged to contact the Professors or Principal Investigators (PI) in such cases.

This is very common in Germany, Switzerland, UK, and USA.

During the application process, you need to submit various documents including CV (resume), Academic Transcripts & Certificates, Statement of Purpose (SoP), Letters or Recommendation, Test Scores, etc.

2. Advertised PhD Positions:

Unlike structutred PhD programs, the scope of the research is already outlined by the university (particularly in the STEM field).

Popular countries in this category are Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland, Germany, etc.

In the case of advertised PhD positions, you could approach the PI before submitting the application. Usually, CV and cover letter are required in the first stage of the application.

The advertised positions are available all year round. This is more like a job vacancy. Just like any job, 30 – 200 candidates might apply for one single position.

3. Open / Forced PhD Positions:

This is when there is no position at all. Candidates usually contact PIs and express an interest to do a PhD under the guidance of the particular PI.

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We will now get to our main agenda – how to find and contact a potential PhD supervisor; especially, in the STEM fields like Computer Science, Data Science, Engineering, and Biosciences & Biotechnology.

How to Find Potential Supervisors for PhD

Using University Ranking Tables

Quite often candidates start by looking at the top universities (in various rankings) and look for PIs with similar research profiles. This is no doubt a good starting point.

You can start by browsing through the research profiles of professors and shortlist the ones you find interesting to work with.

In this case, it will be critical to shortlist only those scientists who are working in the area where you already have some idea and you are really passionate about.

Using Niche Platforms

Another option could be to start looking for Professors/PIs who are working in the area in which you have got interested. Sites like ResearchGate, Nature, FindAPhD, PubMed, or Google Scholar are good options where you can find potential supervisors according to your area of research interest. In case you are not too sure about your interest area, it’s better to stick to the above method. But, the second method would have a better success rate.

Get Familiar with the Work of Potential Supervisors

Once you have created the list, you need to get familiar with their work.

You will need to read some of his recent research papers and get an idea of the lab profile as well. Yes, “recent” is critical. Research interests or research objectives might change after 5 years.

After reading recent papers, try to think about how you would go about extending them. Is there a particular skill set that you have or would like to gain that would be a complement to her work?

Supervisors will have their own academic profile page, either on their university website or social media platforms like Twitter and LinkedIn. These pages are good resources to find out about their work and research interests in their own words. You will also be able to find their email address there.

How to Contact Potential Supervisor for PhD

Email is the best mode of communication rather than contacting PIs on Twitter.

In the email, state that you’re looking for a Ph.D. advisor, which papers you’ve read, a sentence or two that has demonstrated you’ve thought beyond the content of the papers, and a request for permission to ask her a few questions about where her future research is going.

It may also be useful to briefly explain why you are interested, or how you discovered the supervisor.

The idea is that you should try to stimulate the PI by pitching your research ideas. Mere expression of interest of doing a PhD is not going to work in such cases. After all, PhD is all about working on your own (and new) ideas under the supervision of an expert in the field.

How to Write an Email While Contacting a Potential Supervisor for a PhD?

The very first thing PIs are looking for in new Ph.D. students is clue or some direction. They expect the students have got some idea about what they want to do and have got some objectives. Prospective students who spam an entire department looking for funded PhD positions do not have clue.

Professors get lots of emails from students making exactly that proposition. In fact, Professors receive e-mails requesting PhD positions almost every day, from all over the world. Most of these letters are very poorly prepared. Many of them are terrible.

PhD is not an internship. It’s not a work-study program. It’s you learning how to be a professional researcher. If you don’t know what it is you want to work on, great, that’s your first research problem: now go solve it.

More importantly, when you send the same email to 10 or 20 professors at one particular university (more likely it would be the same department), chances are very low to hear back from anyone.

Read how Sanya Jain bagged the prestigious Swiss Government Fellowship by contacting potential supervisors.

Strategies & Examples on how to contact potential supervisor for PhD (e.g. Biosciences):

Suppose you have got experience and interest in protein biology. You could approach PIs who are working in the field of biomarkers and/or drug target discovery. Rather than just sending a vague or generic interest, it would be great if you write that you would like to work on post-translational modifications (PTM) of proteins since the modified proteins could be novel biomarkers and drug targets.

If you are from Chemistry background, you could approach PIs who are working in the field of peptide therapeutics or drug designing. Alternatively, as a Molecular Biologist you could also approach a lab that is working on drug screening and you could propose to work on drug target validation and setting up assays.

Other examples include – with a background and interest in Immunology, you could target a group working on Cancer Drug Discovery and propose to work on Immuno-modulatory Therapies. Likewise, if you know about Molecular Modeling and Docking Studies, you can join a Biology or Pharmacology lab that is working on drug discovery.

Related Article: Fully-Funded PhD in Cancer Biology in Australia for Indian Applicant with Pharma Background

Example email to approach potential supervisor for PhD

Dear Dr. Rajesh Goyal,

I’ve read your journal about Bio-Chemistry with a focus on the molecular function of the latest medication for hypertension and it fits well with my research interest. I’m sure you can give me the best input regarding the subject matter and I want you to become my thesis supervisor.

Source: Biotecnika

Dear Dr. ABC,

My name is XYZ and I am an undergraduate student at the University of XXX. I am nearing the end of my honors biology degree in the Department of Biology, and I have begun to consider possible research labs for continuing my studies as a graduate student.

The attached CV shows how my co-op program has provided me with hands-on microbiology work experience in government and academic research groups. Coupled with these work placements, several lab courses have equipped me with expertise in cultivation-based and molecular techniques. I have developed an interest in microbial ecology through these experiences and my Biol 426 professor, Dr. AAA, suggested that I approach you about the possibility of a graduate position in your group.

Please let me know if there is a possible opening for a graduate student in the upcoming fall or winter terms. As shown in the attached transcript, my grades are strong, especially in the last 2 years. I will be looking into the possibility of applying for external scholarship support from one of the major funding agencies. You are welcome to contact my undergraduate research adviser and my work placement references, listed in the attached CV; they are aware that I am applying for graduate positions as a step toward a career in microbiology.

I am available to discuss this possibility further, and I look forward to hearing from you.


Source: Science

Dear Professor XXX,

I am a student at XXX College with a major in xxx.  I am a [junior] and will be graduating next May.  I have a [4.0 GPA] and experience in our college’s [summer program in xxx/internship program in xxx/Honors College/etc.].

I am planning to attend graduate school in xxx, with a focus on xxx.  In one of my classes, “xxx,” which was taught by Professor XXX, I had the chance to read your article, “xxxx.”  I really enjoyed it, and it gave me many ideas for my future research.  I have been exploring graduate programs where I can work on this topic.  My specific project will likely focus on xxxx, and I am particularly interested in exploring the question of xxxxx.

I hope you don’t mind my getting in touch, but I’d like to inquire whether you are currently accepting graduate students.  If you are, would you willing to talk to me a bit more, by email or on the phone, or in-person if I can arrange a campus visit, about my graduate school plans?  I have explored your department’s graduate school website in detail, and it seems like an excellent fit for me because of its emphasis on xx and xx,  but I still have a few specific questions about xx and xxx that I’d like to talk to you about.

I know you’re very busy so I appreciate any time you can give me.  Thanks very much.


Source: The Professor Is In

Dos and Don’ts while Contacting a Potential Supervisor

Keep it Short

PIs receive the expression of interest emails (from MS, PhD, and Postdoc candidates) throughout the year along with other important emails related to academics, collaborations, research grants, etc.

If you write a long email there’s a higher chance a professor will wait to read it “later” (read never.)

So, keep it short.

Give Them a Clear Call-to-Action (CTA)

Emails are more likely to be answered if they include something to answer. This could be as simple as asking if the academic is currently accepting expressions of interest from PhD students.

Don’t send that type of email to a professor. Be very clear about what you want from them. Ask direct questions like, “Will you be taking on new PhD students in the fall?” Questions like this are easier to answer which increases the likelihood that the professor will answer your email. 

Clear Subject Line

The purpose of a subject line is to tell the reader what the email is about. Use a subject line to reinforce your CTA. 

Good examples:

  • Inquiry from a prospective grad student
  • Inquiry for NERC-funded Ph.D. in Climate Change
  • Prospective Applicant – EPSRC – Material Science PhD
  • Potential applicant interested in your lab for Fall XXXX

Be Specific

Once you’ve asked if you can work with them, briefly introduce yourself in a sentence or two. In addition to where you study, include your research interests, why you’re interested in this professor’s work, and what you can bring to the table. You should also attach your CV to the email.  

Follow Up

If you don’t receive a reply from the professor within a week, it’s okay to send a gentle follow-up email asking for a response (or maybe two follow-up emails within a span of 3 weeks). If you still don’t get a response, it might be best to move on. 

How to Increase the Chances of Getting Positive Replies from Potential Supervisors?

But by the end of the first paragraph, the reader should know who you are (what school, what year, where you live), what you want, and what preparation you have — both academic work and research exposure. And why you are interested in my research area. Be specific — don’t waste space telling the professor how passionate you are.

There are no statistics. But, professors delete about 90% of the emails they receive from potential PhD students. They don’t even bother to look at the content of the email. So, here is an indirect trick to get their attention.

Try to find people close to them (read: their past/present PhD students) and kindly ask them to forward your email to the professor. Students understand what you are going through and they will be more open to the idea of helping you.

Thus you will not only make sure the prof reads your email but also since he received the email from someone he knows, he will have a greater chance of liking you. 

What do Professors / Supervisors look for in Prospective PhD Students

What professors are looking for is a student who can contribute to their research. And there are several ways in which one can show ability to contribute e.g conference papers, research articles, projects, relevant coursework. It is always a plus point if one mention exactly how he/she wishes to contribute to the research program.

If you demonstrate earnest curiosity and willingness to work and if the professor is looking for students, you will certainly get a positive reply. The key is shifting the focus from ‘Will you fund me?’ to ‘I wish to do this under your guidance‘.

Apart from academic brilliance, any PI will look for two important skill-set – technical skills (domain-specific) and transferrable skills (e.g., Statistics & Data Analysis, Blogging, Social Media, Foreign Language, etc.).

Read 4 best transferable skills to develop while applying for PhD in Biosciences-Biotech abroad.

Additionally, supervisors expect the following soft skills:

  • Intellectual Curiosity
  • Ability to Work Independently
  • Critical Thinking & Problem Solving
  • Numeracy
  • Adaptability
  • Creativity
  • Self-Motivation
  • Communication Skills
  • Public Speaking
  • Time/Project Management Skills
  • Business sense and Entrepreneurship (it’s a plus)

Featured Image Source: Elsevier

References: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9.

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