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Contacting Potential PhD Supervisors

Written by Chris Banyard

When you’re applying for a doctoral programme, it’s a good idea to email a potential PhD supervisor to discuss your research area. This is also a chance to find out whether they’d be interested in supervising you.

This first email to a PhD supervisor can seem daunting. Our guide explains how to approach and write to a potential PhD supervisor, with advice on email etiquette and the all-important first meeting with them. Elsewhere on our website, you can find out more about how to choose the right PhD supervisor.

First email to a PhD supervisor

Before you contact a potential PhD supervisor, you should be prepared to do your research on their research, becoming familiar with their work and academic specialisms (if you aren’t already).

Supervisors will have their own academic profile page, either on their university/departmental website or elsewhere. These pages are good resources to find out about their work and research interests in their own words. They’ll usually mention whether they’re currently accepting supervisees – and what academic areas they’re keen to supervise PhD students in.

When writing a PhD supervisor request letter, you’ll need to show that you understand their previous publications and their current research activity. Don’t assume that you can send a generic email to a potential supervisor without displaying genuine knowledge and passion of their field.

In most cases, the best way to approach a potential PhD supervisor is by email. This should be a formal email, in many ways similar to an application cover letter.

1. Include a clear subject line

Make sure your initial email doesn’t have a vague subject line that could lead to it being ignored (or heading straight for the spam folder). Some examples could be:

  • ‘Prospective PhD student interested in Hegelian dialectics’
  • ‘Enquiry for BBSRC-funded PhD in Viral Immunology’

2. Introduce yourself

The introduction should introduce yourself and your background, including your current level of study and any experience. You should also establish your interest in studying a research topic under the supervision of the academic. It may be useful to briefly explain why you are interested, or how you discovered the supervisor, which can be a good way of building rapport with them. Plus, you can introduce your funding status or your intention to secure funding.

3. Explain your intent

The main body of the email should explain your intent in further detail. This section could act like a mini CV, and even complement it if attached. It should highlight your eligibility and enthusiasm for PhD study, and your interest in the supervisor’s research discipline.

Here, you can also explain your funding, residential, and study mode status in more detail. If you’re applying for a specific advertised PhD project, include the name of the project.

4. Summarise your interest

The conclusion should summarise your interest in the PhD and your suitability for it. You may also include future ideas and a polite invitation to reply. Make sure you’ve provided evidence of your commitment to (and experience in) this particular research area. Give examples of your familiarity with the supervisor’s own work.

It is vital that the email kept as brief, targeted and specific as possible. Try to avoid passive or hesitant statements. Supervisors are very busy, and if they find any reason why this email is not relevant it can be ignored.

5. Sign off professionally

Conclude the email to a PhD supervisor by thanking them for their time and consideration, with a professional sign off.

Choosing the right supervisor

Finding and choosing the best supervisor for your project can sometimes be tricky. We’ve put together a handy guide on what you’ll need to take into account.

Some extra advice

Be aware of email etiquette. As a formal email, effort should be made to be polite and respectful. Be assertive but avoid rudeness or disrespect.

Use the supervisor’s correct title, starting with “Dear” and signing off with “Yours sincerely” or “Kind regards”.

Make sure there are no typos or grammatical errors, and there is clear and consistent formatting.

Have patience! Supervisors can have hectic schedules and may not be able to reply to every email in good time. If there is no reply after one or two weeks, it may be worth sending a polite reminder email. Try to avoid badgering your favoured supervisor with numerous follow up emails, as this could give a negative impression.

Should I email more than one potential PhD supervisor?

It is OK to have multiple research interests and contact multiple potential supervisors.

But it is important that each contact should be carefully considered. Each email should be tailored to the PhD supervisor in question. Copy-pasting an email and sending it to multiple potential supervisors isn’t a good idea.

There should also be a degree of transparency – most supervisors will understand that you may be contacting others, so long as they are not misled to believe otherwise.

Should I send a CV to a PhD supervisor?

It is usually a good idea to attach a CV along with this email.

This can complement the email and will demonstrate your appropriate qualifications and experience for a PhD. It is helpful to reference the key parts of your CV within the email.

This is often more important for Science, Engineering and Medicine projects than it is for Arts and Humanities.

It’s a good idea to attach a PDF version of your CV to avoid any potential formatting issues.

Should I send a research proposal to a PhD supervisor?

It is usually better to identify your potential supervisor and have already contacted them before writing and submitting a research proposal.

Crafting a good research proposal can be time-consuming and may require a deeper understanding of the potential supervisor’s research before starting writing.

For some PhDs, such as pre-set projects, it will not be necessary to write a research proposal at all, as you’ll be applying for a PhD that has already been organised and agreed upon by a funding body.

First meeting with a potential PhD supervisor

Often, emails to the potential supervisor will lead to a request for a meeting. This could be in person or via a video messaging platform like Zoom, Microsoft Teams or Skype. This is a good sign – the supervisor is interested in you as a candidate and may want to find out more about you or explain more in person.

You now have an opportunity to discuss your interests, ask questions, and meet your potential supervisor to see if they are compatible with you.

Although this is not the same as a formal PhD interview, it may still be worth approaching in a similar way, including preparing for interview questions. Although this should be more relaxed than an interview, you should be prepared and professional.

Preparation

Before the meeting, make sure you are familiar with the supervisor’s research and publications. Not only does this show interest in the supervisor and the research field, it will be useful to understand some of the topics you’ll be discussing.

It may also be worth reacquainting yourself with your emails to the potential supervisor. There may be specific questions or points brought up that could be discussed further.

Finally, make a good first impression. Be interested, interesting and dress professionally.

Questions to ask a potential PhD supervisor

While preparing to meet a potential PhD supervisor for the first time, it’s a good idea to have an idea of several questions you’d like to ask them.

You’ll want to sound enthusiastic and engaged. Showing that you’re interested in finding out more about their research and what supervision under them would look like is one way of doing this. Here are some suggestions:

  • How many other PhD students do they supervise? This can be a good way to find out if you’re going to be part of a larger team of supervisees or a relatively small partnership. There may also be a chance to discover potential crossover between your research and that of your fellow students.
  • What opportunities are there for career development during the PhD? Ask your potential supervisor about opportunities to attend PhD conferences, publish papers and teaching responsibilities.
  • How often do supervisory meetings happen? The answer to this question can be indicative of whether your supervisor will take a hands-on (or hands-off) approach and help you find out how your relationship with them will play out. You might also want to ask them about their policy for reading drafts of your research.
  • What expectations do they have of their research students? This could entail the number of publications you make during your PhD as well as participation in conferences and workshops.

Meeting

This is the first stage of developing a potential student-supervisor relationship. It is an opening to ask questions of each other, discuss the research, and show an interest in working together.

This should be a two-way meeting. Remember to evaluate your potential supervisor, checking if they are a right fit for you. Try to learn about their supervisory style, commitment to teaching, and their ability to offer you development opportunities. It may also be a chance to meet the research team and view the laboratory facilities (if appropriate).

Follow-up

After the meeting, it is worth evaluating everything you have learned about each potential supervisor and begin to compare them. Ensure you keep notes and keep in contact if necessary.

Last Updated: 11 April 2022

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