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Contacting Potential PhD Supervisors

In the process of applying for a PhD, it is often helpful to contact a potential supervisor in order to discuss the suitability of your research interests. This first interaction can seem daunting and difficult to approach. Our guide explains how to send your first email to a potential PhD supervisor.

Finding a PhD supervisor

The first stage for a postgraduate degree application is often identifying potential supervisors. Of course, FindAPhD is an excellent tool for searching projects and project supervisors. However, you may still want to consider the following factors in this process.

Considerations

If you are eager to move onto postgraduate education, there are some things to think about to identify the best PhD project and supervisor.

Firstly, you should select a research subject or area that interests you. This is the most important part of postgraduate study, and you must be passionate about the research project if you want to be successful in applying for it and completing it. We have more information about choosing a research project on our site.

Secondly, reflect on where you want to study. Is there a particular lab group, institution, city or country you would like to study in? Find out more about where to study a PhD.

Lastly, consider the potential supervisor. The relationship between the student and supervisor is critical to the success of a postgraduate degree. So, this must be someone you admire, has a good reputation for research and teaching, and has a compatible personality for you. Take a look at our advice on choosing a PhD supervisor.

Use these considerations to draw up a list of potential postgrad projects and supervisors. FindAPhD is the most useful way of doing this.

Research

Once you have identified potential supervisors, always read their research and become familiar with it. This is important to understand the research field better and ensure it interests you. It will also be very useful when contacting them.

Supervisors will have their own academic profile page, either on their university website or elsewhere. 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.

First email to a PhD supervisor

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

1. 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.

There should also be a brief but clear subject title to the email. This should explain your enquiry in a concise way. For example, “Enquiry for BBSRC-funded PhD in Viral Immunology”.

2. Use clear sections

The first email should have three sections: an introduction, the main body, and a conclusion.

  • 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 also be useful to briefly explain why you are interested, or how you discovered the supervisor. Plus, you can introduce your funding status or your intention to secure funding.
  • 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 statuses in more detail.
  • 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.

It is vital that this is 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.

3. 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 an additional 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.

However, it is important that each contact should be carefully considered. Each email should be tailored to the PhD supervisor in question. Therefore, simply copy-pasting an email and sending it to multiple potential supervisors may not be wise.

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.

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.

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 online. This is generally 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 things that will be discussed.

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, and 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.

Choosing a PhD supervisor

Selecting a PhD supervisor can be a difficult decision, and it is very important to your future PhD.

Once you have identified potential supervisors and met with at least some of them, it is useful to compare them in a shortlist. Compare their research and their personalities. It may also be useful to get some additional opinions about the prospective supervisor – do they have a good reputation for teaching?

Meeting a potential supervisor face-to-face is the best way of learning what sort of mentor they will be, and it is recommended.

Ultimately, your choice of PhD supervisor is personal to you. The first step is contacting your potential PhD supervisor to discover them.

Last updated 25/01/2021

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