Applying for a PhD

I am not currently accepting PhD students. You are welcome to check back with me in the future to see if this has changed. In the meantime, please see below for some tips about applying for a PhD, as well as common mistakes I see when being approached to be a supervisor.

How can I apply for a PhD?
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There are a few different ways you can apply for a PhD - and some of these you can do simultaneously.

Apply for funding. Depending on which country you are wanting to do a PhD in, there are different places you can apply for funding specifically for prospective PhD students. In Canada, for example, you can find out more information about applying for PhD funding here. To apply for funding,  you will need an idea for a research topic and to develop a research proposal. You will also usually need to specify a university you would plan to do the research at, and find someone from that university who will write you a letter of support. This can be a good time to reach out to a prospective supervisor!

Apply for an advertised PhD position at a university. If you take a look at university job listings you will usually see that many of the advertisements are for PhD studentships. Take a look at the University of Calgary's opportunities here, for example. Some of these will be open-ended which means you will need choose your own topic and develop your research proposal around it. Others will already be advertised with a specific topic in mind (usually because these are externally-funded and part of a larger project). For these, you will probably still need to develop a research proposal as part of your application, but the research questions, for example, might already be set.

Self-funded PhD. It is also possible to self-fund a PhD, which is where, instead of receiving a salary or scholarship, you do not receive any compensation and will typically need to pay tuition as well. I would discourage most people from doing this because a PhD is a full-time job and you deserve to be compensated for it.

Approach a prospective supervisor. This can be a good idea if you know the person you are approaching personally. Then you can ask them for advice in a more friendly, informal way. However, it is different if you are approaching someone you don't know. Many people do this as a first step, however, it is much better to look into applying for funding and see if there are any PhD positions advertised first. It is also good to have a more specific idea of what you would want your PhD project to look like (try creating a 1-page research proposal). Then, once you have a better idea of what you want to do, you can reach out. If you can show that you have a specific question you want to work with and have looked into different funding streams, your prospective supervisor will know you are serious and might be more willing to help you out.

Common mistakes people make when approaching a prospective supervisor

Generic emails. Researchers get a lot of emails from prospective PhD students asking if they would consider supervising them. If you want to catch their eye, it is best to show that you reached out to them specifically because you think they would be a really good fit for you. It is also important to show that you have read their profile and know their work and to show how it fits with what you want to do.

A less useful example: I have noticed your research is aligned with my goals I have outlined in this email.

A better example: I have been following your work about XXX, and it has influenced my thinking about what I would like to study in my PhD in the following ways: XXX, XXX, XXX. I would love the opportunity to develop these ideas under your supervision.

Contacting supervisors who are not qualified to supervise your topic. If you are wanting to research a technical question about solar power, don't reach out to a social scientist studying sustainable food. The field of sustainability is a big one. Make sure the person you contact focuses on a similar topic, uses similar methods, or has relevant expertise of some other kind, because otherwise they will be unlikely to take you on as a PhD student (and if they do take you on, they are probably not the supervisor you want, anyway!)

Getting the prospective supervisor's name wrong. Make sure you spell it right! And a safe bet is to address them as Dr or Professor (depending on their title) plus their last name. Some people aren't fussy about this (I'm not!), but it is better to play it safe. If they write back and sign off their email with their first name, it is probably safe to switch over to that.

Focusing on the past but not the future too. It is good to talk about all the things you have learned about and the experience you have, but don't forget to talk about what you want to do next too. What are you wanting to study, and why? Make the bridge from the past to the future - which of your skills, knowledge, and experiences will help you in achieving your future academic goals?

Other resources

How to apply for a PhD

Advice on applying to grad school (including a template for an email to a prospective supervisor)