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Five Key Elements to Consider when Applying for a PhD

Recently, a reader posted me the following question:

Hi I am thinking of doing PhD and have just come acrossed some scholarships possibiities as well. But before applying I need to contact a potential supervisor and required to do communication about possible phd topic etc. However I am reluctant as to how to start and what should I need to care about during first communication phase. I will be glad if you or someone reading it would provide some useful advice for this stage.

The requirements are different for every school, but there are a few general guidelines that should be helpful for every student who is planning to apply for a PhD (and apply for funding).

Here are the five key elements to consider when applying for a PhD:

1. Familiarize yourself with the work of prospective supervisor(s)

To get a grasp of the style of your prospective supervisor, or a professor you might be interested to work with, start reading a few of his papers. You shouldn’t aim at understanding the deep details of these papers, but just familiarize yourself with the topics he works on, the main ideas, his writing style, and his publication venues of preference.
Depending on your goals for graduate school, you might prefer to work with a supervisor who publishes mostly conference papers, as this can signify he/she has a strong network. Also, check if the professor publishes together with his PhD students, or if he publishes most of the research as first author and the students as workslaves on “lower” positions in the author list.

2. Write your autobiographical essay and letter of purpose and rewrite, rewrite and rewrite it again

Your autobiographical essay is your little stage, where you can give your prospective supervisor and institution an idea of what kind of person you are, and what your extra skills are besides your excellent academic qualifications. Don’t be afraid to mention all other extra-curricular activities that keep you busy, as these elements will help sketching a more complete profile of who you are as a student.

3. Explore the coursework

Have a good look at the courses that are offered, and examine if these courses can fit into your plan of study. If you want to specialize for example in seismic design, apply to a program that offers plenty of courses in this field of study. If you apply to a research-only program, you can still see if there could be courses that can fill the gaps in your knowledge – and you can mention this in your letter of purpose. You can show your prospective institution that you have seriously looked into their program.

4. Try to go for a personal visit

If traveling to your future institution is an option, absolutely try to carve out some time and budget to go for a visit. You will get an impression of your future supervisor, the facilities, the atmosphere and the town the institution is located in. You’ll be living in the same city for a decent number of years, so go and explore and wonder if you would feel at home in that place.

5. Prepare for possible tests in time

Depending on the program you apply to, you will need to take some standardized tests. Delft does not require any tests to be taken, but US institutions require you to take tests such as the TOEFL, GRE etc. If you take standardized tests abroad, try to take them at least a year before your intended start of study. There are not that many options for taking standardized tests in most European countries (once or twice a year for the GRE, for example), so make sure you plan ahead.

What would you advise someone who is planning to start applying for a PhD program?

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