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Q&A: When To Contact Possible Advisors

Q&A: When to contact possible advisors

I (not so) recently received the following question from a reader, and thought it would be good to address this in a Q&A post.


I am an aspiring PhD student who will be applying to programs this fall.
My question to you is, is it too late for me to start emailing potential advisors? Most of the programs I am looking into start their applications next month or in October. Thank you for your help and time.

The answer, as always, is: it depends. It depends on the system of the university as well as the funding mechanisms. My best advice here is to inform yourself very well on the procedures followed at the universities where you would be applying. Inform yourself on the following topics:

  • What are the procedures for application?
  • When are you expected to contact an advisor: before your apply, or when you have already received admission?
  • What are the boundary conditions for your admission: do you need to fund yourself? Do you need to join a funded project? Do you plan to apply for a scholarship?

Depending on the university and their policies for admission, the answer may be very different. For my work in the Netherlands, we hire PhD candidates as university employees or they join as externally-funded scholars. They are typically hired on a project (for the first option) or come with their own funding (for the second option) to carry out a specific project. In this case, contact with the advisor is necessary at the very beginning of the project.

On the other hand, when I did my master’s in the United States, I contacted my advisor only after I had gained admission, had all my visa paperwork arranged or in the works, and had my funding in order. I started the discussions on my courses and research only after I had arrived to campus.

There’s a wide range of options here, so understanding the expectations for the universities where you are applying is key here!

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