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PhD Candidate Selection and Supervisors’ Challenges

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PhD Candidate Selection and Supervisors’ Challenges

An increasing number of international students are going abroad to pursue their academic journeys. Most prospective students applying for PhD positions are also seeking financial support, e.g., PhD scholarships in Australia, RA & TA Funding in USA and Canada, Marie Curie PhD Scholarship in Europe, etc. A crucial step in the application process for available fully funded positions for international students is contacting research supervisors.

Aside from the difficulties the prospective students face within the application process, academic supervisors have their challenges. While shaping the idea of the Applyindex startup in mid-2021, market research was conducted by Dr. Amin Reyhani, asking academic supervisors about the challenges they face when hiring a PhD candidate. In brief, some of these challenges are:

  • Supervisors receive a high number of emails and CVs every day.
  • Students give bad first impressions when contacting supervisors.
  • It is hard for supervisors to select a potential PhD candidate from numerous strong CVs.

Below you can read the perspectives of academic supervisors at three different universities in Australia, Switzerland, and Germany to Dr. Reyhani’s questions about the PhD application process challenges:

PhD candidate selection by a Professor in the School of Chemistry at Monash University, Australia 

I guess a general problem is that there are simply too many applications. Most often, applications are quite impersonal, and applicants have not informed themselves very well about the requirements and possibilities to carrying out PhDs in my group at Monash University.

So, the sheer volume of emails combined with a perceived lack of specificity on the applicants’ side, leads to treating many of the emails as spam. I am aware that this also excludes many certainly capable prospective students, and I wish I had a better way of filtering them, but then I try to be fair to everyone.

I would not expect students to know about my minimum requirements for financial support. The system is not transparent enough to allow for outside judgment. Having said that, a certain self-awareness is often useful. I would say that most applicants have reasonable grades though as far as I can judge, even if only a few are good enough to come into consideration from a university threshold point of view.

What I do expect though is that applicants, first of all, provide me with all relevant details rather than making me ask for all of them (you can see my motivation to do so is low for unsolicited applications). And I expect people to look into my group, and our research, and be able to show why they want to do research with me.

90% of applications I receive fail at this point. This sends the message of either a) they do not care what they work on, or b) they want to work on their interest, but they do not care if that aligns with my group. Both are immediate killer arguments to discard the application.

Monash University is one of the top universities in Melbourne, which provides competitive PhD scholarships in Australia.

PhD candidate selection by an Assistant Professor in the Department of Materials at ETH Zürich, Switzerland

I agree about the many emails and applications we receive. Many CVs are simply not good, so I guess a huge problem is to define whose CV is good and why. This problem becomes even worse when you have to consider people from different countries.

For example, it is super easy for me to select a good Greek candidate, however, each country has different rules. So, the real challenge is the lack of a standardized system to shortlist candidates.

In my ideal world, you would send a list to the candidate who applies to complete an initial assessment, and then you would only interview if the first test goes well. To be honest with you, if I talk to someone for like 20 min I would know if I want to hire them or not as any test that shows someone to be super smart and with huge chemistry knowledge can easily fail in the personal interview.

I have my own IQ and chemistry test and yet it cannot tell you much about people’s character, motivation, work ethic, etc. and those aspects are much more important in getting a PhD candidate.

ETH Zürich, i.e., the 8th-ranked university in the world by QS World University Rankings, at a glance.

PhD candidate selection by a Professor in the Department of Chemistry at the Technical University of Darmstadt, Germany

Challenges when hiring a PhD candidate?


The biggest is to find suitable candidates. If you have good Master’s final year students from your own Uni, that is easy. But how do you advertise a PhD position and attract the attention of good students if you are an early-career or mid-career PI, i.e. you are not super famous!?

I rely on my network, as well as Twitter, LinkedIn, my website, and paid services such as Find-a-PhD to advertise. If advertised, I receive between 50-100 applications and most of them are useless (candidates with the wrong background, candidates with less unsuitable or relatively poor CVs, etc.).

I end up with 5-10 candidates that are, in principle, suitable that I interview via Zoom, I then create a shortlist of approx. 3 that I take into the second round of interviews. In parallel, I ask for recommendation letters.

Challenges are then, at least in the UK, that grants and scholarships only pay home study fees (i.e. nowadays only UK students), but most candidates will be international, and there will be a funding gap of approx. 16000 GBP per year. It used to be that we could hire EU students on home fees, but that has changed since Brexit.

Thus, at the moment it is nearly impossible to hire non-UK students, which is one of the reasons I moved away from the UK and joined the Technical University of Darmstadt.

The last main challenge is then to get the preferred student to accept your offer, as excellent candidates usually have more than one offer.

Another major challenge is to spot talent during the interviews. Candidates usually do not have extended CVs and publication lists yet, and you have to anticipate if they have the talent and the prerequisites to grow into good PhD candidates.

Are they critical thinkers, will they come up with good own ideas, will they work independently in the lab, and do they have “golden hands” to make challenging experiments work? What is their potential to grow if suitably mentored? Marks are not a good indicator of this, and some of my best PhD candidates came with rather average marks out of their Master’s in my group.

Introduction to the Technical University of Darmstadt in Germany, which was recommended by Albert Einstein to his nephew in 1919.

All academic supervisors around the world are certainly struggling with (i) the high loads of emails & CVs they get every day from students, and (ii) the slow process of suitable candidate selection. Our goal on the Applyindex, especially for PhD applicants, is to solve these problems and save time, i.e. weeks to months, supervisors spend filtering the received applications.

Are there any other challenges you want to mention?

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Amin Reyhani

Author Since: April 20, 2024


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