Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Applying for Ph.D. positions - some reflections

Having gone through some 60 applications for a Ph.D. position, there are several lessons to be learned. On the plus side, there are many qualified applicants out there with what appears to be a genuine interest in pursuing a doctorate. The flipside is that there are many ways of diminishing the application. Of course, the candidate is to be evaluated mainly on the basis of the documented qualifications, but the accompanying letter - often including some sort of statement of motivation - is sometimes hard on the eyes. While there is no such thing as a singular way to prepare such a letter, many if not most of the more glaringly obvious pitfalls are easy to avoid, such as:

The ENTER key is your friend
Reading a full page of font 12 Times New Roman text without any breaks between paragraphs is brutal. Press that ENTER key every now and then - preferably in a non-random fashion. You'd think prospective Ph.D. students would know this, but the memo apparently didn't reach everyone.

Make sure you apply for the right job
Another apparent no-brainer. Still; a request for a post doc position is included in my pile of Ph.D. applications. Less than reassuring.

Make sure you apply for the correct position
The sequel to the preceding topic. If there are many positions announced, pay attention to which reference number of the position you're applying for. Otherwise someone like me is all of a sudden reading about how a degree in political science constitutes an invaluable asset to a research group working mostly with neural networks.

Read the announcement carefully
The announcement details what documentation you are supposed to provide. Failure to comply with these requirements means you're not qualified. Should you fail to provide the requested documents and still remain relevant for the position, you're in luck. Alternatively, it speaks volumes about the qualifications of the other applicants - take your pick.

Hit the submission button ONCE
Submitting your applications four times in a row because you "forgot to include something" the three first times annoys the hell out of the administrative staff who assign an applicant number to all your attempts, and it doesn't add much goodwill from the poor sap who's hiring either. Just say no to repeat submissions.

While using the spellchecker doesn't guarantee perfect grammar and fluent prose, it helps. Especially if English is not your native tongue. Proper use of the spellchecker also helps you avoid embarrassing juxtaposition problems, such as extolling the virtues of your English proficiency in a paragraph where the misspellings and bonehead grammatical errors are stacked deuce deep per sentence.

No camp stories
As a rule of thumb, avoid starting the application out with a story starring yourself as the precocious child prodigy. I'm sure there are examples of this working to the applicant's advantage, but I have yet to witness this firsthand. At least run the idea by someone objective that you trust or, failing that, your undergraduate adviser before you go all Feynman in the letter.

The fine line between being dedicated and being creepy
Being dedicated is a good thing, and a necessary quality for a prospective Ph.D. student. However, stating that your first living memory is of wanting to study metabolic rates and how you spend every waking moment working towards the goal of becoming a systems biologist ight be crossing the border between dedication and plain ol' creepy. If you can't even suppress the creepiness in a planned application letter,...

Sell, but don't oversell, yourself
Describing yourself as "brilliant", "unique" or worse - "extremely brilliant" or "very unique" - is seldom a good idea. If you're serious about passing yourself off as the second coming of Oppenheimer, at least make sure that the superlatives are not stacked next to a B average. Be good and damned sure to have a letter of reference from a Nobel Prize winner within the discipline you're applying for echoing your own words if you're gonna be that cock-sure in your application letter. Also, if you were anywhere near the level of Oppenheimer's tailor's assistant, you'd know that it's impossible to be "very unique".

Don't be pretentious
If your letter of motivation reads like the intro to Star Trek, or if you find yourself using the same words and phrases as Don King, you probably should tone it down a bit. "Ever since the Dawn of Mankind, the ultimate goal of civilization has been to extract principal components from cross-correlated, multidimensional data sets." "Creativity and Deep Thinking are my most conspicuous characteristics." "I have found that I am perfectly capable of converting concepts to words, and so I have always been a teacher to my peers." No. Also be careful about quoting famous scientists - especially quotes which make you look pretentious AND arrogant at the same time. An example would be the quoting Sir Isaac Newton: "If I have been able to see farther than others, it's because I have stood on the shoulders of giants."

Common sense will get you far, whether or not you are standing on the shoulders of giants. And if you are, make sure that you ask for permission first.


Anders said...

...and don't include a copy of the calender where you posed semi-nude as a student...

Anders said...

(yeah, I know it's not relevant, but I couldn't help myself... Now back the the regular program.)

Wilhelm said...


Alternatively; if the inclusion of nude photographs of yourself in any way helps your application, you might want to steer clear of that advisor.