We finished yesterday our interviews for selecting the new cohort of PhD students. (In our system we have a call a year, where we select and enroll all the students). So, I am in the best condition to do some comments and give some advise to future applicants.
The first observation is that we where there to select the “best students” and therefore we were trying to put the applicants in comfortable conditions. * What we did was to ask the applicants to describe themselves and their research proposal and made some questions about their topic. Nothing apparently special.
In front of us we had people of very different ages and maturity: from 24 to 46 years old. People with different motivations and from different countries and continents. And we did not pretend from them the same attitude and skills. In the younger, we were requiring enthusiasm, an outstanding CV in the studies they had, but we were less demanding on pretending from them a comprehensive knowledge of literature. In the older we were more tight on analyzing their specific skills and in try to understand if they could complete, and at which level, the tasks implicit in doctoral studies after years spent out of Academia.
To the older, besides having done something, even in the different fields, we were requiring to demonstrate flexibility and attitude to work in group. We were in fact looking for mature personalities (both in the young and the old actually) but, at the same time, trying to avoid those who could not interact positively with the environment they will eventually stick for the future three/four years.
Concept One: we search for the best fit. In all of our candidate we were looking for appropriate competence and proactivity: but this was a prerequisite. Be sure: excluding some very rare cases which are apparent, for their evident unicity, "we are all equidistant from Nobel prizes" performances. Therefore there are “best” applicants but, among the best, "best fit” applicants. Above all if we think that science is more a team work than matter for lonely nerds.
Concept two: how do you fit and do you really want to fit ? As I told, the applicant who gets the position, eventually has to stick with the environment around and deal with a supervisor. Therefore a suggestion I feel to give is: it is not forbidden to contact your potential supervisor in advance. This does not imply any commitment by anybody but allows to understand better each other. This can also be functional to build a successful research proposal, or to understand if you can (or want) fit with that guy without be driven crazy later. Ph.D. studies are demanding for themselves and especially in a competitive environment as our University can be. Maybe, at the end of your conversation, you do not exactly want to do it. However, there is a chance that you love it. Then, go ahed. Ph.D. can be one of the best periods of your life.
Concept three: professors pretend to know where their sub-discipline is going and what is best looking for. So, please, do not try to challenge too much their beliefs (see also point 1 and 2).
Instead you can try to understand if their scientific methods combine with yours, and, in case, how you could interpret their work with your skills.
As I wrote elsewhere, do not come to me pretending me to be your butler. A good professor can recognize to be wrong but you will be his/her PhD student and s/he is pretending to suggest the way to go along with you on top of her/his experience and dictating, at least at the beginning, the methods to use. It can be matter of discussion though (that's what PhD work is made of). However, you have to convince him/her politely that a new perspective is better before s/he changes her/his. Besides, keep in mind that a good professor can estimate the effort, pain and costs to pursue the goal you suggest and pay attention to what s/he says about.
A checklist. Going to the matter, we pretend you:
- to show solid backgrounds (not necessarily erudition) and attitude to learn
- having an appropriate knowledge of the literature of the subject on which you want to work on;
- know what your professor does in his research, which tools he uses and so on;
- show to be able to express "research questions”;
- show that you that you can be "focused" and can obtain what is needed (papers, softwares, procedures, patents etc) in limited amount of time (three/four years)
Keep in mind that true research is not an application of some tool but is to delineated new challenges first and solve them eventually. Who is not able to understand what a scientific problem is, cannot be a successful researcher and not even a good Ph.D student.
- be open to acquire and investigate new tools (during your research life, you will be required to evolve them several times)