Approaching a Potential PhD Supervisor

It has been a little while since our first post related to higher education in Australia. This article was mainly motivated by the ease up of border restrictions here in Australia for 2022. Now that the International students are welcome, it is a good time to think about how you might want to approach a supervisor if you’re planning to pursue higher studies in Australia. Our first article can be found here.

General Advice

In this article, we will talk mainly about approaching a supervisor and how you may enter the wonderful journey as a PhD student. This is very important as you will be getting in touch with a very busy unknown person for the first time. Mostly, supervisors get plenty of emails, however, limited supervision is available due to other teaching and administrative responsibilities they have.

Photo by Dan Dimmock on Unsplash

Let us share some important considerations you shall think of before you approach a supervisor.


Eligibility can be a stressful concern among many students who are planning to apply for PhD scholarships. Although it is tough, remember you are asking to fund you to attain the highest educational level possible. If you’re not eligible right away, look for ways in which you can uplift your profile.

  • Do an MSc, spend 2 more years in research if you do not have the required academic grade, i.e., First Class honours degree.
  • Write some papers, involve in undergraduate/honours research projects.
  • Write a survey paper with a supervisor from your current institution.
  • Give talks, do workshops, get certifications if you’re already in the industry.
  • If you’re in the industry, and wants to join academia, get a job in a university (which can be easy as industry experience is highly regarded in Universities) as a lecturer. Do student research, publish few papers, make collaborations.

Being eligible needs some effort, however, it is for a worthy cause in the long run.

Area of research

The area of research is something we always have in doubt. We always ask ourselves before we contact a supervisor, “Am I doing machine learning?”, “Should I say, Computer Vision?”, “Bioinformatics?”, it goes on. Key points to have in mind are as follows.

Although you can approach a supervisor of your field of interest, be ready to deviate, adapt and evolve into diverse domains. This is because, you are unlikely to follow what you want precisely as PhDs are funded to serve different purposes, such as Projects, Grants, National Issues in that country, etc.

Although the field is what you expect it to be, you might be applying such knowledge in a different domain. For example, machine learning can be used to solve problems in Biology. Therefore, it is always good to have an open mind and show that you’re open-minded and open for explorations.

Finding a Supervisor

Finding a supervisor can be challenging. Depending on your circumstance you can think of several ways to do this.

  • Supervisors can be always found on university websites. Simply Google asking for “Research supervision Australian National University”. This could be challenging in interdisciplinary research such as Bioinformatics, Medical Informatics, etc.
  • In cases where interdisciplinary researchers need to be found, scan through the staff profiles. This can be easily done through Googling “Australian National University researchers/lecturers/professors”.

Although these approaches work in general, you can be a step ahead by reading related literature. For example, you can look for authors of cited papers to land on a potential supervisor. Choices are exponentially great if you’re not restricting yourself to a particular country or a region in the world.

Keep in mind, depending on the country, you might not be able to reach supervision via direct contact of a supervisor. In that case, you should follow the official PhD enrolment procedures outlined in the university. Further, try to reach senior students from your own country to ask what other requirements and hoops they may have gone through to secure their PhD positions.

Reaching out to the Supervisor

It is crucial that you make a good first impression in your very first contact. You need to have a concise email with all the vital information that is sufficient to make a decision. Always be prepared to wait for replies or even to have immediate refusals. Don’t take anything personally. In most cases, supervisors are either too busy or have no funds to accommodate more students in their labs. Consider any reply as a good reply. They took time to reply! Contact more than one supervisor, and it is good to have redundancies. Try to include the following details.

  • CV or Resume
  • Academic transcript and grades
  • Additional crucial qualifications you may have seen in an advertisement for PhD students (BSc, MSc, license, papers, etc)

Limit the number of attachments to 2 or 3 at maximum, unless essential. In the email text, you must include the following.

  • Why you’re emailing, as early as possible in the text
  • Who are you and where you are from
  • Your educational background, your interests
  • Why you would be a good fit

It is important to address the recipient in a professional manner. Always use gender-neutral titles, Dr or Prof, and never use Mr/Mrs/Ms.

Following is an email, that a Professor had shared on their LinkedIn copied in verbatim (Source).

I am a student from THE COUNTRY and have got my master’s degree with distinction in Control System from THE UNIVERSITY. I would like to ask if you would like to support me to secure a PhD studentship in your lab.

I am interested in the soft finger research in your lab. The soft fingertips can be used to actuate and sense objects based on their soft structure. In this case, I think it is a potential end effector, and I hope that I can take part in its research. For example, these fingertips can be applied to deformable object recognition with manipulation. Also, they can detect slip and adjust grip force during grasp and manipulation.

I have research experience in robotics and neural networks. Specifically, I control a biped robot to walk on a slope in my bachelor’s graduation project. In my master’s project, I introduce methods to reduce the effect of the low quality of dataset in the GAN training process. I am now working on an optical tactile sensor simulation platform and estimating force distribution based on sensor feedback. During the research, I became familiar with ROS, MuJoCo, TensorFlow, and PyTorch.

My CV is attached. I would be glad to hear your feedback, and please feel free to contact me if you have any questions.

Note that the above email is really specific to the reserarch and the lab group. You can be slightly open in your case if you’re unaware of the internal research or you’re like me and wanted to get into the field of interest. For such an email, see our original post linked at the beginning of this article.

First Meeting

In the lucky event that your email has impressed the supervisor, you will likely have a one on one meeting on Zoom/Skype. Be prepared, read some of the supervisor’s recent papers, check the group website if any. Show your interest, ask questions and be engaging. They would love to have an engaging active person with new ideas with them for the next 3 to 4 years.

Photo by Alexandre Pellaes on Unsplash

I hope you enjoyed this article.

Best wishes for the researcher career of your dreams!

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