A Question for My European Colleagues About PhD Applications

by Kevin Jon Heller

Here is the question: are there any norms governing how many potential supervisors a student looking to apply for a PhD can or should approach? I get a few emails expressing interest in my supervision each month, and they generally fall into three categories: (1) proposals that are clearly directed toward me, because they discuss my work and propose topics I’ve written about; (2) proposals that have nothing to do with my work or interests and seem to be little more than academic spam; and (3) proposals that seem to be directed towards me, because they discuss my work, but propose topics that are at the very outer edge of my intellectual interests. I have little trouble with the first two categories — proposals in the first tend to be strong; proposals in the second tend to be anything but. It’s the third category that I find difficult to deal with. The students are often more than qualified and the proposals are usually quite good. But I cannot escape a sneaking suspicion that even when the proposals are addressed specifically to me, I am one of many potential supervisors to whom the student has written.

To be honest, I never know what to do in that situation. Given the uncertainties of acceptance and financial support — particularly in the UK — I understand that potential PhD students need to apply to multiple universities and thus need to approach multiple potential supervisors. But I also want there to be some kind of intellectual connection between me and my PhD students; I don’t want to work with someone just because he or she knows my name and sees the “Professor” in my title.

So, European colleagues: how do you handle situations like these? How many simultaneous approaches is too many? Is it kosher to write back to a student and ask how many others they’ve written to? Can I ask for names?

Any advice would be most appreciated…


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