“Applying for Admission to PhD Programs is Like Applying for a Job: Professors are asking themselves, “With whom do I want to work?”

There is a mystery about applying for PhD programs, one that I myself had no clue until I was part of the decision process. Here’s the dilemma. Fundamentally, is applying for a PhD program most similar to the process of applying to an undergraduate school or to a company for a job? Importantly, I think it is more like applying for a job, for which: (i) the criteria are less clear-cut and more ambiguous, and (ii) the soft skills of personal contact can make an enormous difference.

This issue can stymie many highly qualified young people, often because they simply don’t realize that the rules of success are different. Specifically, many young people think they are still in “school admissions” mode for which the most meritorious applicant is supposed to win, yet they are really in “job hunting” mode for which the most desirable future coworker wins.

School Admissions vs. Job Hunting

What’s the difference? Plenty. Some differences include the following:

(a) Undergraduate school admissions tend to be objective, merit-based and not particularly personal. On the other hand, company hiring tends to be subjective and about whether you are a “good fit” for their working environment.

(b) Undergraduate school admissions are typically done by a centralized committee within a school composed of professionals who have rules they follow to ensure fairness, quality, and consistency. On the other hand, companies tend to be much more decentralized such that the specific hiring manager is the self-interested initiator in putting forward a candidate for subsequent higher-level approval.

From my experience, the PhD admissions process is much more like a company than an undergraduate school. The process is highly decentralized and very subjective, with individual professors often being the initiators and gatekeepers.  After the applicant submits an application, the following steps commonly occur:

(1) The specific department distributes the applications to the professors. In the US, this is typically in the late fall. Professors are asked to evaluate applicants in their particular research field.

(3) If a professor feels that the candidate is strong, the professor can: (i) nominate the strongest applicants for a competitive, sought-after, school-based financial fellowship and also want to work with the applicant, (ii) recommend the applicant for admission as well as state that they want to work with and financially support the applicant under a graduate research assistantship, or (iii) simply recommend the applicant for admission, which is the weakest of the three types. In the US, this step in the process usually continues until sometime in January.

Subsequently, a department committee composed primarily of professors carefully peruses each applicant. Importantly, the committee places heavy weight on whether any individual professor has indicated that they want to work with the applicant. Key functions of this committee are to: (a) wisely and fairly integrate all the input from the professors, (b) use their own judgement criteria, (c) find worthy applicants who may have been overlooked in the earlier steps, and (d) provide standards for the department so that a truly unfit applicant isn’t accepted simply due to an overly enthusiastic and self-interested professor. This committee composes a list of students for fellowships and admissions, and this list is sent to the Dean’s office that applies another filter of quality.

As may be obvious, the role of individual professors is quite similar to that of a hiring manager in a company. Much of the decision process starts with and relies on them.

What are professors looking for?

When professors look at applicants, they sometimes use an altruistic approach but often it is simply based on their own self-interest. Altruistic means that a professor thinks this applicant is extremely worthy and the department should try to recruit them, but they have no specific connection to working with the applicant in the future.

I think that self-interest is the more common case, in which an individual professor who runs an active research group is looking to recruit new PhD students. In this regard, the professor is thinking like a hiring manager. The professor is looking at resumes (i.e., application packages), wants the best people, and is concerned about risks. Some specific thoughts include:

  1. Do I want to work with this person? (This is the most important question.)
  2. Is this person intelligent?
  3. Would this person work well with my existing students?
  4. Will this person make my research group stronger or weaker? (I want a person better than the average student in my group.)
  5. Does this person have the right attitude to work diligently towards a PhD? (I don’t want someone who might cause me headaches.)
  6. Does this person have the right technical background? (If no, then the person will take longer to train, but I can usually deal with that. However, the bigger problem is that they might just looking to find someone – anyone — who will take them, and they are a risk of quickly leaving my group after settling in.)
  7. Will this person accept if offered a fellowship or research assistantship? (If the odds are not high, then I am possibly: (i) wasting my time and effort, (ii) losing out on other quality applicants who are getting offers from other universities, and (iii) losing out on nominating other students for coveted fellowships that are financially advantageous to me since part of the student support will come from the university.)
  8. Will the applicant arrive and then quickly leave to a different professor of university?

Professors will often skip over an applicant who seems objectively better in favor of someone who makes them feel more comfortable in taking a chance — just like a hiring manager is likely to do.

Students applying from African universities should be extra careful to explain all details in their application, since many items that may be well known locally may be unfamiliar elsewhere. For example, you may have won a highly prestigious award, but a professor will likely not figure that out unless you explain the specifics of the competition. I usually advise students to give at least one sentence to explain each award that they received. Moreover, students from Africa should put their class rank and university rank into context, since professors outside Africa may have little idea what a grade of X at university Y really means.

How can an applicant influence this process? Make personal contact!

An applicant can certainly influence this application process, something I myself did not do but that I encourage all young people to try from anywhere in the world – and those residing in Africa are no exception.  The most basic issue is to target a few specific professors in any given university and make yourself desirable to them.

One critical issue is that your application should mention these specific professors, your desire to work with them, your interest in their fields, and your suitability for their research groups. When recruiting, I routinely down-select to examine the applicants who put down my name. This shows commendable diligence, attitude, and intent on their part — and I have limited interest in potentially wasting my time on someone not already interested in me or my field.

Another critical issue, but one far trickier, is to make direct contact with each specific professor. Remember that “something is better than nothing”. In ascending order, it could be an email, a phone call, or, if possible, a face-to-face meeting. Students will often complain that Professor X hasn’t returned emails or calls. Well, don’t give up! If you can, go visit and walk the halls. You may get lucky and find the person in their office.

The next best thing to the professor — but one that can be extremely valuable — is to contact the professor’s lab post-docs and current PhD students. These people can be significantly more available than the professor. Importantly, most professors have close relationships with their post-docs and PhD students, trust their judgement, and value their opinion. If one of my PhD students knows, has spoken to, or has met an applicant, and my student is impressed by and wants to work with the applicant, then that definitely influences me. And knowing that an applicant reached out to my students shows great diligence, attitude, and intent.

I want to emphasize that it can be quite off-putting for a professor to be contacted by a student who is just “cutting-and-pasting” and mass emailing to lots of professors. I have received emails that practically say, “I was born to work in your lab”, only for me to notice that the font style and size is different between most of the text and the text of my name, university, and field. I assumed that the student simply “cut-and-pasted” my information – and I consequently just ignored the email. Your outreach should be specific, sincere, and genuine – and it is well worth your extra time.

Since professors can be extremely busy and are constantly contacted by people around the world, a “non-response” from a professor can mean anything, from “no interest in you” to “no time to respond”. Therefore, try again without being pushy.  One of my outstanding former students, Prof. Changyuan Yu in Hong Kong, tried years ago to get my attention over the course of a few months. I was very hard to pin down (i.e., I was not responsive, responsible or respectful to his inquiries), but I never pushed him away. He emailed — no response. He called and left messages – no response. He called and caught me at my desk, talked to me, piqued my interest, but yet I forgot to follow up as I promised. Finally, he showed up at my door at USC, I was very impressed with him and on the spot said I would try to offer him a position.

Remember that the professors and the department admissions committee have very little knowledge about any applicant’s personality traits, notwithstanding the recommendation letters that are often hard to truly interpret. Whereas a company hiring manager will typically interview a job applicant face-to-face, the professor and department admissions committee are comparing people who are from all over the world and with whom they may never have interacted. Indeed, it is so hard to know the answer to the question, “With whom do I want to work?”

The bottom line is that the best thing at the department admissions committee meeting is for someone around the table to say, “I (or Professor X) spoke to this applicant directly, really liked them, and think they would be great here.” Hopefully, that could be you. Reach out, and good luck!

Warmly and respectfully submitted,
Alan E. Willner
University of Southern California

Prof. Alan E. Willner, University of Southern California

Alan Willner received his Ph.D. (1988) in Electrical Engineering from Columbia University, as well as a B.A. (1982) in Physics and an Honorary Degree (Honoris Causa, 2012) from Yeshiva University. Prof. Willner was a Postdoctoral Member of the Technical Staff at AT&T Bell Laboratories and a Member of Technical Staff at Bellcore. He is currently the Steven and Kathryn Sample Chaired Professor in Engineering in the Ming Hsieh Dept. of Electrical Engineering of the Viterbi School of Engineering at the Univ. of Southern California. His research is in optical technologies, including communications, signal processing, networks, and subsystems. Prof. Willner has been: a Visiting Professor at Columbia University, the Univ. College London, and the Weizmann Institute of Science; and a Visiting Scholar at Yeshiva University. He is a Member of the U.S. Army Science Board, was a Member of the Defense Sciences Research Council (a 16-member body that provided reports to the DARPA Director and Office Directors), has served on many scientific advisory boards for small companies, and has advised several venture capital firms. Additionally, Prof. Willner was Founder and CTO of Phaethon Communications, a company whose technology was acquired by Teraxion, that created the ClearSpectrum® dispersion compensator product line which is presently deployed in many commercial 40-Gbit/s systems worldwide.

Prof. Willner has  more than 1450 publications, including one book, 10 edited books, ~38 U.S. patents, more than 45 keynotes/plenaries, ~23 book chapters, and more 300 invited papers/presentations. His research is in optical technologies, including: communications, signal processing, networks, and subsystems. Prof. Willner is a member of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering, an International Fellow of the U.K. Royal Academy of Engineering, and he received the Presidential Faculty Fellows Award from the White House, among many other awards. He has held upper-level leadership positions in several societies and organizations, and he has served as an editor for multiple journals.


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