I know that things work differently elsewhere. I know that in the US you apply to grad school and then you rotate in different labs and during that first year you identify your mentor and your lab. But in my (European) neck of the woods, things work differently. You apply for a PhD position like you would for any other job: straight at the source (i.e. me).
Positions only open up when a PI gets a grant - so that is completely unpredictable. As a result, the positions are not always (I should say hardly ever) in sync with the academic cycle in which most students obtain their university degree at the end of the summer/some time in the fall. This is tough for the job candidates, but also for the PI. There is no predicting how many people will respond, or what their background is. As I was making my way through the applications for my latest opening, it dawned on me that some of the applicants could have used some advise. Because believe me, I don't take some sadistic pleasure in rejecting you.
So let me start with saying this: I read all of your applications. I read your letter of motivation and I read your CV. I don't scan all of the gazillions of transcripts and certificates and letters of recommendation that you send in at this point. But in the end, I am looking for the best fit for my lab. I need to get the impression that you want this position. And that you want me. Because that makes me want you. Yes, it is a little bit like falling in love: We are going to spend a lot of time together. We'll hopefully have fun (if we fit well together), but we will also are going to have to stick it out when things get rough. And so I need to know that you are going to be in it for better and for worse. So how are you going to woo me?
1. The numbers are not in your favour
From actual, real-life experience I can now safely say that it is not uncommon for the number of applicants to be somewhere in the 90s or even 100s. So follow the instructions (honestly, if you don't follow the instructions for how to apply, how am I going to be convinced that you will be able to follow a protocol?) If I ask for a single PDF file, don't send me zip archive. A cover letter in which you say absolutely nothing about the project or the type of research we are doing? It doesn't land you on the right pile. Don't propose projects that have absolutely nothing to do with what is going on in my lab. Don't call me a sir when a little bit of googling could have pointed out that I'm a woman. In fact, why don't you just address me as Dr? If your background is a poor fit, but you want this more than anything else in life: explain why and convince me of that (it happens!). If you graduated more than a year (or even many more years) ago: Convince me why I should hire you instead of the recent graduate - or even the soon about to graduate eager student. (More about the cover letter at a later point.)
Think about the other stuff that you send along. A letter of recommendation (which I did not ask for at this point) that was written 2-3 years ago will not help. It will do the exact opposite. The fact that your English isn't perfect? The fact that you made a spelling mistake? The fact that stuff on your CV is misaligned? I guess you could call me a nitpicker. But hey, you are applying for a job as a PhD student. You were (hopefully) trained as a scientist. I expect you to be specific and precise. I also expect your lab notebook to be in order. I expect you to pay attention to detail in your experiments. Of course I am not purpously screening your application for little mistakes like this, but I do notice them. If everything else in our application is perfect (your background and overall fit, your cover letter), I will not reject your application right away based on a tiny error. But among those 99 other applicants there are going to be 5-10 people who get it right (on top of everything else). And that is the absolute maximum of people I can realistically invite over for an interview anyway. So don't blow your own chances. Make sure you don't end up on the maybe pile. These little mistakes are totally preventable. Get it right. Don't give me any reason to doubt that you would make an awesome scientist in my lab.
So here is my first and most important piece of advice: You cannot change who you are and what your background is, but be the best version of you!
2. Know what you are up against
Based on a poor cover letter, lots of question marks surrounding parts of the CV, and/or just an overall poor fit, I can usually reject 50-60% of all applicants after the first round of reading. This is still not an easy decision. When I was looking for my very first PhD student, I lost sleep over this, as a matter of fact. There were so many letters from ambitious people all over the world, many of them looking for better chances than they would ever get in their home country. It felt like I was personally responsible for crushing their dreams. Have I gotten all cold and heartless? No. I still remember what it was like to be at the other end of the table. Hell, I am still fighting every single day to even make it to the end of this tenure track. I too am still waiting for the powers that be to give me their vote of confidence.
But what I did come to realize over the past three years is that this is just the situation we are dealing with. I have a single opening, for one PhD position. That means I am ultimately going to reject all but one of you. Even the runner up. So that is the best you can aim for at this point: your application should be so spotless and on the mark that I cannot help but invite you over for an interview. And here, some may have a more difficult job then others. After all, I know the education system in my own country like the back of my hand. I can judge the knowledge and experience of the people quite easily. I can also be pretty sure that they won't get homesick because they are far away from home. That they know our academic system and culture.
Now most of the time, after this first round of reading, I will have at least 3-5 "local" people that look perfect on paper and that would probably make a fine PhD student on this project. They did everything right. They got excellent grades for their research internships (and I can easily judge that, because I know the grading system). They showed that they are ambitious and adventurous (by going abroad for an internship, for instance, or by doing extracurricular activities or by taking an donors program). I've gotten angry e-mails from applicants who said it "wasn't fair" that these people were always getting the jobs. But my lab is not a charity foundation. Science is a tough business. Even the best and the brightest will be having a hard time. And unless someone can convince me otherwise, the best indicator for future success is someone who did a great job in their research internships. So by all means, if your score/grade is above average (in whatever grading system your country uses - and please explain it to me if you are from another country): mention it! I like modest people, but now is not the time to be shy. If you decided to do an internship with a company, tell me why. I could see that as an indicator that you are not 100% committed to academic science. Which is what you need to be, if you want to get a PhD. It's as simple as that.
What I do NOT care about at this point is publications. We all know that these are not an indicator of future success. Landing a publication during one of your internships has more to do with luck than anything else. For all I care you collected nothing but negative results (I know I did, during my first internship). I also do not care whether you are already familiar with the specific techniques we are going to use in this project. Any good scientist can learn new techniques. What I want to see is that you are that scientist.
So what do I care about? Persistence. Enthusiasm. Curiosity. Passion. Because those are traits that will get you through the deep dark valleys of your PhD. And so these are the things that I am going to look for in those remaining 30-40 applications that are now on the "maybe" pile, so that I can add 3 or 4 of them to my "invite for an interview" list. And now you can already see that the tiny little things are going to make a difference. You might just be unlucky because among those 40 candidates, one or two may be completely familiar with the experimental techniques. Or they may already have some of the certificates needed to do the type of work we do. There is nothing you can do about that. Sometimes, science sucks.
to be continued
if anyone has any specific questions, please ask them in the comments!