How to get a PhD position at a renowned university

Many students would like to do their PhD at a renowned university. Obviously those labs get hundreds of applications. How do you stand out of the crowd? How do you get the attention of any group leader to even read your application or to interview you?


One mistake is very often done by students from India and China. They just address the group leader in their email with „Sir“. To europeans this sounds like you are sending the same email to hundreds of labs and they dont take your application serious at all. Its actually not the mistake of the student because they have learned it like that in their culture but the european culture is simply different.

Means, you should personalize your application letter as much as possible.


This is how I did it while applying for a Post Doc position.

I had a ready text describtion about myself, my education and my research interests that was around 1 page long.

At the end I added one paragraph about the specific lab that I applied to. And this paragraph I changed for every lab that I applied to. I read 2-3 publications of that lab and then gave a reason why I want to join that lab, what I am specifically interested in that lab and what kind of project I would be interested to do there.

This is how the group leader recognized that you are really interested in his lab, that you know what they are doing and come up with some suggestions how you could fit into that lab.


Whats your WHY?

Why are you doing science? Why do you like this research topic? What would you like to contribute to this field? WHY you want to go to that lab.

The next point is: What can you give to the lab? Everybody is egoistic and we usually think about our own advantage.

What advantage can you instantly give to your future boss? Well, most labs are low with their finances. Bringing money into the lab is a key factor to keep the lab running. If you show your readiness to apply for a stipend (with the help of the group leader) this shows that you are ready to put personal – unpaid - effort into joining that lab. That way you can also test how well you can work together with your potential new supervisor.


Dont apply only to open positions. Most of them are already given away to a certain candidate and the announcement has just formal reasons. This is a very frustrating way of applying because you will get a lot of rejections no matter if you are good or bad. The best way is to choose several labs that do the research that interests you the most. And then just write to them. They might keep your application in the drawer and when the next position gets free they might come back to you. Or you apply for a stipend and create your own position.


I want to give you one suggestion where to apply: KAUST in Saudi Arabia. They built a super modern campus and they have a lot of money and cool equipment. The environment and the philosophy on the campus is very similar to Europe or the US. I bet this will be a rising star on the scientific sky.


I wish you all the best for your applications. If you need further help feel free to contact me at