Guide to securing Ph.D position at European universities

Hello! I am Sourav Mondal, a final year M.Sc student. I am here to tell my juniors a thing or two about bagging a Ph.D. offer from European universities.

Why Ph.D. ?

Allow me to talk about why I opted for pursuing a Ph.D. from Europe in particular. I am deeply interested in the subject and henceforth possess a deep desire to pursue higher studies and eventually contribute something to Chemistry and sciences. I must admit frankly that the process was not so plain-sailing as it may seem to many. 

For the sake of this article we shall consider only going for a Ph.D. abroad, the process is a little different if you wish to pursue in India

The whole decision about finding your Univ for a Ph.D. can be categorized into a few questions: 

To start with, where? 

There are majorly four fancy options: 

i) USA/Canada 

ii) Europe 

iii) Asia and 

iv) Australia, 

which will strike your mind and you need to choose one based on further criteria. For chemistry, I would personally say the USA is the best but then competition is very high there as one is supposed to have a decent score in many other examinations too namely, GRE, TOEFL, SOP, LOR, etc. If all the above factors collectively make a good profile of yours, then your admission chances in a reputed Grad school are pretty high. However, all the examination related procedures turn out to be pretty expensive in its ways. Ranging from registration fees of GRE and TOEFL to application fees and score sending fees, the expenses usually amount to a huge sum. 

Since I belong to a rather lower-middle-class family, I decided to apply to Europe to save on some of the above mentioned costs. I struck off China and Japan in the initial phase only because of my personal dislike about their lifestyle and food. 

For Canada, Australia and European countries, GRE score is not required and in most European countries TOEFL is not mandatory too. Talking about the fundamental selection criteria, in the USA, the selection is made by the institute and the same is the case for Canada and Australia. However, in Europe (including a few univ’s in UK), in most of the cases, professors have their funded project of some organizations or government. But owing to a very small number of projects for international students, securing a seat here becomes a tough fight. Again, your previous institutes (for masters or BS) affiliations matter to a significant extent here. Thankfully IITs being the premier  institute in India I reckon there should be no major problem.

After having chosen a state to pursue Ph.D. from, the next question one should stumble upon is:

How to apply? 

I’ll be discussing the brief idea of the application procedure in Europe and what I eventually did. For this, you have to first narrow down your interests and choose your “research topic” interest first. Your Master’s project, BS projects, and Summer Internships play a highly crucial role for that purpose. Because they will judge you by your research experiences, it would be a bonus if your research interest is the same or related to your projects. 

Further, the most important thing is you have to go through all the universities’ webpage and find out the potential supervisors and professors in your research field. Besides that, you can search the profs’ profile from google scholar, research gate, LinkedIn, etc. This step is followed by a decent and proper mail writeup (including your Masters’ project with the supervisor’s name) to them attaching your CV. It will be an extra advantage if you could include your research summary and LoR’s name. If your master’s project supervisor is well known to all and has a good collaboration internationally, then it becomes a valley-game for you to find a position in Europe. So, I’ll personally suggest choosing a reputed project guide for your master’s project. For those who are a little bit afraid of their CPI, I would like to mention that CPI does not affect much, and if you talk numbers, 7.5 to 8 or above 8 is a pretty decent CPI. Since the professor will select you and provide you the scholarship, not the institute in this case. You are recommended to find a good number of professors as most of them will tell you that (s)he might not have funded projects to support you.

During this process, I sincerely urge you to never give up either your hope or interest. When you send an email, if the professor is able to support funding and develops an interest in your background, (S)he will reply to you and discuss your master’s project or might take an interview via Skype. After the interview, they’ll announce whether they are offering you or not. If you accept the offer, then further instructions will begin. The good thing, what I found about Europe is that even if the professor does not have a vacancy, (S)he will refer some other professors or forward your mail to others who might have the vacancy or funding. I must take a moment to thank some professors who did that for me. You might even get some replies saying that the professor does not have the funding but if you are already availing an external scholarship, then you are welcome. Here I do apologize to readers that I don’t know much external scholarships for higher education in Europe but I do know about DAAD and Marie Curie scholarships & can only say that they are highly competitive. TOEFL is required and the procedure is rather hectic and time taking.

I believe that it’ll be of more importance and helpful for juniors if I discuss the application procedure in the UK where most historical, prestigious, and top ranked universities are: not only in Europe but also amongst  the World. 

Most of the students dream to study at prestigious institutes like Oxford, Cambridge, UCL, Imperial College London, and many more. In the UK, TOEFL is mandatory but Oxford and Cambridge provide some flexibility in that sense. I know some of our seniors who are doing their Ph.D. in Cambridge and Oxford. Though some of my classmates and I did apply there and few of us ended up receiving the conditional offer letter. 

The advantage of Oxford and Cambridge is that the scholarship will be offered by some charities or trusts besides the university funding. So, the probability of getting a scholarship is higher here than the other UK universities. So don’t make some misconceptions that these are out of your belt because they are high profiled institutes. They do consider Indian students a lot and being an IITian is undoubtedly an added advantage. Here also, you have to mail the professor first and if (s)he shows some interest and instructs you to apply through the university site, then you must apply following the procedure. After the application, they will arrange a Skype interview with the mentioned professors in your application form and after a successful interview, the professor will approve your application and you have high chances to secure the conditional offer letter. 

I want to quote something about the conditional offer letter where the conditions might be like: 

i) completion of your current degree, 

ii) your English language test, and

iii) English language course after reaching university. 

So after successful confirmation of your position in the institute (Oxford/Cambridge), you can write the TOEFL exam. Otherwise, there is another option to join without TOEFL wherein you can send a language waiver request to the admission office and with fate in your bottle, they might approve your request which means no need for the language test.

If you are in the last year of your MSc or BS degree, then I would suggest starting sending mails by the middle of September for next year’s Fall Semester admission or if you are taken by the professor then you can join anytime after the completion of your course. There is a huge competition during the mailing phase too and if luckily you mail first, then the professor might look into your request because there are high chances of them considering first come first serve process. It may happen that they don’t look at the application mails because of some unknown reasons, even though you have a good CV and research experience. It will take time to find the professors of your research interests and you have to send a lot of mail and it will definitely take time with a patience test. If you start mailing by the middle of September then it is highly likely that you will finish it by November. Consequently, you’ll get enough time for official application and your Skype interviews. 

For the UK, the application deadline is December or January so you need to wrap it up fast. There are few funding organizations and government scholarships to assist and aid your project. Even if they might have a particular deadline so it’ll be better if you mail as quickly as possible and can apply for the scholarship instructed by your professor. 

Just to narrate an incident, I mailed a professor who had a funded project by the Spanish Government and fortunately, he replied to me to apply for the project on 3rd November and the deadline was 7th November. I did all the things within 4 days which was surely hectic. So if I had become late to email him, I most probably wouldn’t be able to get the funding. So,

Protip: try to send mail as early as possible and talk to your potential referees.

The advantages of choosing Europe for your higher studies:

i)  Renowned Universities and world-class facilities

ii) Good professors and advanced research topics

iii) Ph.D. within 3-4 years

iv) Research topic and supervisor in your choice

v) GRE not required, TOEFL or other language proficiency tests are not mandatory

vi) The funding opportunity is not so good but for IITians, it won’t be a problem

vii) Fewer Visa issues

Saurav (leftmost in sitting position) was our Department Sports Secretary for 2019-20

Concluding remarks

In my journey, I mailed most of the professors from Europe ( UK, Germany, Spain, Netherlands, Switzerland, France, Sweden) and very few professors from Canada, Australia, and Israel. After hearing all the constraints of the professor I heard the first good news in the first week of November by Prof. Aleix-comas Vives from UAB Barcelona and then by Prof. Michael Roemelt from RUB with the kind help of other professors (which I mentioned before), the senior professor of UAB and Max Planck Institute being one of them. In the meantime, I applied to the University of Oxford. In March, I received the offer letter from Oxford to work with Prof. John E McGrady in Computational Inorganic Chemistry and also received the offer from Goethe Universitat Frankfurt. As of today, these two are my last options and I am direly waiting for the scholarship letter of Oxford.

If you have any further doubts feel free to reach out to me!

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