Reader Q&A – Applying for a PhD position

In this post I’m answering a question from a blog reader – What qualities do you look for in a PhD candidate?

I have never hired any PhD candidates but I share a few thoughts of what I think I would pay attention to. This is also an interesting “time capsule” experiment for me – I hope that I will be able to reflect on the list below in the future.

This post is based on my experiences in the Netherlands, where PhD positions are jobs, and there is no single “grad school application” process that might exist in other countries. To apply for a position, you would be asked to send in your CV, list of subjects, motivation letter, reference letter and perhaps a summary of your MSc thesis project. At least, this is what I had to submit to apply to my PhD position back in 2010.

Evidence of problem solving

Probably the most important factor that I would look for is that you have experience with solving problems and completing projects. A MSc thesis, or a summary of your ongoing thesis, is a good example.

Other projects also count, but this needs to be clear from your CV. Simply having “machine learning” on your list of subjects, and “Python” on list of skills does not tell me if you can get started if I give you a dataset. A short description of a concrete project you did gives me more information. If you can link to a github repository – even better. Reference letters are probably also good places to look for evidence.

Interest in position

I want to know what interests you about the research topic, why you want to do research and/or why want to work with me. Mentioning that you find topic X interesting, is not enough. Ideally, your motivation should indicate that you have given the topic some thought, for example, by thinking of possible research questions.

A simple way to score points on this, is to follow the instructions of the application process and proofread the materials you send in. This shows that you invested a bit of time into the application and are not applying for any (not relevant) position that’s out there.

Other interests

Personally I think it’s a good thing to have more interests than what you study at university. This can include elective courses, organizing events, a blog about your favorite hobby… Again, short descriptions of what you achieved are better than listing a number of activities as hobbies.

Although not directly related to research, I think these things indicate something about independence, curiosity, and being open to new ideas.

“Team player”

Last but not least, it’s important that you are respectful of others, reliable when you promise others to do something, listen to feedback and help others out. This is probably the most difficult assess from an application, but I imagine that reference letters should say something about this, and if they don’t, it’s an option to contact the referee and ask.

Qualities I find overrated

Probably an unpopular opinion, but I find some qualities that are traditionally considered important, overrated.

The first one is having high grades. Sure, it doesn’t look good if all your grades are just above a pass. But there are many reasons why some grades can be lower – having a job to be able to afford to study, illness, poor course setup. So I wouldn’t dismiss an application just for that reason.

The second one is descriptors like “highly motivated” in the motivation letter. I realize that such statements are dependent on your background/culture, and on how much training you got in writing the letter. I think these are not good predictors of whether you can complete a research project.


I would love to hear your thoughts – am I missing essential qualities or putting too much emphasis on others?

And if there is a different question you have for me, please get in touch so I can answer it in another Q&A post!

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