How ‘will you be my supervisor’ emails control entry to PhD study

Late responses to PhD applicant enquiries and lack of signposting might contribute to poor ethnic minority representation at doctoral level, researchers say

May 29, 2024
A cyclist stops at a red light at a level crossing to illustrate PhD enrolment hangs on an email
Source: Benjamin John/Alamy

With unsolicited “will you be my supervisor” emails pinging into academic inboxes at all hours, it is no surprise that scholars aren’t scrambling to reply promptly – particularly when the requests are generic or poorly written.

But this hesitancy might be contributing to huge equity gaps in PhD participation, says a new study into the informal early communications between would-be supervisors and applicants, which discovered huge inconsistencies in how academics deal with doctoral supervision enquiries – with some applicants having to wait weeks before they receive a rejection note.

That tardiness might amount to “exclusionary decisions” against those from ethnic minority backgrounds who may not be as well versed in the PhD application process, suggests the new study, published in the journal Research Papers in Education, which tracked how 19 academics handled such email requests over a six-week period.

In many cases, academics were reluctant to respond at all to email requests, knowing the significant investment of time required to engage with students, the study’s lead author, Emily Henderson, reader in education at the University of Warwick, told Times Higher Education.

“Academics were often so oversubscribed [with other commitments] that they were looking for any reason not to work with a student…and that may mean not replying at all,” said Dr Henderson.

Campus resource collection: Being Black in the academy

Academics were particularly suspicious about emails that did not seem tailored towards them, though it was often difficult for applicants to work out the right person to contact, she continued.

“Applicants will often send many emails to a lot of academics – some will think ‘that’s not targeted at me’ and won’t respond,” continued Dr Henderson, whose study recommends that departmental websites regularly update listings on scholars’ research specialisms and whether they are open to approaches from would-be PhD students.

Universities should also provide a pre-application form for applicants to avoid the ad hoc admission process currently operated at many institutions, the study adds.

“We cannot instrumentalise the whole process, but there are more things that could be offered, like templates for what email approaches should look like,” said Dr Henderson.

Without more signposting of the “hidden” rules of PhD applications, outstanding students with first-class degrees and top postgraduate qualifications were likely to be rebuffed if they didn’t pitch their initial emails correctly, said Dr Henderson.

“Studying at a university is no guarantee that you will understand what a PhD is and how to approach a supervisor,” she said, adding that international students were particularly disadvantaged in this respect.

While many UK universities are now launching their own studentships exclusively for ethnic minority students to address chronic under-representation, monitoring this earlier stage of communication on research projects was also crucial, said co-author James Burford, associate professor of global education and international development at Warwick. “We need to know who is being filtered out and whether these informal gatekeeping practices are exacerbating these inequalities,” he said.

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Reader's comments (9)

" is no surprise that scholars aren’t scrambling to reply promptly – particularly when the requests are generic or poorly written." If a request is clearly not composed to impress a particular academic, or is poorly written, the aspiring candidate is unlikely to be astute or articulate enough to work with success at PhD level. Whether or not he or she is from a majority or minority group is irrelevant. The necessary capacity is there or it is not. I have seen too many cases of PhD graduates who should not have been admitted but got through because most of the work was done by supervisors under pressure to ensure a pass. Generic, well-written applications of good quality will be rife before long. "Dear ChatGPT: Draft me an application for PhD supervision in [insert discipline] by [insert academic's name and role and institution]. Length [insert number] words."
Agree with you Tony. One hundred percent.
Two other factors to bear in mind are 1) many academics, conscious of the army of un-, under- and precariously employed PhDs are making 'contraceptive' decisions about taking on new students; 2) in some fields (Humanities, for example) the availability of PhD funding is shrinking. Unwillingness to take on new students--and especially to take seeming risks--increases in this context.
It was so long ago that it was letters rather than e-mails, but I carefully picked three people who were working in the field that I was interested in - two offered me a place, the other never replied (but another letter I sent at the same time gained no response so they may have got lost in the post!). I picked the people due to their working - and publishing - in that area. Then it was an anxious time seeing if anyone would get any funding. (I had a fall-back, my undergraduate supervisor had funding for a 2-year research technician post which he held off filling...)
I pretty much ignore all of these and have for 30+ years -- as 90% are pretty much spammed out (you can tell by the lack of specificity aimed at the reader and that others are getting the same email). The problem is that the real way to get someone's attention is to have someone with credibility make the overture. The few students I have taken on over the years have nearly all been introduced by a colleague I knew or someone who had taught the student and made the contact along with a direct recommendation. It reflects that the student is not being guided the academics with whom they have been involved with. So the advice I would give these students is (a) narrow down the set of schools (i.e., no spamming out of dozens of letters), (b) understand who you are trying to speak to, and (3) have a trusted and knowledgeable academic do the reaching out in the first instance.
Spot on, cynicus academicus: "... have a trusted and knowledgeable academic do the reaching out in the first instance". That's how I 'recruited' my senior supervisor, a superb academic who had refused for years to take on any PhD candidates in protest at the host of inappropriate candidates pushed his way by senior people on the education-as-business track. To everyone's surprise, he agreed to discuss my rough proposal, and took me on. He turned out to be an intellectual and advisory gem; always interested, respectful and inspiring.
These days the quality of some PhD applicants is terrible. Just because they got inflated A-level grade, inflated and often ill deserved and inflated firsts and often inflated and ill deserved "distinctions" in Masters they suddenly think they aee capable of doing a PhD. The fact of the matter is that many of them are nowhere intellectually up to the requirements of doing a PhD. Any Masters student with a distinction and less than at least 85% is probably not up o PhD standards.
How is any of this related to being “international” or not well off again? I was international, not well off, but I had access to a computer like most people and carefully studied all possible options and composed an email to a supervisor whose work captivated me.
Tony's assessment is more accurate of reality than the original study. How's ethnicity relevant here? I've been in several graduate schools in the UK and the vast majority of candidates is international students. Poor academic rigor.