Is your university staff profile putting off PhD applicants?

To attract PhD students, advisers must portray competence and warmth. Ben Marder and Sebastian Oliver explain how to optimise your staff profile

March 26, 2021
A man pulls a cheesy pose in 1970s clothing. Academics need to strike the right tone with their academic profiles if they want to attract PhD students.
Source: iStock

Most academics can remember trawling through university staff profiles searching for a PhD supervisor; a sibling in arms to guide and support you through the most treacherous academic adventure of your life.

During my search, the search often involved snap decisions based on first impressions. Advisers might have been rejected if they seemed to lack publications, appeared pretentious, listed their qualifications in an uninspiring way or simply looked a bit scary and unapproachable.

Not wishing to suffer the same fate when recruiting my own PhD students, I turned to Google to advise me how to create an appealing profile. Sadly, Google let me down, with no specific, useful or applicable answers.

Looking at other academics’ profiles for inspiration left me feeling even more confused. For world-class scholars, their profiles resembled a bit of a jumble sale: different structures; missing information; uninterpretable metrics; and unashamed direct copy-pasting from CVs. Considering the importance of academic profiles, they lacked the effortful finesse of LinkedIn, or even online dating profiles.

This confusion led to our research on how “first impressions” of PhD advisers’ profiles shape applicant decisions in the “search and reach out” process − an activity explicitly encouraged by universities.

We found that applicants first searched for advisers with similar interests to theirs from universities with desired attributes (for example, prestige and location) and, left with many alternatives, decisions were often decided by impressions of competence and warmth.

Competence was the paramount impression applicants wished to form, but when an adviser’s competence appeared too high, students assumed they might be neglectful due to being “too busy”. With many potential candidates deemed competent, warmth (such as approachability) then shaped decisions. Again, appearing too warm was detrimental, with applicants stereotyping such advisers as less competent, fearing them too friendly to be productive.

In short, to attract PhD students, advisers must strike a balance between portraying competence and warmth. Here’s how to optimise your academic staff profile:

Don’t be too boastful
Showing what you have achieved is great for communicating competence, but long lists of prizes, publications and grants are a turn-off. Instead, carefully select a few of your highlights to showcase in your profile.

Show the ‘real’ you  
Students want a glimpse at the person behind the title, and providing some information about your interests outside academia can help with this. But TMI (too much information) can make you seem self-centred.  

Strike the right tone
Avoid writing in the third person, because it may make you seem “up yourself”. Write your profile in the first person, but if third person is required always use your first name (Ben is…) rather than your title (Dr Ben Marder is…).

Welcome applications
Cold emailing a PhD adviser is an intimidating act, but it is eased when advisers welcome such contact. Simply stating “feel free to reach out if you want to chat about a PhD” could make all the difference. Also consider writing a few lines about PhDs you have recently supervised, or those you are currently involved with.

Ask yourself: ‘Is that really funny?’
Many advisers try to add a bit of humour to their profiles to show personality, but this is often misinterpreted, especially considering the varied cultural backgrounds of applicants. Don’t overuse this device and/or be careful what humour you use.

A picture is worth 1,000 words
A surprising number of academic profiles do not include a photo. Applicants really appreciate a smiling, welcoming picture. We also suggest short video intros or clips of teaching as a great way to show warmth.

Ensure structure
Although poor paper/argument structure are everyday gripes that academics have with student work, the same academics often take a Wild West approach to their own profiles. Applicants want the information to be easy to digest, with clear subheadings (research interests, teaching, past PhD supervision, etc).

Be mindful of being over-titled
Titles such as “Professor Xavier: director of postgraduate programmes/head of the Centre of Superpower Research”, signals to PhD students that you are very busy and are likely to be neglectful. If this sounds like you, extra effort should be made to communicate warmth and engagement with PhD students to offset this title effect.

Beyond this general advice, advisers must think about what kind of PhD student they would click with and design their first impressions to attract them. Furthermore, early career staff need to focus more on projecting competence (as their list of achievements will inevitably be shorter) while more senior staff need to consider strategies to project warmth.

Ben Marder is senior lecturer in marketing and director of collaborative PhD programmes at the University of Edinburgh Business School.

Sebastian Oliver is a PhD researcher at the University of Edinburgh Business School and communications officer for the doctoral society.

If you found this blog useful and want to work out what you are in the adviser taxonomy (the guru; the machine; the friend; the dud), check out the full paper.

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