Is your university staff profile ‘turning off’ PhD students?

I am sure many of you can relate to once trawling through university staff profiles searching for a PhD supervisor; a sibling in arms that will guide and support you through the biggest and most treacherous academic adventure of your life.

In my search, I must have viewed 100s of profiles across 20+ business schools in the UK. I am embarrassed to say, whether advisors were deemed suitable or not sometimes came down to snap-decisions based on first impressions. For example, advisors may not have made the cut if they seemed to lack publications, appeared pretentious through writing in 3rd person, listed their qualifications in an uninspiring way, or they simply just looked a bit scary and unapproachable.

Knowing this, before I started to recruit PhD students of my own, I naturally turned to Google in order to find advice on how to best present my own profile in order to appeal to prospective PhD students. Sadly, Google let me down, with no specific, useful, or applicable answers on how to best design my academic staff profile. After looking at other academics’ profiles to try and gain inspiration, I felt even more confused. For world-class scholars, their staff profiles as a whole resembled a bit of a jumble sale: different structures, missing information, uninterpretable metrics, and unashamed direct copy pasting from CVs. As key platforms for self-presentation to multiple stakeholders, they were a far cry from the effortful finesse of LinkedIn or even online dating profiles.

This blog presents the findings of some research we did on understanding how ‘first impressions’ of PhD advisors shape applicant decisions in the student-led selection process (i.e. the search and reach out strategy promoted broadly by many universities worldwide).  In this, we focus particularly on the role of the university staff profile. We conducted interviews with MRes/PhD students within UK business schools, who had recently been on the hunt for an advisor. We presented fictitious profiles inspired by real life ones as prompts, using projective writing techniques (where participants wrote and discussed their own profiles).

Unanimously, respondents expressed research alignment and/or university attributes (e.g. prestige or location) as rather objective gatekeepers for supervisor consideration. These respondents engaged in highly effortful searches to create a pool of potentials. This initial and vast pool of advisors is likely to contain many academics with similar qualifications, similar interests, all from similarly ranked universities.

This is where more subjective ‘first impressions’ shaped shortlisting. Viewing university staff profiles, direct communications, and even a good old bit of LinkedIn or Facebook stalking played a part in forming these first impressions. Competence was the most important impression applicants wished to form, as it is known that intellectual ability and research skills of an advisor are vital for PhD success. Participants looked at cues, including position (Assistant vs. Full Professor), number/prestige of publications, number of PhD completions, and grant success. Interestingly enough, they were put off when competence appeared too high. This stereotyped such advisors as less warm, and likely to be neglectful as they would be too busy, with less time to give. With still a sizeable pool of suitable advisors deemed competent, how warm an advisor appeared largely decided who the participants would reach out to.

Cues for warmth included: approachable language, positive gestures towards PhD applicants, smiley photos, and evidence of engaging in social causes. Again, advisors who appeared too warm were not appealing, as they were stereotyped with reduced competence and participants feared a relationship with them would be too friendly to be productive.

The overall take-home message to best attract PhD students is that you must appear competent (but not too much) and warm (but again, not too much). This shows prospective PhD students that you as an advisor will have both the skills and the compassion to safeguard them through the choppy PhD seas. We outline some key advice for making your academic profiles attractive to potential PhD students.


Don’t be too boastful

Showing what you have achieved is great at communicating competence, but long lists of prizes, publications and grants are a turn off, making you appear overly boastful. Instead, carefully select a few of your highlights to showcase in the main text of your profile.


Show the 'real' you

Students like to get a glimpse at the person behind the title, providing some information about your interests outside of academia can help with this. But TMI (too much information) can make you seem self-centred.


Strike the tone

Students were instantly turned off by profiles which were written in third-person, making the writer seem unapproachable. You should write your profile in first-person, however if third-person is required, use your first name (e.g. Ben is…) rather than your title (e.g Dr Ben Marder is…).


Be welcoming to PhDs

Cold emailing a PhD advisor is an intimidating act in itself, but this is eased when advisors welcome such contact in their profile. Simply stating ‘feel free to reach out if you want to chat about a PhD’ may make all the difference. Also consider writing a few lines about PhDs you currently supervise, or those who have recently completed their degree.


Think, ‘is that really funny?’

Many advisors try to add a bit of humour in their profiles to show their personality, but this is often misinterpreted, especially considering the varied cultural backgrounds of applicants. Don’t overuse humour and be careful of what humour you use. Since carrying out this research, I realised my attempts were indeed ‘not funny’ and have now been removed.


A visual is a 1000 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 portray warmth.


Ensure structure

Though poor paper/argument structure are everyday gripes which academics have with student work, the academics often take a ‘Wild West’ approach to their own online profiles. Applicants want the information to be easy to digest, with clear sub-headings (e.g. research interests, teaching, past PhD supervision).


Be mindful of being over-titled

Titles such as Professor Xavier – Director of Post-graduate programmes / Head of the Centre of Superpower Research, signals to PhD students 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, advisors 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), whereas senior staff need to consider more strategies to project warmth.


Ben Marder is Senior Lecturer in Marketing at the University of Edinburgh Business School, and Sebastian Oliver is a PhD and Teaching Assistant at the University of Edinburgh Business School.