Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Applying to Graduate School - Contacting Professors

When I first started this blog, I wrote some posts about the graduate school application process that are indexed here. Optimistically, I left space for more posts to be written in the future, including one about contacting potential faculty advisers. Ah, to be a first year student again, with so much time for blogging!

Obviously, my grad school application guide has been languishing for a while. But I recently received emails from two different neuroscience graduate school applicants who had questions about contacting faculty at their prospective schools, so I guess it's about time to write this post.

In general, I think it's good to contact faculty before submitting your graduate school applications. This is especially true if you're applying to a program based on the strength of one or two labs -- if those labs aren't taking new students, you might not want to spend the time and fees on that school. I recommend writing to faculty even if you're not committed to a particular lab, though. If you make a good impression via email or phone conversations with a professor, you are more likely to get invited for an interview.

Read on for tips about how to reach out to faculty at potential graduate programs.

Whom Should I Contact?

Most people apply to multiple graduate programs, and I strongly recommend identifying multiple faculty of interest at each school where you plan to apply. That adds up to lots of potential advisers. You don't need to email all of them! Resist the urge to write a form letter and send it out en masse. Professors are smart; they can tell whether you put thought into your message. Plus, they talk to each other, and if they all get identical emails from the same student, they will realize that you're just spamming the entire department.

My advice is to contact professors if you feel like you actually have something to discuss with them. If your previous research experience is similar to their lab's focus, you should be able to have a scholarly conversation about their work. If you're less experienced, but really enthusiastic about their lab, you should be able to convey your reasons for feeling that way. If you're not planning to work in their subfield, but you have a networking reason for contacting them (maybe they collaborate with one of your undergraduate advisers, or you met them at a conference one time, or...), you should be able to remind them of who you are and how you're connected. Don't write to someone if you have nothing to say beyond "I'm applying to the graduate program at [University X] and I really, really want to get in!"

What Should I Say?

Once you've decided to contact a professor at your prospective graduate program, it can be intimidating to craft that initial email. You don't need to sweat it as much as an application essay, but it is important to make a good first impression. I recommend following these guidelines:

1. Be clear and concise. Professors are busy people who receive a ton of email. You want them to be able to read, comprehend, and respond to your message as quickly and easily as possible. Keep your first message down to a few short paragraphs.

2. Identify yourself. As I said above, professors get a ton of email. Make sure they know who you are and why you're writing to them. Give your email an informative subject line and state that you're applying to their graduate program at the beginning of your message. This distinguishes you from undergrads taking their lecture course, collaborators asking for reagents, random eccentrics who stumbled upon the lab website, and any number of other people who might send unsolicited emails.

3. Ask questions. You want to give your potential adviser a reason to respond to you. If you're interested in joining their lab, let them know, and ask whether they have room for new graduate students. If you're interested in learning more about their research, ask specific questions that can be answered in a few sentences (something like, "Can you explain why you used the tail suspension test instead of the forced swim test in your most recent J. Neurosci. paper?" and not something like, "Can you tell me more about your research?"). On the other hand, don't make up a question just for the sake of asking a question -- as I recommended above, you should only be contacting professors if you actually have something to talk about.

4. Be available and accommodating. You're asking this person for a favor; make it easy for them to help you out. It's nice to offer to continue the conversation by phone if they'd prefer that to email, and to offer to send them additional information about you (CV, transcripts, etc.) if they'd like to learn more about your background.

5. Proofread! Run spellcheck. Avoid text-esque abbreviations and emoticons. If you're worried about your writing, ask a friend to read over your message before you send it. In general, you want to come off as intelligent and thoughtful, so try to avoid glaring errors. This isn't as formal as an application essay, but you should still put some effort into it.

Examples

Back in 2007 when I was applying to graduate schools, I wrote the following message to a potential faculty adviser. I would do it differently now, but I wanted to give you a real example, and also to show that even though this email was far from brilliant (marvel at my complete ignorance of neuroendocrinology!), it got a positive response. The professor in question later chatted with me on the phone, and I ended up receiving an offer of admission from this program (although I can't say for sure that my conversation with her had anything to do with it!).

To: [Prof of Interest]
From: Laura Mariani
Subject: Prospective graduate student

Dear [Prof of Interest],

I'm applying to the PhD program in neuroscience at [University] for fall 2008. When I read the research profiles of [University] faculty, I was drawn to your work. I have long been interested in neuroscience, but your research on how the brain interacts with the reproductive system strikes me as a new way to approach the subject, studying more of the whole animal rather than restricting the focus to the brain. My research experience is primarily in cellular/developmental neuroscience, studying mouse models of the developmental disorders Rett syndrome and tuberous sclerosis, but I hope to explore other aspects of neuroscience in graduate school.

I am writing to ask if you are currently accepting new graduate students. If so, I would love to hear more about your work (the [author names] paper listed as being in press on your CV sounded particularly interesting). I would also be happy to tell you more about myself and my background.

Thanks for your time, and I hope to hear from you soon!

Sincerely,
Laura

If I had to do it again today, here's what I would write:

To: [Prof of Interest]
From: Laura Mariani
Subject: Prospective graduate student

Dear [Prof of Interest],

I'm applying to the PhD program in neuroscience at [University] for fall 2008, and I'm especially interested in your lab. My previous research experience is in mouse models of neurodevelopmental disorders (Rett syndrome and tuberous sclerosis), but I am also interested in neuroendocrinology.

I would like to learn more about your work, particularly your recent paper on [hormone stuff]. My experience working with [developmental stuff] taught me [something relevant to endocrinology], so I am especially intrigued by the connections between the endocrine system and neural development. Is this something that I could explore in a rotation with your lab? Are you currently accepting new graduate students?

If you have the time, I would love to discuss this with you by email or by phone (you can reach me at [number]). I am also happy to tell you more about myself and my background, and can provide copies of my CV and transcripts upon request.

Thanks for your time, and I hope to hear from you soon!

Sincerely,
Laura

The revised version doesn't sound as warm and fuzzy because I tried to eliminate "filler" text. It also makes some intelligent connections between my own background and her research. Of course, back in 2007 I didn't know enough to make those kinds of connections -- I've actually learned a few things in grad school! Still, I think it's best to have something specific to talk about, and asking a question about possible rotation projects makes for a better conversation starter than "I would love to hear more about the stuff in this paper."

Both emails are short, focused, and give the professor an easy question to answer in her reply. They also make it clear that I put some thought into the message before sending it, because I comment specifically upon her research program and how it relates to my own interests.

Of course, neither of these examples is a perfect template, and you should let your own interests and priorities shape your interactions with a potential adviser. Even so, I hope that this post makes the process of writing that first email a bit less overwhelming.

12 comments:

  1. This is Brilliant!
    Thank you for all the advice offered. I'll be applying the coming cycle and your blog has clarified some very essential doubts!
    :)

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  3. Hey thank you so much !!!!!!!!!!!!!!! :)

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  5. Thank you so much Laura :) This was truly helpful. Being a foreign student and not really having anyone to get personalized advice from, the graduate school application process can be a bit overwhelming. I have nevertheless, managed to jump that hurdle and now I have to keep in touch with the professors and definitely keep my fingers crossed :)So Thank you for your advice on e-mailing professors.

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  6. Hi, this is great! I run a program trying to increase professional recognition for women in STEM, and have been wondering how to advertise awards and prizes to female faculty. Sadly, I don't have the time to find out what individuals are working on and then match them with an award they're eligible for. Any tips on how to reach female faculty en masse?

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    1. I don't know a ton about this, but maybe you could reach out to women scientists' groups like AWIS, as well as scientific societies (for example, the Society for Neuroscience) and ask them to mention your program in newsletters. Many universities also have women's centers that might be willing to help promote the awards you're advertising. And of course social media -- if you make a couple of good tweets about your program, those could get re-tweeted all over the science Twitterverse. Good luck!

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  7. Great post Laura!
    I currently have a conditional acceptance at a Masters programme. The admissions committee expects me to find a mentor that is willing to provide me lab space and funds for the 2 years.
    I was hoping to get an admit as a graduate student, so I had not mailed any professors at this university earlier.
    Could you please give me some pointers for mailing them now?

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    1. Hi! Sorry it took a while to reply to you; I hope I'm not too late to help. I think since you know exactly what you need from these professors -- research and financial support for 2 years -- you should write them a brief email explaining exactly that. They should know the rules for the Masters program at their university and have surely heard requests like this before. After introducing yourself and explaining your situation, include a few sentences about why your research interests are a good fit for their lab (I talked about this above) and offer to have a conversation with them about the kinds of projects you'd work on.

      Good luck!

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  8. i dunno how to put it nicely so il just say it as it is
    i took up electronics and communication engineering but somewhere lost interest and stopped attending college later on in my life i realized what a blunder i had made so i went back to studying and completed my undergrad but with a low gpa because i had not attended college so now the thing is im really interested in the field of my undergrad and want to do my masters in this field so if you could give me any suggestions as to what i can write to the professors so that i could get a letter of recommendation from them which would really help my admission chances
    i would be really grateful if you could help me in any way
    Thank you

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  9. Hi Laura,

    I found a program that I will like to enter, but I am interested in 3 advisors (2 more than 1). But because I looked in the website I think these 2 have a lot of students, so I think my chances could be low. So I don't know if I can write to the three advisors and let them know that I do that. What do you think?

    Thanks!

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  10. Thanks for this concise yet useful content Laura. It helped me a lot because i was figuring out that what is perfect way to email to Professors. really thanks Laura. All the very best for your Future.

    Sheikh Majid

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