Contacting prospective supervisors: A guide to forming your first email

Graduate school applications are incredibly competitive. If you lack in some areas, such as your GPA, it may be difficult to get into a particular program. However, making sure to highlight other positive aspects of your application can help you overcome your weakness. Additionally, approaching professors before officially applying to programs is often necessary for certain fields. This can be extremely helpful to get into graduate school, especially if you are interested in joining a particular professor’s lab.


This article will discuss the ways in which approaching professors can be useful, and how to do it in a way that you will stand out from the numerous emails in a professor’s inbox.


"If your communication with the professor is positive, there is a possibility that they will remember you and have some ability to vouch for you during the admissions process. While it might be easy to understand why it's crucial to reach out to a prospective advisor, doing so requires conscious effort."


Why should I approach a prospective advisor?

For most graduate programs, you are more often than not required to identify a few prospective advisors in your application. Remember, the faculty members you contact may be the people who will review your application once you pass an initial screening. Considering this, it makes sense to get in touch with these potential advisors to understand, firstly, whether they are looking for graduate students for that particular year, and secondly, whether they think you are a potentially good fit for the lab. When reaching out via email, you must convey why you are interested in their work and how you could contribute to their lab by expanding on their current research directions. This will give them a chance to learn more about you and your research interests before reviewing your application.


How do I approach a prospective advisor?

The most feasible and professional method of reaching out to a professor is through email. But, can you write an email to a professor that’s convincing enough for them to give you their time and attention? It is not as difficult as you might think!


This can be compiled by adhering to these three basic requirements:


1. Be Short: Each day a professor has a lot on their plate when it comes to actionable items and therefore, it is possible that your email may slip through the cracks. Hence, the first impression counts, which means that you should keep your emails presentable. A big part of this is making sure that your email fits on one screen, without requiring any scrolling. If the email looks lengthy, it is highly possible that it will become a lower priority and might not even be answered. Moreover, you don’t have to describe everything in detail in your first email. Your goal should be to keep the email concise.


2. Be Simple: Some Do's and Don't's.

  1. Do visit the professor's website if they have one. Go to their “prospective student” or “contact me” sections. Sometimes, professors leave minute details here, such as “while writing an email, send me the name of your favourite book as well” to gauge whether or not a student has spent some time researching them.

  2. Do ensure to address the person properly. Mostly, Dr. or Prof. is fine. If you have met them before, indicate this at the beginning of the email to capture their attention.

  3. Do properly format such that each section of the email is clear.

  4. Don’t use fancy fonts or colours.

  5. Don’t misspell the name(s) of the faculty.

  6. Don’t attach too many documents or links in the email. In addition, keep such documents short (e.g. 1-2 page CV).

If you have a lot of content and/or enjoy designing things, try to make a website to highlight your achievements, scores and projects. Times are changing, and with the number of applicants increasing every year, you need to give professors a better way of knowing about you than a plain CV. It can also help you figure out if a faculty member has shown interest when you check who visited your website recently.


3. Be To-the-Point: It is essential to make sure that each line has a purpose and is engaging to the reader. Break down your email in small paragraphs, which should include:

  1. Introduction: 3-4 lines should consist of who you are, how you came to know about the professor’s work and why you are reaching out to them. If possible, find out if they have recently received an award, have been promoted, or accomplished any other achievement to congratulate them. I believe this adds a personal touch to the email and tells them that you have done your homework on them.

  2. Background and Interest: This should comprise the bulk of your email and shows the faculty member what you are interested in working on as a graduate student. This is an apt place to comment on the work done by their group and how you could contribute to their projects, which may be highly welcomed by the faculty members. It may also be valuable to include a brief description of your background in this field, which can speak to your preparation for graduate school.

  3. Conclusion: Finish off by asking them if it would be possible for them to comment on the feasibility of your proposed idea. Tell them you are willing to continue this conversation by reading any papers that they suggest.


Including all the above-mentioned points, you can also take a few pointers from one of the emails that I sent while applying to computer science graduate programs (for an unannotated example from a bioscientist, click here):




Following up

Since professors have a busy schedule, and they receive numerous emails every day, your email may go unnoticed. If you don’t get a reply within a week, you should follow up with them in a polite manner, reminding them that you are awaiting their response. The email can go something like this:


Dear Dr. ABCD,


I hope you are doing well.


This is a gentle reminder regarding my last email. I understand you must have a busy schedule, and I would really appreciate it if you could take a few minutes of your time to answer my queries from my previous email.


I hope to hear from you soon.


Kind regards,

Your name


If you still don’t receive a reply, it is highly likely that the advisor is not currently looking for new students or might have other ways of recruiting students.


Conclusion

Your application determines whether you get into a particular program or not. To improve your chances of acceptance, contacting potential advisors before or during the application process is one of the best ways to evaluate if an advisor matches your interests, as well as increasing the likelihood that this advisor can vouch for you to the admissions committee.


Tip: Try to send your emails in the morning (around 8-9 am) or afternoon (1-2 pm) to the respective faculty members, as these times seem to generally be their most responsive.

FEATURED AUTHOR

Abhishek Tyagi


Abhishek is an incoming PhD student in the Computer Science Department at the University of Rochester for Fall 2020. Born and raised in an Indian household, Abhishek is a first-generation college student. As an international first-generation student, Abhishek brings to Científico Latino the desire to help future graduate students navigate hurdles in the application process of Computer Science and Engineering graduate programs. Abhishek believes that the ability to understand difficult situations and find solutions goes a long way in developing as a person. Having gone through graduate school applications twice, Abhishek is interested in understanding and dissecting problems and challenges that students face in different communities and in helping to find better solutions and approaches to help them achieve their goals. With the diverse nature of Científico Latino, Abhishek is confident that the team will be able make a difference in a wide range of communities!

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