Whether you’re trying to get into graduate school or looking for a professor to work with as an advisor, you’ll want to make a good first impression with your initial email. If you’re finding yourself sitting in front of your computer, unsure of what to say, you’re not alone.
Sending an email to a grad school professor can be intimidating. These are highly educated and intelligent professionals. And sometimes, you may feel like they hold your future in the palm of their hand. So before you throw caution to the wind and shoot your email from the hip, let’s discuss some tips to help you be more successful in making contact with a potential PhD advisor.
This post was written by Abbie Van Wagner (freelance writer) on behalf of Dr. Dave Maslach for the R3ciprocity project (check out the YouTube Channel or the writing feedback software). R3ciprocity helps students, faculty, and researchers by providing an authentic look into PhD and academic life and how to be a successful researcher. For over four years the project has been offering advice, community, and encouragement to students and researchers around the world.
First: Identify the Right Match
Before you contact any professor, you should spend some time doing some self-reflection. Consider what you’re looking for in a potential PhD supervisor or advisor. For example, would you prefer to work with a younger professor who’s more likely to be looking to publish their research (like an Assistant Professor)?
Or do you see yourself working with an established professor with a lot of experience and a catalog of existing publications? In either case, take the time to read the research and review some of the publications. Does the type of research and style of the writing seem like it’s a good fit with what you’re hoping to accomplish?
Other things to consider include what schools the professor’s been at, where they’re located now, and what training they’ve had. It’s important to identify potential advisors who’ve worked in areas that you’re interested in researching. For some PhD candidates, it’s important that their advisor has worked in certain key schools, while other candidates are most interested in highly specialized areas of research.
Whatever you focus on, be sure to choose potential advisors and supervisors that you believe you’ll feel good about working with. You could end up spending a lot of time with this person, and they will have a big impact on your future endeavors, so you’ll want to invest the time on the front end reflecting and researching to find a good match.
If you’re still in the early planning phase, you may be wondering if a PhD is worth it. Read more about whether a PhD is actually worth it.
Start With the Subject Line
Remember, the subject line on an email is the very first impression your recipient will get of you. Those will be the first words the professor will read when they come across your email. Do you want it to be something that catches their attention and prompts them to open the email, or will it be something that causes an internal eyeroll or causes them to scroll past?
Keep it simple here – identify yourself as a prospective graduate student and indicate the semester you’re hoping to attend. For example, you could use “Prospective PhD Student – Fall 2023” as the subject line.
Focus on the Research
Once you’re ready to compose your email, it’s critical to stay focused on the research (check out this blog post about the importance of consistent research). Professors are busy people, so don’t waste their time by writing up your life story. They don’t need to hear about the different clubs and committees you’ve been involved in or what your GPA was in college. Unless you have some special accomplishments to mention, just stick to the relevant research area and what they are doing.
When you discuss the research and what they’re working on in the email, it demonstrates that you’ve taken the time to read their work. In the end, you’re asking for an investment of the professor’s time and social capital, so be sure to acknowledge their accomplishments and published works to show why you’re interested in working with them.
Write With a Professional Tone
When you send an email to a professor or graduate school, make sure that you’re extremely polite and respectful in your writing. Use only professional language. For example, don’t use phrases like “hey,” or “what’s up?”
In fact, you may want to start by emailing the school first rather than emailing the professor directly. If you don’t already know or have some sort of relationship with the professor, you may not get a response right away (if at all).
Start with a simple address such as “Dear Dr. Smith.” This is the easiest way to avoid sounding too casual or unprofessional. From there, you can indicate that you’re simply inquiring about their work, let them know what you’re doing, and let them know there’s no pressure in the email.
Close the email with “Sincerely,” and your name. You can attach your CV to the email so it’s there if the professor wants to read it. Don’t use any abbreviations and definitely don’t use emojis anywhere in the email.
Don’t Ask For Things
If you’re emailing a professor about graduate school admissions or looking for an advisor to work on a thesis, it’s not the time or place to ask for anything. Be sure you don’t even hint around at it.
It’s not the time or place to ask for tuition stipends, money, time, or resources. Instead, focus on what you can do for them. How can you be of service or contribute to their work? What do you bring to the table?
Asking for money (or anything else, really) isn’t going to get you anywhere. Instead, it’s likely going to put a bad taste in the reader’s mouth. Remember to focus on what you can do to add value to the professor’s work or research.
If you want to find out about what kinds of resources are available, you can find that information on the university’s website or by contacting the appropriate department. Don’t go directly to the professor to make those kinds of requests.
To really show you’re a go-getter and someone who’s serious about working with a specific professor, find something you can do to be helpful and send it along with your email (if appropriate).
For example, if you know the professor is interested in a specific topic or you’ve read a certain piece of research, maybe you could do some additional analysis on the data and send it over. Or, if you have a skill like coding or running statistical models, you could offer up those services to the professor.
In addition, showing your skillset demonstrates that the professor won’t have to spend their valuable time training you on basic tasks.
What to Expect
It’s important to keep in mind that many professors and faculty won’t reply to your email. Some individuals simply don’t engage with those sorts of requests or reply to those kinds of emails in any case. Others may not have received the email, or they just might be too busy.
Sometimes, you could receive a response that says they’re accepting or considering students or it may encourage you to apply. In that case, you should apply, but don’t expect any follow-up correspondence from that professor.
Sometimes, you may get a detailed response or even an invitation to discuss the matter further. In that case, you’ve hit the jackpot and you’ve gotten the professor’s attention.
What If You Need to Ask For Things?
There may be times when you need to contact a professor to ask for something, like a letter of recommendation. Don’t think that’s completely off limits; there’s just a different approach you should take.
First, try to put yourself in your professor’s shoes before you ask for a recommendation. Consider your relationship with the professor and how comfortable they may feel writing a letter for you. Does the professor know you well enough? For example, did you participate in class or go see them during office hours?
If you aren’t sure if you’ve invested enough time developing a relationship with the professor, there’s still time! There’s no shame in stopping by their office to see if they need help with anything. Offer to assist with administrative or housekeeping tasks to help them get to know you.
You could also read a couple of their papers or look at their research so you can have a conversation with them about it. This is an easy way to start a relationship and help them feel comfortable with who you are before you request a letter of recommendation.
When you’re ready to make your request, provide the professor with a simple, pre-written letter that you write yourself along with a resume or CV. You can also provide a one-page bulleted list with other information about yourself that’s not on your resume to show things your’e involved in and other things you’ve done. This will give the professor all the materials they need to write the letter without creating too much extra work for them.
Whenever you email a professor to look for opportunities for graduate school admissions, to advise you on research, or even simply ask for a letter of recommendation, be sure to show gratitude. Go out of your way to demonstrate that you appreciate what the professor did for you.
In many cases, it could just be a simple email or handwritten letter thanking the professor for their time and efforts. A small gift or token (everyone loves cookies!) goes a long way in showing your gratitude.
When you build good relationships with these professors, you can continue to keep in touch with them even after you graduate. Building your academic and professional network is all about relationships, so don’t take any of them for granted.
Putting it All Together
Emailing a professor for graduate school admission can be stressful. In fact, all parts of the grad school admissions process can be overwhelming. There’s a big difference between undergrad and graduate school, so you’re not alone in feeling that way.
Keep in mind that professors are people, too. They’ve all been where you are at some point. That doesn’t mean that every professor will be willing and able to help you, but most will at least be willing to hear you out – if you use the right approach.
By following the tips we’ve shared here, you’ll be more likely to get a response and be on your way to following your dreams.
For more tips on improving your writing for graduate school, check out the following articles: