(Monday Post Category: Getting You Into and Out of Graduate School)
One of the most common points of confusion among undergraduates and new graduate students is how to write an email to contact a professor to serve as a potential Ph.D. or graduate school advisor. This can be a minefield. Yet the email inquiry to a potential advisor is one of the most important steps in your entire graduate school process, in that it is your chance to make a first impression on the person who will dictate many elements of your life for the next five to ten years.
I have been on the receiving end of many emails from hapless students who clearly had no guidance, and whose communication with me ended up appearing flippant and rude.
Here is that sort of email:
“Dear Professor Kelsky, I am a student at XXX College and I’m thinking about graduate school on xxx and I’m getting in touch to ask if you can give me any advice or direction about that. Sincerely, student X”
This is an instant-delete email.
Here is what an email to a professor should look like:
“Dear Professor XXX,
I am a student at XXX College with a major in xxx. I am a [junior] and will be graduating next May. I have a [4.0 GPA] and experience in our college’s [summer program in xxx/internship program in xxx/Honors College/etc.].
I am planning to attend graduate school in xxx, with a focus on xxx. In one of my classes, “xxx,” which was taught by Professor XXX, I had the chance to read your article, “xxxx.” I really enjoyed it, and it gave me many ideas for my future research. I have been exploring graduate programs where I can work on this topic. My specific project will likely focus on xxxx, and I am particularly interested in exploring the question of xxxxx.
I hope you don’t mind my getting in touch, but I’d like to inquire whether you are currently accepting graduate students. If you are, would you willing to talk to me a bit more, by email or on the phone, or in person if I can arrange a campus visit, about my graduate school plans? I have explored your department’s graduate school website in detail, and it seems like an excellent fit for me because of its emphasis on xx and xx, but I still have a few specific questions about xx and xxx that I’d like to talk to you about.
I know you’re very busy so I appreciate any time you can give me. Thanks very much,
Why is this email good? Because it shows that you are serious and well qualified. It shows that you have done thorough research and utilized all the freely available information on the website. It shows that you have specific plans which have yielded specific questions. It shows that you are familiar with the professor’s work. It shows that you respect the professor’s time.
All of these attributes will make your email and your name stand out, and exponentially increase your chances of getting a timely, thorough, and friendly response, and potentially building the kind of relationship that leads to a strong mentoring relationship.
If the professor doesn’t respond in a week or so, send a follow up email gently reminding them of your initial email, and asking again for their response. If they ignore you again, best to probably give up. But professors are busy and distracted, and it may take a little extra effort to get through.