Oct 26, 2023

Emailing a potential graduate school advisor

 The following was initially posted by LinkedIn by Prof. Brandon Ross (Clemson University) on Oct 24th, 2023.   He gave his permission for us to repost it here.  

On a typical day, I receive multiple emails from prospective graduate students inquiring about joining my research group. Given the number of requests, the time required to respond, and my limited mental stamina, I can only reply to a few of these inquiries. While I can't reply to all inquiries, I can offer the following list of dos and don'ts to guide your emails. Remember that your goal is to craft an email that rises above the hundreds of other emails I receive from prospective students. Achieving this goal takes time and effort, and there are no shortcuts. 

If you choose to send an introductory email to a
professor, DO:
+ Write a personalized message.
+Be deliberate about which professors you contact. 
+ Decide the topic(s) you are interested in and limit your emails to professors in those areas. 
+ Read a few (or many) of the professor's papers and ask insightful and specific questions. 
Asking insightful and specific questions about a professor's published work is one of the best ways to separate your email from everyone else. If you have trouble accessing papers, ask your university's library to help. You can also look for theses and dissertations of a professor's past grad students; typically, these documents are free through the granting university's website. As you read papers and formulate questions, make sure the questions are insightful and come from a place of genuine curiosity. Genuine curiosity tends to shine through the noise.  
And, DON'T:
- Use generic templates with cut-and-paste information.
- Send "spam" emails to long lists of professors, hoping that someone will write back.
- Be vague about your interests or contact professors who work in areas unrelated to your background and interests.
- Mention paper titles or include quotes from abstracts without going deeper. 
Some emails I receive are obviously created using templates, and some are comically bad. One email from a template had my name wrong, and another had the wrong university. I delete emails that appear to be spam. Sending generic or spam emails isn't effective and wastes everyone's time. 
To summarize, when you send me (or another perspective advisor) an email and want a response, put in the work beforehand. If writing the email is quick and easy, you are doing it wrong. Remember that you are competing with hundreds of other students. Professors are looking for students who are curious and hardworking. You can demonstrate these qualities by putting effort into your introductory email. 
There is a risk in spending effort preparing for and writing a good introductory email. Sometimes, I receive well-written emails from highly qualified students, but I don't have any openings in my research group. The process is similar to professors writing research proposals: Poor proposals are consistently rejected, and a few good proposals may get selected. But those intent on success keep working to create high-quality proposals and introductory emails.

Apr 4, 2023

Expressing gratitude with a thank you note

Contributors: Marian Kennedy, Tonyia Stewart, and Maria Torres


In higher education, many people go out of their way to help students as you push past barriers, obtain new skills, and strive towards your goals. After graduation, we hope that you will find this mentoring replicated by more senior colleagues who help you progress at your new institution.  While those providing the help do not expect a ‘thank you’, a gesture of thanks for the person’s time, insight or expertise can help you solidify a relationship.  One of the best ways to show gratitude is by writ­ing them a thank you note. These notes can be relatively short (4-5 sentences) and therefore relatively quick to write if you have the tools on hand.


If you have not expressed gratitude by writing a note previously, here are some quick steps:

  • Begin the note by addressing the person you are thanking. If you are on a first name basis, go ahead and address them by their first name. However, if you do not know them well, it might be better to use a professional salutation like “Dr.” or “Prof.”
  • Next, remind that person of how you met and who you are if you are not well acquainted. For example, if you had a guest lecturer come to your class and you walked away with new insight for your research or career path, you would start the note by letting the person know what university you are from and jog their memory by mentioning the guest lecture for a given course.  Guest lecturers are typically not paid for their time and are instead motivated to to help give current college students a better view of the field.  They are giving up time that could be allocated to the pressing items on their to do list to drive to the college campus and give a talk. 
  • Follow that sentence with an expression of your gratitude and appreciation for the person's actions or gift. Be specific about what you are thanking them for and how it has made a positive impact on your life.
  • Then share a personal detail or anecdote that demonstrates the impact the person's actions or gift have had on you. This helps to personalize the note and shows that you are truly grateful.
  • Finally, close with a final thank you sentence and closing such as "Sincerely,".  The closing you select will depend on the situation.  I have used a range of these from ‘Thank you again’, ‘Best wishes’ and “Respectfully”.   Sometimes I forgo the closing altogether and just use my first name alone. 
  • Always close with your first name and below that include your full name and a contact method (such as your university email address).

One of the questions that we get asked a lot is who to write a thank you note to.  This should be anyone who has provided you their time, expertise or guidance.  Here are some examples:

  • The student service coordinator who was helping you track down items for your graduate school application.
  • A faculty member who reviews your resume before a career fair. 
  • The HR recruiter who talked with you at a career fair and helped you understand the varieties of positions they had and how to navigate a corporate application site. 
  • A peer who listened to your practice talk and gave you helpful feedback. 

In your professional career, I am going to suggest that you use handwritten thank you notes rather than email when possible. Since most people use email, this will be a way to have your note stand out to the recipient. Reflecting on her own experience, Tonya noted that When someone takes the time to handwrite a message to me, I see the writer walked away () with a nugget of inspiration that positively impacted their life. When I receive these handwritten notes, it encourages and helps me to feel that what I do is vital to others.


Once done writing the note, you have a few options for delivery.  You can either mail the note or, if you are in the same geographic area, drop it by their office.  If you do not know the person’s address, it can often be found in their email signature line or on the institutional website.  If the address was not found in either of those locations, go ahead and just ask your recipient for their physical address through email.   You can simply mention that you wanted to mail a short note. 


Prof. Randy Pausch highlighted the “magic” of physical notes in his book The Last Lecture (Chapter 41). During his time as a professor of computer science, he noted that the rarity of handwritten thank you notes makes them more valuable to the recipient. I (Dr., Kennedy) read this book as I entered my first faculty position and 15 years later, his words ring truer than ever. I rarely see a handwritten note and because they are so rare, I remember them much longer. In a blog post by Samantha Kollasch, she noted that people tend to also save those notes by tucking them in desk drawer or posting them on an office wall. I have mine safely stored in a file drawer that I revisit when confronted with professional disappointment (such as less than stellar article reviews).


To decrease the barrier to writing thank you notes, it is best to just keep a package of notes on hand that work for a variety of occasions. I keep a set in my work desk drawer so that I can write one quickly. I must admit that I do not write them as often as I should. However, when I make time for this practice, I notice that I feel more grateful for my academic colleagues and less focused on the smaller barrier that pop up daily.



About the co-contributor(s): Tonyia Stewart is the director of both “Graduate Recruitment & Inclusion” and “Postdoctoral Affairs” within the Clemson University College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Science. Maria Torres is the Assistant Director for Cooperative Education at Clemson University. Both have extensive experience guiding students into successful graduate programs and making meaningful connections.


Acknowledgements: This blog post was edited by Kate Epstein of EpsteinWords. She specializes in editing and coaching for academics, and she can be reached at kate@epsteinwords.com.


Feb 4, 2023

If you don’t write it down, you may as well have not done it.

Photo by Dean Ricciardi on Unsplash
Overview: When it comes to research, if you don’t write it down, you may as well have not done it.  Recording is a required component of becoming a researcher and staying a researcher. 


Because writing is a staple of formal education since the earliest levels, it can seem like a waste of time to reflect on how to create written artifacts documenting your research process.  But we are here to implore you to focus on this practice as you enter 2023.  Recording research is a process that is distinct from all other writing you have done.  It goes beyond those notes you scribbled during inorganic chemistry labs, requiring you to document the justification for your experimental designs, concerns you have about prior results, etc. 


This blog post was cowritten with my colleagues Drs. Joshua Alper and Ulf Schiller.  Our fingers are crossed that our lived experience can help you identify changes, big and small, in your writing process that can lead to fruitful research gains this year.    


Post Contributor(s): Marian Kennedy,Ulf Schiller, and Joshua Alper