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.