Advice on Emailing Professors When Applying to Grad School?
August 27, 2008 4:40 PM   Subscribe

Any advice concerning email communication with professors who I'll be contacting at the various schools that I will be applying to for PhD programs in Political Science?

As part of my application process I've been identifying the schools that I want to apply to and the professors at each campus that I would want to work with. I've been reading some of their recent writings so I can begin contacting them via email.

At the moment, my plan is to email them sometime soon letting them know I'm thinking of applying to their school, my planned research statement, and letting them know which of their articles I've read. I was going to include a comment about the articles I had read and ask them some question about something I'm unsure about or how their article might be in conflict with some other research.

If/when I get a response I was planning to follow up by asking to see any unpublished articles if they are working on something that also fits with my interest.

Firstly, I was wondering if anyone involved in academia has any thoughts about communicating with professors during the application process.

Also, is there some maximum number of emails that should be exchanged and at some point I would begin to annoy them, or it's ok to email back and forth for a couple of months?

Is there some number of emails I should exchange before I tell them explicitly that I am applying to their school and explicitly ask them for any help they can provide in the admissions process?

What about arranging a time to speak to them on the phone? Also good?

And finally, anything in my emails that I should be sure not to mention/include, or anything I should be sure to tell them?

[I'm focusing on email communication because, alas, I am out of the country and not able to make any more campus visits.]
posted by davidstandaford to Education (10 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I was going to include a comment about the articles I had read and ask them some question about something I'm unsure about or how their article might be in conflict with some other research.

This is annoying and unnecessary. You know, and they know, that the point of the email is to indicate your interest in their program and for both of you to feel out if it might be a good fit. No need to jump up and down and wave your arms and scream "I'm smart! I read your articles! Look at me!"

Be direct and clear. It's ok to say that you are considering applying to their program because of it's strengths in X, you love their recent work on Y, and you had some questions about how your interests in Z might fit with the professor's current research agenda.

Arranging to speak on the phone is very good, because you can assess tone of voice. Some people are better on email, others on the phone, and some people suck at both.
posted by Forktine at 5:17 PM on August 27, 2008

I'm me and not other people, and people differ. That said:

I'd rather that you just come straight to the point and not pretend that, hey, a natural conversation just happened to turn to your admission. I'm not stupid and I can tell when I'm being handled. As well, being handled wastes my time. Lord knows I don't mind discussing graduate school with people (like this), but don't waste my time doing it.

Dear Professor,

I will shortly be applying for admission to your PhD program. My research interests seem to line up with your own, and I wanted to ask whether you were planning on taking on new advisees (should I be admitted) or whether your schedule doesn't allow that.

I'm interested in [WHATEVER. NOT COPIED FROM THE STATEMENT OF PURPOSE.]. This seemed related to your own work on [WHATEVER], because [REASON].

Thanks very much for your time. I hope that if events dictate that I enter a different graduate program, we might still be able to discuss my research ideas as they relate to yours.

Don't forget that there are good departments for different things in places you might not expect. Rochester was a powerhouse for decades (still is, sort of), and Big 10 places tend to be more productive in terms of actually placing people who go on to do good things than Ivies do. In your particular case, you might look into North Texas, at least as a backup. People there doing civil war and related stuff (Greig, Enterline, Mason) are good folks.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 5:20 PM on August 27, 2008 [3 favorites]

I'm in ecology, not political science. In my field, you have a principle investigator that you work specifically for. The first e-mail, you introduce yourself, say you're interested in applying to the school and working with the professor. You ask if they're taking students. If so, you follow-up with potential questions and ask if there's a time if you can speak with them via phone or in person (if that's possible for you). The first e-mail should be as succinct as possible, and no need to be coy. Good professors get contacts like this all the time -- it's part of the process.
posted by one_bean at 5:21 PM on August 27, 2008

I recently completed (successfully... yay!) the grad school application process in Psychology, and I too had a hard time knowing what to say in the emails. It sounds like you are going about this process in a very smart manner and really trying to inform yourself about programs and faculty members, which is great. (And something that, surprisingly, some people never really bother to do before spending hundreds of dollars on applications and making a decision that will affect the rest of their lives... but I digress).

The main idea that I got from speaking to some of my undergraduate professors who were giving me advice during the application process is that faculty members get a ton of these emails around this time of year. Therefore, you should try to make your emails as concise as possible, while still letting them know that you are familiar with their work and telling a little bit about yourself. My typical email to a professor would be something like:

Dear Dr. X,

My name is X and I am currently a senior at University X (or whatever you're doing right now). I am very interested in your research on X (just a few words here) and was wondering if you will be accepting new graduate students for Fall 2009. My own research interests include (brief description... if you did any sort of undergraduate thesis or other large project, you could mention the general topic of it). I hope to hear back from you soon so that I can prepare an application in the event that you are accepting students.

I then included my phone number at the end of the email. That way, if they are interested in speaking to you by phone, the ball is in their court. I found that most of my replies were just something quick like "Yes, I am accepting students. I look forward to seeing your application" or "No, sorry, I am not accepting students next year."

After your applications are in, you will probably start receiving emails from faculty members at schools where you are in the running for admission (at least that is how it seemed to happen in my situation). Sometimes, they will want to schedule a phone interview with you. This (and subsequent in-person interviews) is a great time to start discussing the person's research more thoroughly with them. They will be more likely to write more detailed and time-consuming emails, send you unpublished papers, or have a phone conversation with you at this point because they will have seen your application, gotten a chance to look at your credentials, and decided that you are good enough that they would like you to come to their university and work with them.

As always, YMMV. Things vary from discipline to discipline, but like I said, I seemed to have success using this method. Good luck! The application and interview process can be really stressful.
posted by rebel_rebel at 5:41 PM on August 27, 2008 [2 favorites]

This is totally a good question for LiveJournal's applyingtograd community. Just 2 minutes ago I wrote up a fake email for a girl from bio anthro...

My standard intro to people is something like this (assume that you already checked that s/he is on the schedule):
"Dear Dr. X.

I am a senior at University of X studying bio anthro. I've read quite a bit of your work in my courses as well as during my work as a research assistant for Drs. Y and Z. I am very interesting in the work that you've done with topic W and would like to know what your current and future plans are for topic W.

I'm currently working with Drs. Y and Z as well as my undergraduate advisor, Dr. K to look into graduate programs. Obviously, University P is of great interest to me, as it is one of the top programs for bio anthro in the country and is so well known for you and Dr. B and Dr. C's work in topic W.

As such, would it be possible to chat at City's AAPA conference? It would be an honor to meet you.

Please let me know what you think.

Thanks so much,
posted by k8t at 6:16 PM on August 27, 2008

Listen to ROU_Xenophobe. When I was doing the same thing (albeit in a different field) I simply e-mailed professors whose research interests jibed with the sort of work I was hoping to do as a PhD student. I e-mailed them and followed nearly exactly the type of message ROU suggests. Every professor I e-mailed replied positively.

I wouldn't push on asking to see unpublished work. That's a touchy thing. In one case, a professor (the one whose research was most closely related to mine) offered to show me a grant proposal she was writing, but I didn't ask for it. Some professors will guard that sort of thing pretty closely for a variety of reasons (concerns over plagiarism or getting "scooped," or possibly even self-consciousness among them).

From that initial message, let the conversation--and that's what you should aspire to have--flow normally. If you have read their work, and you absolutely should familiarize yourself with at least some of it, ask them about it, but don't challenge them too much, or fawn over it, either. Engage with it, sure. Say, "The point you made about so-and-so was interesting-- I was thinking about how it might be applied to such-and-such."

And, remember that professors are people, too. (Sometimes strange, eccentric people, but people nonetheless.)
posted by synecdoche at 6:18 PM on August 27, 2008

Oh, and if at all possible, if you can get your intro email forwarded from a professor that you know well (RA'd for or something) and that is known in the field, your email is likely to stick out more.
posted by k8t at 6:22 PM on August 27, 2008

intro email forwarded from a professor

That's a very good idea. At the very least, send from an .edu address, if possible.
posted by lukemeister at 6:56 PM on August 27, 2008

'm in ecology, not political science. In my field, you have a principle investigator that you work specifically for.

This is much less true in political science. You still have a principal advisor or two, but you're not expected to know who they are coming in and you don't work for them in the same way that you might in the physical sciences.

I wouldn't push on asking to see unpublished work. That's a touchy thing.

The thing to ask for in that context is conference papers.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:10 PM on August 27, 2008

There are already a lot of terrific answers here. I just want to urge that you listen especially carefully to the advice in the first two, from Forktine and ROU_Xenophobe, about how not to come across as needy or time-wasting. Making email contact with your prospective graduate advisors is a great idea, but the message you send needs to be direct and concise just as much as it needs to be communicative. Very few professors would be happy with something even as short as the kind of statement of purpose you'd put in an application, if it just showed up in their inbox without warning – this is too big a demand on their time. So, ROU_Xenophobe's template email seems about right: especially in your first email, no more than a sentence or two of general summary of your interests. And you should certainly not play games like making up little questions about their articles in order to try to get them talking; people can spot this kind of feigned interest very easily. (If you're really interested in the answers, that's a different story, but don't do this as a forced conversation-starter.) And in general, you will do better the more you think of this exchange as a mutual assessment of how good the fit is between these professors/departments and you, rather than a one-sided affair where you're trying to impress them (which is the feeling I get from your question).
posted by RogerB at 10:48 AM on August 28, 2008

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