"Cold-Calling" A Prior PhD Student Whose Dissertation You Read?
May 30, 2016 9:24 AM   Subscribe

Is it appropriate to email a former grad student of a professor you might like to work with to ask about their PhD experience and the future of the niche field they studied?

There is a very well-known professor in the field that I am studying, whose specialty is a particular subfield that I think I would really like to study at a graduate level. (I am currently an undergrad student in the larger field, and am graduating soon, but have no definite plans for graduate study yet.) Right now, this subfield is a rather new and niche area it seems and I don't know whether there are many opportunities, after receiving a PhD, for people who want to study this subject. The research is sometimes done on a rather controversial population and I wonder if that has hampered their research efforts in any way. I read the dissertation from this particular grad student and found it very interesting and relevant to what I would like to research myself, which lead to me wondering if I could send them an email like I just mentioned.

Would this be appropriate? If not, what else might be a good way to find out about doing a PhD with this particular professor and the state of this particular subfield?

Thank you in advance.
posted by sevenofspades to Education (17 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
If it were me, I'd be happy to inform you, and probably very glad to talk to someone, or give advice about something I'd interested in.

edit: as long as you email (like you outlined), and not call.
posted by Thisandthat at 9:28 AM on May 30, 2016 [3 favorites]

Absolutely, go for it.

"I read your dissertation and found it very interesting and relevant to what I would like to research myself. I am an undergrad student and I am beginning to looking my future plans. Would you mind if I asked you a few questions with complete confidentiality?"
posted by kariebookish at 9:28 AM on May 30, 2016 [2 favorites]

I have received emails like this. I love receiving emails like this. Somebody actually read my dissertation! Seriously, nerdy people love to talk about what they're nerdy about. I am also honest about the pros and cons of my advisor and graduate institution.
posted by hydropsyche at 9:39 AM on May 30, 2016 [20 favorites]

Yes, but don't expect them to tell you anything "Confidential" no matter how much complete confidentiality you assure them. So questions about the research area, the field, the difficulties of researching that field etc. are fine, but questions about "what's [advisor] really like?" are off limits.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 9:39 AM on May 30, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm in a niche field and have been contacted several times - I'm always delighted. I don't see it as a bother but as a chance to interact with a future colleague. There were a lot of things I wish I had done differently and I'm glad to pass that on as well as give tips on grants, the school, the other faculty, etc. There's also a few personality types that wouldn't work well with my old prof and vice versa - not saying that's a bad thing - and I'm also upfront about that because it is an important relationship.

I also look at it this way - I'm an alum, I'm on the alum board, and I'm in professional organizations. I'm serious about investing in the future of our field and the school; talking to a potential student is just such an investment, one that's well worth doing!

However, after you send your initial email, let the degree of interest in their reply guide future interaction and conversation, and be appreciative. The potentiality of being future colleagues works both ways.
posted by barchan at 9:39 AM on May 30, 2016 [2 favorites]

I am a professor and a former grad student. First read any other work by this person. But your best resource is the faculty at your current university. So, next, talk to your undergraduate professors about this sub area. It is possible that one of them knows someone in that sub area and can introduce you directly. That would be the best case scenario. Set up meetings with everyone in your department that might be relevant. Talk to them more broadly about your interesting in potentially going to graduate school and they will be a wealth of knowledge that you need. For better or worse, a lot of graduate admissions success is related to the relationship that the individual applicant had with their undergraduate mentors/professors.

If you can't get an introduction, this email might be appropriate: "Dear Dr. Smith. My name is Seven of Spades and I'm currently an undergraduate at Whatever University. I'm very interested in Sub Area and read your dissertation, Title, with great interest as well as your paper Title and your other paper Title. I was wondering if you would be available to Skype sometime. I have a few questions about perusing Sub Area and I'd love to get your feedback. If Skype isn't possible, I can also email them to you. Thanks so much, Seven of Spades."

Send this from your university address to make it more likely to not go to spam. Proofread it.

I suggest Skype because it is probably more time efficient and will allow you to build a relationship with this person.

When you actually get them on the call, flatter them a bit and show that you understood the papers/the dissertation. Don't be a fanboy/fangirl, be professional. Ask them what they are currently working on. Think of this as an interview and be careful in how you phrase things.

Then organize your questions neatly.
- What is the job market like for those that pursue Sub Area?
- What would you recommend for someone interesting in pursuing graduate work in Sub Area? Recommended readings? Journals I should keep up with? Other steps like being a research assistant? Are there conferences where an undergraduate could possibly go?
- I suspect it is challenging recruiting such a special sample for this sort of work. Can you tell me a bit more about how you recruit participants? [DON'T MENTION CONTROVERSY!! This is probably a touchy subject.]

Note that we all get random emails from students all the time and sometimes it can be really annoying when someone wants you to do their homework for them. But we also all want good graduate students, so this can be an opportunity.

GOOD LUCK! If you want to MeMail me with the actual person/sub area, I can google them and possibly give you some more hints about approaching them.
posted by k8t at 9:40 AM on May 30, 2016 [5 favorites]

In contrast, I will gladly answer your questions in long detailed emails, but I do not want to talk to you on the phone or by Skype. It's not you--I don't want to talk to anyone on the phone or by Skype.
posted by hydropsyche at 9:55 AM on May 30, 2016 [15 favorites]

I've occasionally got emails like this - less as I get further from my PhD - and I'm never upset by it. This is actually how things are supposed to work. I may or may not reply though. Things that are necessary to get a reply:

- This is a professional situation, write a professional email. Spell out all the words, use punctuation, write full sentences, and no text speak. You don't have to fall over being formal or whatever, but act like a grown up dealing with a work situation (because you are). Seems obvious, but apparently it isn't and I've deleted emails partially read because of this.

- The email should be relatively short and to the point. Don't ask a whole load of questions because I don't have time to write an essay (unless I do in which case you might get a lot extra back, but don't count on it). Choose the one or two (or maaaybe three) most important ones and don't make them vague. Also, make sure they are clearly questions I personally can/should be answering, not just some random thing you sent out scattershot. In your case you read and enjoyed their thesis (mention that! say the one best thing you liked about it!) so you'll have no problems with this bit.

- Also, don't ask if you can ask questions then leave out the questions. I'm going to be totally bored of it all by the second email. Just ask your questions straight up and see if I answer them. You can ask more in follow up if things go well.

- You're not going to get confidential or controversial or gossipy stuff in an email. I'm just never going to commit my actual feelings about any of my bosses or whatever in writing, let alone to a stranger. So if that's all you're asking you won't get a reply.

- Lastly, I need to have time and/or feel like replying. There's nothing you can do about this one so if you send it and get nothing back, let it go and move on with your life. It's very very likely to have nothing to do with you.

So yes write the email. Put some thought into it. And have a backup plan for when it doesn't work.
posted by shelleycat at 10:03 AM on May 30, 2016 [4 favorites]

I wouldn't expect a lot of hand holding, so please minimize this in your professional and courteous email, but holy smokes would I be happy to hear that someone took the time to read my dissertation.
posted by athirstforsalt at 10:12 AM on May 30, 2016 [1 favorite]

N'thing "go for it." Cold-contacting academics about their research is pretty normal, and people are generally pretty happy to have someone, particularly an undergrad who seems enthusiastic about their field, ask about it. It is very reasonable to write an email in which you 1) state that you're an undergrad interested in studying in their field in grad school, 2) are familiar with their work and that of their advisor, 3) indicate that you read their thesis, and 4) would like to know if they would be willing to share any advice to an undergrad applying to grad school in their field, particularly in their former department. As shelleycat said, depending on how busy/available this person is right now, you may or may not get a response, and may or may not get much detail in your response. Or you might get a very detailed response and an invitation to correspond further with specific questions. Let their response (or non-response) guide you.

Good luck!
posted by biogeo at 12:12 PM on May 30, 2016

I should also clarify, when I said up there to put some thought into it I really did mean some. Not none, but don't overthink it too much or make yourself crazy either. What you're asking about is totally appropriate and acceptable behaviour and if your email is as well written as your question you'll be golden.
posted by shelleycat at 12:26 PM on May 30, 2016

He's not going to be offended, but he's only going to be useful if he has a tenure track job or a good post-doc. People drop out of or strike out on the post-PhD job market for all kinds of reasons and they tend not to tell you much about the situation.
posted by MattD at 1:45 PM on May 30, 2016 [1 favorite]

questions about "what's [advisor] really like?" are off limits.

Actually, I think they're absolutely critical, though you don't phrase it like that. Ask about their graduate experience in general, and about the culture of the research group (if there is a group). I would love to get an email like this and would reply honestly (in my case it's all good stuff, because I had a wonderful experience, but I can also say broadly useful stuff about the group and research area relative to others). You should be able to tell pretty easily if someone had a good experience or is being diplomatic; the latter isn't necessarily an indication that the advisor is terrible, but it's a data point. The friends I have who had truly terrible advisors wouldn't send back a glowing description of their group, let me tell you.
posted by you're a kitty! at 4:50 PM on May 30, 2016 [4 favorites]

No one in their right mind would write something critical of a colleague over their (FOIA-able) email.
posted by k8t at 10:31 PM on May 30, 2016 [1 favorite]

Any email about group culture or about research subjects or whatever that I send is always going to sound cagey and overly diplomatic. And not because I had a bad experience during my PhD, I really didn't, but because I'm not an idiot. Real opinions can be misconstrued so easily, particularly in writing and out of context. I'm not even worried about FOIA so much, but it's super easy for an email chain to be forwarded or cc'd to someone unexpected (and yes, I've seen it happen). No way I'm going to take that risk.

Asking those kinds of questions in an email to a stranger will make the sender look naive at best, and greatly increases the chances that I don't answer at all.
posted by shelleycat at 11:44 PM on May 30, 2016

I am a PhD-haver currently working outside of traditional academia.

I'm happy to talk to someone (eventually) about grad school (and "nontraditional career paths") especially if they've actually read my research and seem serious about it, or aren't fishing for a job offer or thesis idea, AND if they're respectful of my time. (Key word is eventually; I like other academic types am terrible about responding in a timely manner to emails.)

And I'm very open about the pitfalls of my grad school lab, department, advisor relationships in general. I think people who've been through it have an obligation to give an accurate picture to considering it; prospective grad students are generally given terrible information about working with advisors and career prospects. I'm also not working at a university so i'm not as beholden to the advisor recommendation.

For the state of the subfield: I would also, if I were you, try to look at every relevant paper cited in this dissertation, and take a look into those papers' citations, and papers that cite those papers. Is anyone in your niche field active on twitter? Follow them.
posted by zingiberene at 12:45 PM on May 31, 2016 [1 favorite]

Thanks so much everyone.

I was concerned about seeming like an overzealous undergrad, so I appreciate the consensus that "yes, this is a thing that gets done."

I also appreciate the insight that asking about experiences with a specific professor could be a dicey proposition. It makes sense now, but it's not a nuance I would have foresaw on my own.
posted by sevenofspades at 7:39 PM on June 6, 2016

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