I'm looking to e-mail some faculty members of a graduate program. How do I do it and not seem rude?
May 23, 2007 9:46 AM   Subscribe

I have my eyes on a very specific sort of graduate program at a University that while not top-tier, will be tough to get into. I'm looking to make some contacts in the program: What's the best way to do this?

I feel qualified for the program, but my GPA might say otherwise. I've spent the last year or so getting my act together, so I've got some real world experience. But I think the tipping point might be getting my name into the running before the formal application process.

Ask Mefi Professors, graduate admissions dude, et al: What would be the best way to "introduce" myself to the program? Is it considered rude or uncouth to just send an e-mail to a professor saying, "Hi, I'm GilloD and I'm interested in Program X and I was wondering...". Is there a standard way to conduct this kind of informal, personal inquiry?
posted by GilloD to Human Relations (14 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
IAAP (well, I've been hired and will start in the Fall):

I would be perfectly fine with a prospective student emailing me, but I would only take it very seriously if their email sounded thought-out and personalized. (i.e. Not generic to the program, but rather focused on what I'm doing.)

If you're going to email a Professor, your best bet is to find one (or a few) in the department whose work interests you and with whom you might want to work (assuming that's applicable for your degree). Read their work and ask questions. If it's such a specific program, you might want to explain why you want to be in it and what makes you a good candidate.
posted by JMOZ at 9:55 AM on May 23, 2007

Approaching a professor ahead of my application is what got me into my PhD program. Familiarize yourself with his/her work and then send an email outlining why x or y facets of their work interest you/apply to what you plan on studying and researching as well as a little bit about you. Tell them you are planning to apply, ask if your own area of research interest them and if so, would they mind looking over your application statement before you send it in. The professor I approached was not only interested in my area of research, but actually helped me formulate the application statement she thought would give me the best chance to get into my very selective program. Best of luck!
posted by meerkatty at 10:02 AM on May 23, 2007

This might sound obvious, but is there any professor where you graduated (and that you know) that might have contacts with people in the graduate program? It's worth investigating, because a word from such a person might help get your file noticed.
posted by bluefrog at 10:06 AM on May 23, 2007

I began my graduate work at NYU by following the advice of the first two posters. I think this is possible, so long as you can present yourself as a directed, articulate individual with a clear goal. I'd suggest a candid, modest, to-the-point letter with minimal frills that highlights why you wrote this professor in particular and expresses familiarity and personal interest in his work and with the field as a whole.
posted by mateuslee at 10:15 AM on May 23, 2007

I should also mention that if it's not a top-tier school, the faculty might be desperately looking for motivated, bright students. That's why a professor with whom you might work is a good choice.

As for how specific you should be in your interests: that depends on the field. In engineering, the faculty usually gets the funding and pays you on the grant. You need to be flexible enough to work on a project for which s/he has funding.

In some other fields, I think it's pretty common to put together your own grant with a faculty supervisor. In that case, you should have specific research interests.

Of course, if this "specialized program" is not a research degree, these comments won't necessarily apply. Perhaps it might behoove you to be more specific?
posted by JMOZ at 10:38 AM on May 23, 2007

IAAP. My reaction would be at best neutral to lukewarm. It might help you, a little bit. More likely it wouldn't matter or would be a mild negative.

It would be appropriate to contact the department's director of graduate studies, or equivalent, with questions or comments. But if I'm not the DGS...

Emailing me ahead of time might make me wonder if you're going to need tons of hand-holding or otherwise be a real time-suck if you're admitted.

Also, personalizing email to professors is double-edged -- you run the risk of making it very plain that you really don't have a fucking clue what I do. Whoops. Not a big deal -- like a lot of academics, my work is very narrow. But it would still decidedly Fail To Impress. Especially if you come off like a smarmy ass or suck-up.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:52 AM on May 23, 2007 [1 favorite]

While I was likely already qualified for Tufts, the admissions officer that decided my acceptance told me outright that our emails back and forth had been decisive in my sticking in her mind.

Just as you allude to in your post, I fabricated a question to email her to ask and found a way to continue the conversation. Admissions officers at every level want to see that you are a real, engaging person, right? I think an open, low-volume email thread over the course of the months leading up to a deadline is really helpful.

As some have said above, make sure that it's clear that you know about the program and a given professors' work, but have a thoughtful question that you may already know the answer to. Different professors and admissions officers will respond with very levels of openness, but it worked for me!
posted by coolhappysteve at 11:05 AM on May 23, 2007

I'm not a graduate admissions dude, but I do work in graduate admissions for a highly-ranked program.

The advice given so far on how to contact professors by email is very good. ROU_Xenophobe's reaction is rather strong - none of our faculty feel students are being needy when they contact them before sending in their application. However, we get piles of introduction emails and so they don't do much to single out a student.

Having a mentor or advisor of yours contact faculty they know at the program you desire is a very good idea.

The best advice I can add is to attend regional and/or national meetings of the professional organizations associated with your field, and meet the faculty there. Our faculty value having met a student in person over any other sort of communication.

And be polite to anyone in admissions offices that you encounter - you never know who they are and how they influence decisions. :)
posted by Squeak Attack at 1:09 PM on May 23, 2007

Response by poster: A little more info: I'm not going into engineering or chemistry or any hard science. It's a sort of Culinary History, Practice kind of thing. Specifically, the NYU Food Studies program. I feel fine about any challenges that might arise, but my Undergrad GPA is a little weak (A 2.8). It's a fact that's caused me no small amount of grief in my post-Grad dealings. I'm just looking to get a little closer to the process so that I'm not "That 2.8 guy".
posted by GilloD at 1:13 PM on May 23, 2007

In that case, ignore me. That might be sufficiently far from a "normal" academic program that I have no idea what they'd like or not like.

Squeak Attack: Yeah, that came out too strong. I am cranky today what with the packing and the moving and the calls from the lawyer.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 2:03 PM on May 23, 2007

First, congratulations JMOZ . . . welcome to the nuthouse proper.

And believe me, the top tier institutions are actively looking for good people too. It's one way you stay top-tier. So it's entirely normal to contact professors, as indicated in several answers above, with a *succinct* personal introduction (and I mean personal, because I can't tell you how many I've received that were obviously sent to a hundred program chairs, which I often decline to answer -- and make sure you spell the addressee's name right, too). Say what you're into in a few well crafted and smart-sounding sentences, ask if you can arrange an in person or phone interview or a program visit closer to the application deadline, and ask one or two questions that indicate that you've seriously investigated both the program and grad school in general, and read all their publicly available materials. Even better if you can indicate a genuine familiarity with at least the main thrust of the addressee's work (look up her publications, and read the abstracts, at least, but it's better to actually read a couple of papers). Summarize your upward trajectory, perhaps with a question about whether a steady improvement in GPA toward your present excellence might mitigate a lower than desirable overall GPA. But don't fetishize the admission standards as your main topic. Ask if there are current grad students who share your interests to whom you might address further inquiries. Etc.

All this in no more than 300-400 words, and attach a professional CV or resume that focuses on relevant academic and professional or life experience and serious accomplishments only.

That is, be interesting, smart, do your research, make a good impression, give all relevant information, and show you're seriously able to engage on a substantive level. It's like any other gig that takes selling yourself.

As the head of a grad program, I hope to get a couple of emails from prospects that stand out from the dozens or hundreds of badly written, generic, or naive inquiries. You would absolutely gain a leg up in the application process, at least temporarily, by making a good impression in an initial inquiry.

And then be patient. As JMOZ is about to find out, being a professor means being endlessly behind on email.
posted by spitbull at 2:27 PM on May 23, 2007

IAAP, and I used to be a graduate admissions coordinator (staff) for a nursing school. Not quite the same thing, but there are similarities. Based on the link you posted to the program, I'm assuming you're applying to the MA program, is that right? In that case, I'm not sure how helpful it would be to chat up specific professors about their research, since this appears to be a more professionally-oriented program.

My recommendation would be to contact the director of the graduate program, which appears to be this person, and see if you can set up a meeting with her to talk about your application. When I worked in the nursing program, potential masters students who had marginal GPAs (like yours) and/or problematic GRE scores were more successful in their applications if they had developed a relationship with the graduate advisor (my boss and the faculty member in charge of admissions). If you get a meeting with the director, be frank with her, and try to get her advice on how to make your application shine. And be prepared to explain why you want to be in this program and be able to demonstrate all the thorough background research you've done.

Although it does not appear (from what I read) that the GRE is required for this program, you might also consider taking (and rocking) the test. If you do very well, it can be a further piece of evidence to show that your undergrad GPA is not representative of your abilities.

Good luck!
posted by DiscourseMarker at 2:53 PM on May 23, 2007

I used to be a graduate admissions tutor. In my experience making any contact attempt like this wouldn't be helpful (I don't think it would actively harm your application, either). Generally there is a system for dealing with admissions, and a set of criteria for who the university will admit to a particular programme of study. My first response when people sent me these sort of emails was to try and divert them back into the main system, there wasn't the time to deal with them individually. I'd just send a form email back saying "thanks for your interest in our programme, the application procedure is outlined on the web at [website], follow the instructions there and your application will be considered in due course", and then answer any specific queries.

If you have some reason to believe that your application will be rejected out of hand (because you don't meet the criteria but believe, nonetheless, that you have some other qualification/experience that would qualify you), my best advice would be to flag this early on in the application document. Be specific: "I satisfy the English language requirement and the requirement to have a degree at 2:1 level. I do not have the required degree in Underwater Basketweaving as outlined on the course web page, instead my degree was in Medieval Dentistry; however, I believe that my six years of work experience in both underwater and land-based basketweaving, together with the study skills gained in by first degree, give me the experience that you require for your programme of study."
posted by Jabberwocky at 3:29 PM on May 23, 2007

Response by poster: As a final detail, I did rock the GRE. I'm not a terrible student, I have great recommendations, the grades just don't quite back that up.

But thanks to everyone. It seems like it's either a great idea or a neutral idea, so that's a nice go ahead. If nothing else, it might establish some kind of contact I can use in the future. Thanks for the tips, guys!
posted by GilloD at 12:03 PM on May 24, 2007

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