How to make the best impression on graduate advisors in earth sciences?
October 2, 2007 10:24 AM   Subscribe

Help me compose the perfect letter of introduction and get over my fear of contacting potential Ph.D. advisors.

I've read previous AskMes on related topics, but I didn't feel like they answered all my questions. Also, the best approach to take seems to vary by field, so many of them don't necessarily apply to the physical sciences.

I'm currently in the process of applying to graduate school, having been inspired by the International Polar Year to investigate the possibilities of geophysics and polar modeling. All the schools, books, AskMe threads, and so forth strongly suggest contacting professors whose research interests me. However, I'm having a great deal of difficulty composing the requisite emails. I've always been anxious about initiating interactions with other people, and the stakes in this case seem paralyzingly high. I feel like one sufficiently-dumb question about their research could sink my application, and I don't know how to ensure that I've read enough of their work to get it right (particularly since I don't have easy access to the full text of publications behind pay walls.) Most of the professors' personal "what I'm working on" websites are either nonexistent or 2-5 years out of date.

How can I evaluate the strength of my introduction emails? Is there a good rule of thumb for asking intelligent (or even intelligent-sounding) questions about a fairly technical research paper? Will I look unprepared if that question happens to have been answered in another published paper that I haven't found, or haven't read because it's behind a pay wall? Should I explicitly say "I would like you to consider me as a potential advisee" or just discuss their research? Will they be annoyed if I ask for advice on writing a letter of intent?

I guess it all boils down to: how can I calm down and reassure myself that pressing "send" isn't a potential death sentence for my application?
posted by cortisol to Education (12 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
As a former professor, I promise that most, if not all, professors will be delighted that someone is interested in their work and happy to hear from someone who wants to work with them. Now, if you are contacting the supreme expert at MIT or Yale or something, they might have inboxes full of these requests, but most professors who aren't the grand poobah of their fields are thrilled when people are interested. Occasionally you meet a stinker, but most will be complimented rather than annoyed. So keep that in mind.

Next, you are very articulate in your post, so I can't imagine your sounding "dumb." Also, presumably graduate school is to train you in a field you aren't an expert in, so you cannot be expected to provide expert-level commentary prior to your training. Professors hope for bright, interested students, and do not expect them to already be experts. The important component is passionate interest.

I think your email should express interest in his/her field, explain why you are interested in terms of your background (link classes/majors to the area of interest), discuss the steps you have already taken to familiarize yourself with the field, and ask him/her if they anticipate upcoming openings in his/her lab. I don't know why you would need to comment on the professor's publications, unless I am missing something.

If you live close to some of these professors, they might invite you to visit the lab or come in for a lab meeting. I think you can expect some replies along the lines of "please apply through the appropriate channels," but if the professor does have openings, I bet your interest will lead to an invitation to visit or submit more background information, at least. That's how we did it, but I was in neuroscience, not geophysics.

And remember, you haven't lost anything by expressing interest! Everyone likes to hear that what they do matters. You will get some no-replies, some wankers, and some great replies...just like any other situation like this, regardless of field. I think it is great you are following your bliss here, and don't let worries of sounding dumb (which you do not) scare you away from reaching out and making some new contacts. I think you will be very pleased at the conversations you are starting, and you should ignore the insecure blowhards who act like they are too important for you. After all, where would they be without students? They need you!

Good luck!
posted by frumious bandersnatch at 10:41 AM on October 2, 2007 [1 favorite]

They won't expect you to know anything about their research, and they don't particularly care if you do. At most they'll be slightly flattered, but that's not going to have a big impact on how they respond. I'd avoid asking questions about the research unless the answers will have an actual bearing on your future choices.

What they care most about are your qualifications: where you're from and what you've done. If you have good grades from a good school, that's good. If you have research experience, that's excellent. If you've published with a reputable researcher, you're golden. So get that out there.

Keep it very short, and if you're interested in working with the professor, say so. I'm not sure what you mean by "letter of intent". If they're interested in you, they'll let you know, and then you can ask them for advice on applying to the program. As for a letter of intent to work with the professor, this email is it.

I'd go with something like:

Dear Professor X:

I'm a fourth-year undergraduate student at University Y currently applying to graduate school in geophysics. In investigating graduate programs, I've become interested in your research, and I think I would be a good fit in your research group.

My undergraduate research, with professor W, has focused on [insert short (no more than three sentences) description here].

I will be graduating this Spring with honors, with a grade point average of Z.Z, which will make me an excellent candidate for graduate study at your institution. Please find attached my curriculum vitae and a copy of my most recent publication. I look forward to discussing this matter with you further.

Yours truly,

My personal experience differs from that of the bandersnatch: even first year professors with no track record in my field get a good number of these. Don't be surprised if you get no response from some people. Consider one additional follow-up email, but no more.
posted by mr_roboto at 10:57 AM on October 2, 2007 [1 favorite]

I am me, and in my own field, not them and not in geophysics.

I would suggest being straightforward, but I hate HATE HATE feeling like I'm being gamed.

Dear So and so,

I have applied / will soon formally apply for admission to your department's PhD program and was hoping you might consider me as an advisee.

I do this stuff, with this background.

I really like your paper on Foo, for reasons Bar and Baz. It's work like this that excites me about possibly working in your lab. Obviously I'm not yet an expert in this field, but I was wondering if Blah.

If you think there's some possibility of my working for you, I wonder if you'ld be willing to describe some of what you're looking for in a student so that I can tailor my formal application to provide you the most relevant information?
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:59 AM on October 2, 2007 [2 favorites]

I can give you a lot of of point-by-point stuff about this, but there's really a shortcut solution to thinking about it that makes all the other stuff far less relevant: anybody that's a dick to you when you ask questions about their research is someone you don't want as an advisor, so on the off chance that it happens, just consider it a valuable data point ("Whew! Glad he showed his colors early!") and move on.

As far as some other stuff:
Is there a good rule of thumb for asking intelligent (or even intelligent-sounding) questions about a fairly technical research paper?
Just one, which is don't try to talk above the level you're comfortable with. There are only two likely outcomes for that: you end up talking nonsense, which is embarassing and gives a bad impression, or you accidentally give the impression of being further advanced than you really are and your advisor starts off talking way above your level, assuming you can keep up — which is also embarassing when you eventually gotta say "Er, sorry, I didn't understand a damn word for the past six weeks."

Will I look unprepared if that question happens to have been answered in another published paper
Nah, that's totally normal, that's how most people find out about stuff. Not by exhaustively reading everything on the topic, solo, but by talking to other people.

Look, if you give them Gene Ray-quality incoherent babble when you get in touch, then yes, it is possible to sink your chances. But as long as you can phrase coherent questions about the subject, then even if the questions are very easy (to those in the know), or notoriously difficult (likewise), you'll really be OK.
posted by Wolfdog at 10:59 AM on October 2, 2007

ROU_Xenophobe's model letter there is spot-on, as far as I'm concerned.
posted by Wolfdog at 11:00 AM on October 2, 2007

If you haven't even got a PhD why would you know anything about an academic field? Seriously. Academics want PhD students who are enthusiastic about the field, have hopefully done some general study previously that leads up to applying, e.g. an engineering degree for an engineer, are hopefully able to work without spoonfeeding, and in an ideal world have their own source of money, sadly the last is generally too much too hope for and is not an expectation.

Reading their academic publications is well along the continuum of looking enthusiastic about the area. Just saying you've read their stuff and would like to pursue study in their area will often be enough.

I would advise you to be totally explicit that you are looking for a PhD supervisor. Even if they have no funding currently, they may be able to advise you where to look. Potentially they might have been looking for a PhD student to support an application for funding. (I'm in the UK, and often here its the student who makes the bid, with them having to have a supporting institutional dept supporting their bid, check how it works where you are. in these circumstances, having a good enough candidate can be the biggest problem.)
posted by biffa at 11:08 AM on October 2, 2007

The fact that you have contacted the professor is more important than exactly what you say. This means that a short note is all that is needed. If you can demonstrate good qualifications and a genuine interest in the professor's field, then that will encourage him/her to remember you. [He/she may receive many letters like yours from potential applicants.] But don't go overboard. In particular, do NOT try to demonstrate your brilliance by shredding the professor's work. That is much more likely to annoy than to earn you respect.

I suggest you don't mention the Polar Year. That suggests to me that your interest in geophysics suddenly arose recently, and might evaporate just as quickly.

I strongly recommend contacting more than one professor on any program you are seriously interested in. Think of the professors as a menu of dishes, each of which you will be forced to eat daily for 5 or so years. If, once you start the program, you decide that you hate the only professor that interests you, there's not much you can do.
posted by beniamino at 11:12 AM on October 2, 2007

Good advice above, short and sweet, all-business. Don't worry about what you don't know yet. You're not going to learn any more before you write the letter, and it's ok.

(Also, free advice: when you get into grad school, the attitude of "it has to be perfect or else I can't start" will have to go. Seriously. If this is a problem for you in other areas, try to get into a program of changing this attitude before you're in grad school. Your work is (almost certainly) completely fine, even if it's not the very best possible thing anyone could ever do. Don't get paralyzed by setting impossible goals for yourself.)
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:21 AM on October 2, 2007

Is there a good rule of thumb for asking intelligent (or even intelligent-sounding) questions about a fairly technical research paper? Will I look unprepared if that question happens to have been answered in another published paper that I haven't found, or haven't read because it's behind a pay wall?

I work in industry but frequently have to engage academics. What I've found to be effective is to avoid asking questions that go over your head and instead ask for other publications that you can read related your particular interest. It gives the positive impression that you're interested, curious, willing to read and research, and you're not the type of person that considers themself an expert after having just read one article (you're open to learning).
posted by junesix at 11:52 AM on October 2, 2007 [1 favorite]

I'd just like to back up everyone here who has said that you don't need to sound like an expert because you're not one. That's what doing a PhD is all about, when you finish you're an expert (whatever that really means). In the fields in which a post-doc is required you'll really be an expert once you complete that. It's a long process and I'm sure that what a potential advisor is looking for is intelligence, a good work ethic and enthusiasm for the field. As ROU_Xenophobe said you really shouldn't appear to be gaming a potential advisor, as I'm sure that any one that you really want to work with will be able to smell bullshit from a mile off.

Good luck!
posted by ob at 12:01 PM on October 2, 2007

Man, there's some great advice in here.

Contacting professors has multiple benefits: you'll begin to narrow down your interests, appear serious about the program, have someone to cite in your personal essay… and, if you make a good contact, maybe even have someone in a position of influence who will vouch for you. Some of my friends were told in their acceptance letters that specific professors they'd contacted went so far as to support their application. Also, knowing whether the person whose work interests you is going to be hiring can be really important for your own decision making; it can be a matter of funding, and knowing that ahead of time can help you avoid applying somewhere that won't provide you the opportunities you want.

I sent a letter similar to the following to professors at many of my top-choice schools:

Dear Professor NAME,

My name is _____, and I'm a senior at COLLEGE. In the process of applying to graduate schools I've spent a lot of time on UNIVERSITY'S website, and I found your group's work particularly interesting. Do you think that you'll be considering accepting new graduate students to your group in the next few years? Your lab seems to be engaged in especially exciting research, and I would love to think that I might have a chance to join it one day.

I spent last summer at OTHER UNIVERSITY as an REU student, working under Professor SO AND SO, whose group specializes in X. I was studying Y. I know that work is somewhat removed from yours, but it gave me enough of an introduction to the studies opened up by TECHNIQUE OR RECENT ADVANCE to realize that it's an active subfield, and one I'd like to continue studying.

IF YOU'LL BE NEARBY: I am back in the state for winter break, and if it wouldn't be an inconvenience at this time of year I'd love to stop by and visit the lab. Please just let me know if that would work out for you, my schedule is very flexible.

Thanks and best wishes,

It seemed to work pretty well, even though I included no specifics about the research. I got a number of good responses back, and a few professors even called me and invited me to visit their labs. If you *do* visit a lab, just having read the papers will be helpful, but they don't expect you to be an expert; basically, they just want to see that you know enough about it to be legitimately interested. Graduate admissions, unlike undergrad, have a lot to do with who they want that year. Does someone with your interests need a grad student at the moment? It means grad school apps are a lot less predictable than undergrad apps, but it also means any contact you can make with professors will be valuable.

In my experience, some will professors will be really friendly and some will blow you off with a "I put my efforts towards students who have already been accepted." Their reaction may actually end up telling you something helpful about their potential as an advisor, as people here have said.
posted by you're a kitty! at 1:31 PM on October 2, 2007 [3 favorites]

My sister and I always joked about our interviews with potential advisors.

Student: I'm interested in studying with you/ professor interrupts/

Professor: Blah blah blah...etc...etc... well, enough about me... let's talk about my research.

(We both ended up with nice advisors-- mine is one of my favourite people in the world).

This is a professor's job. You can't shock them.
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 5:13 PM on October 2, 2007

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