Applying to Grad School III: Emailing Potential Advisors

Members of the Time Scavengers team are writing a ‘Applying to Grad School‘ series. These blog posts are written primarily for undergraduate students who are applying to graduate programs (but will be useful for any transitioning graduate or professional students), and will cover such topics as funding and stipends in grad school, how to write and build a CV, how to network with potential graduate advisors, and how to effectively write statements for your applications. This is the third post in the series on how to email potential graduate school advisors.


Jen and Adriane here – 

Now that you have thought about funding opportunities and tailored your CV, it’s time to think about emailing potential advisors. Before any emails are sent you want to carefully consider your options. It is best to get recommendations based upon what you are interested in. Talk with faculty or graduate students in your department to see if they have any ideas of where you could start looking for advisors. Once you get a preliminary list, internet stalk the heck out of these people! Some ways to do this are to go to their faculty pages or personal websites, look at their Twitter and Instagram feeds (if they are on social media), and by asking people in your department or area of study about the potential advisor. 

Why should you stalk? It is important that you feel comfortable and supported in your future lab. You want to know things such as: can they house graduate students (some schools cannot)? Do they have current students? Do they have funding? What are their key research interests and how can you see yourself integrating into any of the projects? What skills or techniques do they use that you are interested in gaining? I, Adriane, also stalked as many of the potential grad school advisors’ past and current students that I could find. I was very interested in finding out what types of jobs and opportunities students gained after graduating from the lab. This task seems daunting, but start a spreadsheet and fill in the boxes! It can also be fun. 

Once you have identified persons as potential advisors, it’s time to craft an email to them! The first thing someone will notice about your message is your email address and the subject line of the email. Make sure your email is ‘professional’ – it can absolutely be a school or gmail account, but use one that is your name rather than something you are interested in (cats, dogs, astrology, etc. – Jen had one that was PiEcEsTwIn315). Having your name in your email also ensures they are more easily able to pull your email back up, even if they don’t save it to their contacts. 

The subject line should be something direct: Prospective graduate student is a short and direct. You want the reader to immediately know what the email is about. No point in reinventing the wheel – feel free to use that exact phrase or use it as a starting point to make it your own. Other ideas include adding in the semester you are looking to start: Prospective graduate student Fall 2020 — slightly longer and more specific. 

In your email you want to convey several things:

  1. You are looking for a graduate lab program and what semester you are looking to start. 
  2. Your research interests include x, y, z followed up by a line about your experience, see CV for more details
  3. Ask if they are accepting students and if they are, would they be able to chat more about it via email, phone, or Skype.
  4. Thank them and say you are looking forward to hearing from them. 

Here is an example email that I, Jen, sent out while I was looking for PhD programs.

Notice that this email is short, concise, and to the point. You don’t want your email to be too long or rambly. A lot of faculty are very busy juggling several different tasks, and may only have a few minutes to glance at email. So keeping your email polite and pointed will be very much appreciated!

The response Jen received:

This was one of the fastest and most considerate responses I (Jen) received when emailing faculty. For both Adriane and Jen’s emails to potential master’s thesis advisors, many faculty never responded, or said they had no funding. It’s okay to be persistent with emails, more often than not their inboxes are filling up and they may lose track of your email. 

One more thing to consider in your email: you may want to attach a copy of your CV or resume. There is the rare faculty member that we’ve heard that doesn’t like a CV attached on the first email exchange, but the majority of professors do appreciate having this information up front. It’s one more tool for which they, the professors, can use to determine if you might be a good fit in their lab!

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