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I am a prospective phd student. I wish to know if it is fine to contact the phd students of my target schools?

If answering this question requires more information, please feel free to state that.

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5 Answers 5

up vote 26 down vote accepted

It is absolutely fine to contact current PhD students of programs and departments that you are interested in. On an average, I get about 1 email of this sort everyday and I make my best effort to reply intelligently.

Keep in mind though that many PhD students will simply not reply to your email. Sometimes folks are inundated by too many emails and commitments to respond to any additional emails and sometimes people just have bad emailing tendencies in general.

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Fair, but by "bad emailing tendencies" I would say "good email tendencies," i.e., not treating it as more important than say research or graduating. –  djechlin Jul 9 at 14:07
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Partially agreed. However, some people are just really bad with emails and communication be it for research or other extra curricular activities. –  Shion Jul 9 at 17:22
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Could you please explain "reply intelligently" more? –  Enthusiastic Student Jul 10 at 7:10
    
Some prospective students have important questions of which the answers may not be easy to get. I try to respond in a comprehensive but concise and useful manner to said questions. –  Shion Jul 11 at 23:28

We had great success when we extensively supported a PhD student who asked for a contact:

While doing my PhD we had a last year undergraduate student, who contacted my supervisor and asked if he can meet some of the PhD students. We decided to organize some shadowing for him, so he spent several days with me in the university.

I told him all I could think of in relation to my PhD experience, answered all his questions, and he did some real work - helped finding research publications in a specific area. At the end we asked him to write a short report about his shadowing experience - was it useful, pros and cons from his point of view, etc.

The experiment was so successful that the department decided to extend it and provide similar opportunities for other prospective PhD students.

So, by all means, do it - contact the supervisor or the PhD student. The worst thing that could happen is that they will say 'no'

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Thanks very much for your rejoinder. I am a master-degree-candidate student in Asia, and I wish to apply to schools abroad. –  Brian Jul 9 at 13:53
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I like what you're saying - but I almost stopped reading too early... could you add a "tl;dr" intro? Like "By all means.Do it - we had great success with..." –  Volker Siegel Jul 9 at 19:43
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@VolkerSiegel A plea for brevity on a stackexchange site? Moreover one with a focus on academia? I think you grossly misunderstand this audience; perhaps you should explore twitter. #tldr –  par Jul 10 at 3:00
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@VolkerSiegel, I am not quite sure what exactly you asked me to do. Please, feel free to edit my answer if it violates the site rules –  greenfingers Jul 10 at 8:42
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Oh, the point is that the answer is good and verry convincing - but it somewhat hides the good part. The text is great, but to me it was ambiguous regarding whether it was a success or failure until end of the second paragraph. I was half expecting "Turned out we wasted lots of time..." or so. So starting with a statement of the positive outcome would change a lot. I'll try. –  Volker Siegel Jul 10 at 8:58

I never ever got this kind of email during my Ph.D. program, but when we had some prospective students visiting the campus, I was eager to answer any questions they might have. Nobody asked me, though.

We are all in this life together. If you want to know something, just ask. If you are sincere, it is fine to ask.

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Many thanks! I feel assured much more –  Brian Jul 10 at 0:33
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@Brian I assume you already know about thegradcafe.com -- it's a discussion site for prospective and current grad students. –  RoboKaren Jul 10 at 1:34
    
Thanks for it so much; I have not heard about this site until now~ –  Brian Jul 10 at 1:41

So far I have received tens of such e-mails so far in the first two years of the PhD program. 70% from India, 20% from other parts of Asia, 10% other.

Since I hate when people ignore my emails, or even reply unnecessarily late, I was trying at first to give some customized advice. After the first dozen of e-mails, I realized that I was being asked almost the same type of questions over and over, so I now simply reply with a template e-mails pointing to the main resources.

To answer your question, I would say it is totally fine but:

  1. The more specific questions, the more likely you are to receive an interesting answer.
  2. It is hard to be 100% frank with people we don't know. As a result, the answers you get are likely to be biased (typically "how good is the advisor?" kind of questions). As Pierre Beaumarchais said, where there is no freedom of blaming, there can be no genuine praise. The only solution is to know people personally or be referred by some common friend. Talking face-to-face can help reducing the bias.
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I gather that in certain parts of the world (especially Asia), it is becoming a common practice to send out lots of emails like this. It might be a good idea to try to figure out whether someone really has contacted you specifically before you spend any significant time composing a personalized reply. As a faculty member, I often get "I'm very interested in your research and I'd like to work with you" emails. They enclose a CV, which I read and see that their work is more than halfway to the next academic department. This is a bit sad... –  Pete L. Clark Jul 10 at 6:07
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Thanks very much! –  Brian Jul 10 at 8:37
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I really like your answer. I generally only respond to emails which have been crafted and ask intelligent questions well. Anything else is relegated to trash. –  Shion Jul 11 at 23:31

I am a PhD student in a really small department, and the only student in my particular research group. When we have students interviewing for a PhD in my group, I always spend some time with them answering questions about what it is like in the department and group, and what it is like working with my supervisor (very important!). I always give them my email address so they can ask me any other questions they may not have thought of at the time.

If anyone was to email me directly before applying, I would take time to answer their questions, but only if they genuinely seem interested in the specific PhD topic on offer. If it seemed like a really generic email that had been sent out to loads of people (obvious give away is if it isn't actually addressed to me!), then I wouldn't take time out of my busy schedule to respond.

In my research group, PhDs are offered based on a specific topic that we have got funding for. I know other big departments in the UK interview for PhD students generically and then they get to choose their topic from scratch, pick one from a list, or they are matched with a specific topic after their interview depending on their skills. I don't know how it works in other countries or other fields (I am in the climate/meteorology field).

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Thanks so much for sharing your understanding! –  Brian Jul 10 at 11:08

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