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I know many master's students who get an opportunity to talk to their potential PhD advisors well before applying. In most cases this opportunity is available by the professors with whom they worked for their master's. Moreover, there are many others who establish a contact with professors by mailing them and enquiring about PhD vacancies.

My questions are:

  • How important is knowing an advisor prior to applying for PhD?
  • Does an email interaction play a vital role when the department makes its admit decisions?
  • If email contact is important, can a student send out mails to 2-3 professors (working in the same area) in case one of them does not bother to reply?
  • To sum up, is applying of any use (especially in top universities) when you have no contacts and only your credentials to bank on?
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4 Answers 4

up vote 10 down vote accepted

Ultimately, the answer depends upon what admissions system a department uses.

  • If you need to obtain admission to a group at the same time as (or instead of) the department as a whole, then it is of course absolutely critical that you make contacts ahead of time! In general, I'd even start contacting people well before the time of application. However, make sure that your contact is substantial. When it becomes time to apply, you will have a better shot.

  • In many departments, you apply for admission to the department as a whole. After your admission, you select an advisor to work for. In such cases, it's not really critical for you to have a direct contact within the department, since it's not necessarily a given that the professor you want to work for sits on the admissions committee. In such cases, you'll have an indirect connection at best. That said, it's still a good idea to have a contact in a department during the admissions process. You don't lose anything by it—unless the professor has a bad reputation amongst his colleagues (and then you might not want to work for him or her, anyways!). By the way, I would caution strongly against going to such a school if there's only one professor at the department you'd be interested in working for. You're taking a very large risk under such circumstances.

Now to answer some of the other issues raised.

Email or other forms of contact. Face-to-face or phone interactions rank above email interactions. There's no doubt about that. However, an email interaction—if actually substantial—can also be viable. However, a quick emil telling someone you're applying and interested in working for them won't really get you anywhere.

Number of people to contact. There is of course no limit to the number of potential advisors you can contact. To some extent, they're competing for you just as much as you're competing for them!

Can I apply on credentials alone? At most top departments (where application is done at the department level), I think it's entirely possible to apply on credentials and recommendations alone. Having the contacts can obviously help, but not having it won't ruin your chances for admissions, either.

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To supplement the other answers, here are some do's and don'ts for email contact.

The worst thing you can do is make it seem like you're trying to cast a wide net and don't have a clear focus. That's a guaranteed delete.

Therefore,

  • Narrow your search to the people whose work you're really interested in
  • Read their papers (especially recent ones - I've had people email me about stuff I did 5 year ago - I've moved on :))
  • Think about their work. Find something intelligent to say (even a question).
  • Email the professor and focus on those questions.

That's most likely to get my (their) attention.

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Just to add to aeismail's answer:

If you can send an e-mail that demonstrates that

  • You are a strong candidate
  • You wrote an e-mail specifically for that professor
  • You are familiar with some of that professor's work

then it may have an important positive effect. Ideally, you would be able to suggest how things you know or have done could contribute to that professor's research agenda.

Sending a generic e-mail to multiple professors will not help your case and will probably hurt it. I mention this because a large fraction of the e-mails I receive from potential students are obviously part of a mass-mailing.

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Thanks @David. Now to the most important question: do you read all mails you receive from potential students? :) –  Bravo Mar 28 '12 at 12:53
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Yes, with one exception: occasionally, I receive a very long message that is obviously mass-produced; in that case I may stop reading after a paragraph or so. –  David Ketcheson Mar 31 '12 at 17:19
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How important is knowing an advisor prior to applying for PhD?

Super important.

Does an email interaction play a vital role when the department makes its admit decisions?

Sometimes yes. An email + an visit in person to the university could surely increase your probabilities to get accepted.

If email contact is important, can a student send out mails to 2-3 professors (working in the same area) in case one of them does not bother to reply?

Yes, sure, mandatory! Send as emails as you can!

To sum up, is applying of any use (especially in top universities) when you have no contacts and only your credentials to bank on?

Yes, try to contact and visit the professor you want to work with.

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Your answers are valid for European-style systems in which you apply directly to an individual professor; they don't work so well when you have a "centralized" admissions system, as is more standard in the US and Canada. Also, in many of those schools, students don't choose their professor right away, and I would caution against applying to such departments if there's only one professor you want to work for in that department—it's potentially a big risk you're taking. –  aeismail Mar 29 '12 at 21:14
    
Very interesting. In Europe we have a centralized admission system, too, but each admitted PhD student can choose his/her supervisor. –  DavideChicco.it Mar 30 '12 at 8:19
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I cann't stress enough that email bombing a department is COUNTER PRODUCTIVE. So please think carefully before "send[ing] as many emails as you can" –  Suresh Mar 30 '12 at 16:24
    
In the UK, we have to come up with a research proposal and find a supervisor willing to supervise before even applying for a PhD. But this isn't the case in the USA. –  Legendre Sep 4 '12 at 16:29
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