I'm in the process of developing my academic profile and I am starting to create a shortlist of programs to apply for. I plan on applying to 8 Grad schools (although I do not know which ones yet). From what I've read so far, many of you recommend undergrads seeking to attend post graduate programs to first contact a professor to see if they are taking on any new students. Now I obviously won't go with the buckshot approach and submit an email to everyone. However, I've also read most professors do not reply. If I plan on applying to 8 programs, and most professors don't reply, or are not available to take on students, how many professors should I contact? Like I said, I won't just randomly send emails, I will get to know them and their work first, to see if I would be a good fit. I'm currently down to 40 possible programs of which I'm certain I can find at least 20-30 individual professors who would fit well with me. Would it be wise to find, assess, and contact as many as 30, in the hopes that maybe 10 or so reply? Thank you.

  • @buffy and solarmike thanks for the quick and informative response. My only fear is that I contact professors from my favorite 5 universities and only get 1 response. leading to the possibility of missing out on grad school for a year. If this helps my GPA is 3.92, I've published 2 Papers, won an Undergraduate Research Award and was prior service (Coast Guard) and my time in service directly correlated to the program I wish to pursue (south east Asian history - I worked alongside vietnamese fisherman during hurricane Isaac to help rescue people/ their local knowledge and special was amazing) – BrownD15 Aug 4 '18 at 18:07
  • and a GRE V 163 Q 157 AWA 5.5 – BrownD15 Aug 4 '18 at 18:08
  • You probably won't have a lot of trouble. See my edit - last paragraph. – Buffy Aug 4 '18 at 19:34

I didn’t contact any faculty, and I got into the programs where I was an obvious fit. I didn’t get into any others. Honestly, it did not even occur to me to contact professors. I am not sure this is particularly common in the social sciences and humanities in the US. In my program, only the international students pre-contacted professors.

To check, I would recommend reading “The Professor is In” to lean more about the graduate admissions and hiring process for the humanities.

  • 1
    I'm assuming it is more common in the lab sciences. – Buffy Aug 4 '18 at 20:57
  • From the advice I recieved from others @dawn it seems like, at least for History, people do contact professors. Although I imagine you can get in, as you said, without attempting this process. I don't imagine it can hurt too much trying though, provided you don't place a negative impression on the person you are reaching out too. – BrownD15 Aug 4 '18 at 21:00

This depends on the context. In the Netherlands and Germany PhD positions are usually advertised. After all, they are regular jobs. So you need to know where that happens. You should not contact a prof directly if they didn't advertise a position. The fact that they didn't advertise means they are not hiring. This is organized differently in different countries, so there is no general rule, you just need to follow local custom.

  • apologize, I meant for applying to get into grad school as a student. – BrownD15 Aug 4 '18 at 18:57
  • In whatt country and in what discipline? – Maarten Buis Aug 5 '18 at 7:14
  • History (South East Asian studies), I'm open to any university. – BrownD15 Aug 5 '18 at 21:17

I don't think the direct answer to your question will help you much. It can be too variable and depend on too many other things. As a matter of fact, I didn't need to apply at all (more than 50 years ago) as I was invited into a program. That wasn't based on my obvious brilliance, though (laugh here). Another graduate of my college did very well as a new student at the university and my advisor was contacted with the question "Any more like that?". It actually turned out to be a mistake for me and I later changed universities - it was a very bad fit all around.

You are wise not to take a scattershot approach. It also depends on the strength of your background. But I think you've made a good start by identifying places you think would be a good fit. Any professor you contact will also be interested in what you can do for them as well as your likelihood of success.

I guess my advice here would be to pick out about five or so places that you would be interested in and which you think are good candidates for actually accepting you. I wouldn't choose only the top of the top schools. Write to people there as a sort of experiment and see what you learn. You can expand the search later or decide that someone in your initial list is the right place for you. Another way to say it is to use the initial information you get to refine your search if necessary rather than using all your ammunition in an initial blast. Having the right supervisor and the right problem are likely the two most important factors in success other than your own hard work.

Also, there is no reason that you can't start the application process with more than just a few universities immediately. You don't have to string that out. Many places the professors won't talk to you anyway until you are near or past the acceptance point.

  • Just like to add that it’s a fish and pond problem - in a top 5 institution you can be a small fish in a large pond - watch out for pike! But a Good Institution may mean that it is a smaller pond and fewer pike so you can actually get more out of it... – Solar Mike Aug 4 '18 at 17:53

How many professors should I contact?

Do it sequentially until you have the responses you want. Quality is more important than quantity.

Nobody can predict the response rate.

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