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.
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.
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.
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.