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As a professor in a North American university, I receive a number of what I consider to be form letter graduate school application emails from outside the country. These emails generally feature some statement about being familiar with my research or offering generic praise for my research, followed by a description of the applicant's background and skills that have absolutely nothing to do with my research (but fall into the broader field of my department).

I tend to quickly delete these emails, but I'm concerned that not responding may be ambiguous and may further contribute to the practice of these students sending out mass form letter emails. I'm considering drafting a form letter response acknowledging that I received the email and specifying the background/skills I am currently looking for, with an invitation to send another email if the student can demonstrate how their experience aligns with my interests.

Does this seem productive? Are there better ways to respond to such emails?

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I use a form letter to reply to some* of these emails:

[Given Name of Person],

Thank you for your interest in my research. Please submit an application to our graduate program via [my university]'s graduate studies website: [link to application]. You will have opportunity in the application process to attach examples of any work related to [my field and specialty] and can state your research aims there if you wish. Our graduate coordinator ([email to grad coordinator]) can answer further questions about the application process.

Sincerely,

[My Name]

I do this just in case I might have stumbled upon a Ramanujan-like person whose work is brilliant, but perhaps not yet formalised. This form letter has produced I believe two applicants (that I am aware of), one of whom was accepted to the university and did work with me. Almost always, the person realises that their GRE/TOEFL/IELTS scores are not nearly good enough and they do not even apply. I feel that sending this form letter avoids the unfortunate process of emailing back and forth with a potential student only to find that they have next to no experience in my field and cannot pass the entrance exams.

If they email me further wanting me to look at their work and they have not submitted an application for graduate school, I usually ignore those emails. Making them apply through the graduate studies department screens 95% of them right off the bat.

*I say "some" emails because there are some emails that are clear phishing scams.

  • This is basically my solution. Some of the students behind these emails have ultimately been admitted to our program, so it wasn't a complete waste of time to respond. – Brian Borchers Aug 22 '18 at 18:40
  • Actually Ramanujan isn't the best example here. If he (resurrected he) were to write to you he would present theories that, while correct, you would be unlikely to recognize as such, as he was so far beyond his time that it was far too easy to misjudge him. Einstein had the same problem. However, the letters I tend to get are normally just shotgun blasts without actually saying anything. – Buffy Aug 22 '18 at 18:40
  • @Buffy I guess it depends on how closely I can emulate G.H. Hardy. I will add of course that many of the emails I receive such as the ones described by the OP are, as you say, "shotgun blasts" (usually for some sort of engineering). I never really reply to these. (The best one I ever got was someone looking to do "fashion design and aesthetics." I am a statistics researcher). – Vladhagen Aug 22 '18 at 18:47
  • @Vladhagen, sad that I missed the fashion design one. RE Ramanujan, I don't think he ever got an earned doctorate. Too busy doing math, I guess. Plenty of honorary degrees though. He didn't need mere mortals like us. – Buffy Aug 22 '18 at 18:52
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I find them easy to just delete. I have a fairly public persona IRL and so before I retired I got a lot of them. But obviously, all they really knew about me was my email address. They want to join my (non existent) lab, having skills that are completely unrelated to anything I've ever done or shown on my website. I'm sure Hydraulic Engineering is a fine field, but I can't think how I'd integrate them into a Computer Science program, when they don't even indicate that CS is their goal.

I can't think of any constructive reply. Certainly none that would slow the flood. If the student hasn't at least looked at what I do, I don't think I owe them much. Continuing the conversation seems entirely unproductive for either myself or the student. I suspect that they send out hundreds of these looking for a fraction of a percent of replies.

I've often wondered if professors in some parts of the world make it a requirement that their students send out a certain minimum number of CVs. A certain large number, I suspect.

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