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Barry Rountree, Computer Scientist, LLNL of Quora claims 80% hit rate for the following e-mail template: (I emphasize a phrase in bold.)

Here’s your email: Dear Dr. Q, I would like to schedule a meeting with you to discuss PhD opportunities, in particular extending your work described in your papers X and Y. I will be in town on the 25th of next month but could also meet late on the 24th or early on the 26th. My CV is attached. What would be a good time for us to meet? Sincerely, You

About the "your papers X and Y", I would like some guidelines please, such as which to include/exclude, how many to choose, the sort order and the formatting. I have a feeling this post may be voted to be closed as too broad, but I wouldn't know the specifics of the broadness until I actually I post.

  1. Which papers should I include/exclude?

    • Can I include the papers of topics that interest me and exclude the papers of topics that don't?

    • Should I choose at least paper in each significant portion of research?

    • Some professors sort their publications by category rather than by date. Should I choose at least paper in each category?

  2. Should I exclude/include a professor's papers on research topics that are not listed as a research interest in the university website, are listed in the selected publications but are not listed in the past 10 years of selected publications?

  3. How many papers should I include?

    • Of course the answer doesn't have to be (only) quantitative. Could be qualitative for instance "Should be a good enough sample of all the professor's work (or "of the parts of the professor's work that interests you"): Enough to show you have read the professor's work but not too much as to make the professor think you just copied and pasted".
  4. How should I sort the papers?

    • Descending order of my preference? Descending order of my familiarity with the topics involved? Dictionary order?

    • Most professors' papers are sorted by date, but one categorizes research into 5 topics and has selected publications for each. How could this reflect how I sort the papers?

  5. Formatting question: How should I list them?

    • Can I just put the title with a link? Should I put a full citation? This is what I had in mind: (for the listing of the papers and not necessarily for the other parts)

Dear Dr. Q:

I would like to schedule a meeting with you to discuss PhD opportunities, in particular extending your work described in the following papers:

  1. Mathematical finance paper

  2. A paper on stochastic partial differential equations, a topic usually found in applied math, but is surprisingly super pure

  3. On pure math with no hint of applied math

I will be in town on the 25th of next month but could also meet late on the 24th or early on the 26th. My CV is attached. What would be a good time for us to meet?

Sincerely, You


You can answer the above questions in general or my specific context as follows. In case the following makes my post too specific to my context or too broad, I am perfectly fine with removing the following. Anyway, I know stackexchange doesn't really provide career advice on very specific situations that wouldn't benefit others. I'm providing the following context, just in case.

  • I'm an expat applying to local pure math PhD programs with a master's and bachelor's in applied math. My top choices are probability/stochastics, differential equations and then analysis.

  • On pure math: I don't have any problems with topology, geometry, abstract algebra or number theory. I have self-studied some of them, like them, but I have never learned them in my classes.

  • On applied math: I have slight problems with applied math but can tolerate having to do some applied math such as in cases of scientific/numerical computation of PDEs. I'm not that interested in interdisciplinary research. I have very little interest in statistics and finance.

  • I wouldn't have this problem if I had a master's in pure math, but here we are.

  • This is my second round of local PhD applications. This time I'm also applying for a master's in pure math, based on the one professor who actually agreed to meet with me despite my stupid template to emailing professors (All of this is moot in the unlikely event that this professor actually finds my self-study sufficient enough that the professor would be willing to take me on as a PhD student)

For Q1:

  • My fear isn't something like the professor researches in complex analysis and topology, and then I don't like topology (which I do). Instead, my fear is that the professor's research is mainly pure or a significant portion is pure, but then also, a significant portion is applied.

  • Note the "significant" in the above paragraph. Obviously, I'm not worried about a professor who lists research interests as "main interest in functional analysis, complex differential equations, with a side interest in mathematical chemistry". Here, I have no problems leaving out the (1 or 2) mathematical chemistry papers.

  • This is particularly the case for those whose research is in probability/stochastics or differential equations, topics which I was told by a coursemate and confirm on Wikipedia, are apparently more for applied research.

  • Luckily, there are some professors in my area who research on differential equations in a pure way.

  • There's ONE who does probability/stochastics in a pure way, and the publications (not just the selected ones) reflect this: Less than 1/5 are about statistics or finance while the rest are on probability/stochastics and are the purest I could find in my area. The publications are sorted by date and not by category, but I'm still worried there might be some risk in leaving out the statistics or finance papers.

For Q2: This could go both ways.

  • If a pure math professor has significantly researched applied math but not done so in the past 10 years, do I have to include the applied math papers?

  • If an applied math professor has significantly researched pure math but not done so in the past 10 years do I have to exclude the pure math papers?

An example for Q2:

  • There's a professor in my area who, based on selected publications, was apparently researching a lot of topology, functional analysis, complex analysis, differential equations (in a pure way) and algebra up to 2008 but then for the past 10 years has researched on mathematical finance.

  • The university has listed interests to be "PDE, control, applications in stability and quantitative finance", but on the professor's page under "research", the professor declares, in third person, (I paraphrase) to be interested in everything but, because of time and economic constraints, restricts to topics some of which are to be deduced from the list that follows.

  • Then there's a link to selected publications, arranged by date and of the last 10 papers, 9 are in mathematical finance. The most recent paper is technically applied math but mostly in a pure way and has no finance. My initial thought is to include the 10th paper, include the purest of the 9 mathematical finance papers but to choose the remaining papers from the papers more than 9 years old (the pure math papers).

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    I find the whole premise of your question... questionable. The email suggested by Barry Rountree sounds presumptuous to me. It suggests that not only have you read and perfectly understood the cited paper, but you even have ideas on how to extend them. Don't get me wrong, it's possible. But it sounds rather unlikely for someone not even in grad school yet. I think the impression it would give would be the following: "Dear Prof X, I've read your papers, they're good enough, but I can do better. Take me as a PhD student and I'll show you how." It's a bold move, to say the least. – user9646 Sep 6 '18 at 11:36
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    I've never used this template, and also find the phrasing more fitting for an established researcher than an incoming student. That said, what's your goal here? If it's just to get a meeting, maybe try to pick the two papers that interest the professor the most - which is likely somewhat skewed towards the more recent works. If it's to get a PhD position with an advisor and topic you like, and would enjoy working on for ~5 years, why not pick out papers you're interested in? – Anyon Sep 6 '18 at 11:51
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    So we've arrived at the times when people use fixed templates to communicate with others...? I've always thought that writing a mail/e-mail requires a personal touch, taking into account the context in which one writes to a specific person... Guess I was wrong. – user68958 Sep 6 '18 at 12:09
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    @NajibIdrissi (tears of joy and gratitude) I thought my question would be stupid. Thank you so so much for your reply! Do you then disagree with Barry Rountree about the extolling part in this paragraph: "...applicant...spends most of their email extolling their GPA and classes taken..." I have a feeling Barry Rountree would extend this to self-study and research and would advise to not mention GPA, classes, self-study or research and to save those for attached CV or upcoming interview. – Jack Bauer Sep 6 '18 at 12:19
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    @JackBauer That's a different question. I don't think it's necessary to dwell too long on your GPA in such an email, actually. In any case I would strongly recommend that you never, ever write something that even looks like "(tears of joy and gratitude)" in a professional email. – user9646 Sep 6 '18 at 14:51
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Sorry, I haven't read the whole question, but only up to the subquesitons 1.-5. and here is my answer to 1.-4.:

You should exactly list the papers for which you are keen and have ideas to "extend the work of the professor".

Honestly. The professor will notice, and get bored or even angry when they note that you are not really interested in what you wrote or even do not any idea what the papers are about exactly or how to extend the work.

For subquestion 5.: It doesn't matter much. The title is enough, a link to some obscure website where one can download the paper may not be good.

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    I'll assume the risk of the professor getting bored or angry is worse than the risk of being seen as not having looked up the professor enough, @Dirk. Thank you! – Jack Bauer Sep 6 '18 at 12:55
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    I don't know, but what I wanted to say way: Do write the email honest and not because you found some template. If you are really interested and have ideas, then go for it. If not, let it be. – Dirk Sep 6 '18 at 13:00
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    Relieved. Follow-up: A professor therefore does not necessarily expect their PhD students to be working on all the research topics listed in the research interests, and it could be that a PhD student will mainly research in only some of the professor's research interests? I mean, of course it depends on the professor, but the point it's possible and therefore, it's okay for potential PhD students to exclude papers in professor's research interests that don't match the research interests of the potential PhD student? – Jack Bauer Sep 6 '18 at 13:01
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    …**and** have ideas to extend the work…. – Dirk Sep 6 '18 at 13:08
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    @JackBauer - Don't make a catalog of the papers you're interested in, just cite a couple that you are excited about. Write a concise email that will pique the person's interest in you. It should be short but it should let some spark in you shine through. You want the person to see something that makes him or her want to get to know you further. A long letter to a stranger will be an annoyance. – aparente001 Sep 7 '18 at 4:12

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