I recently sent some e-mails to potential supervisors asking information for a PhD with them, I obtained no answers. I share my doubts and then copy the standard mail I sent.

  1. I sent it to 5 different professors in different universities, is the sample too small to expect some answers? I know professors are flooded with e-mails so it could be normal not receiving answers.
  2. Can you point out something I did wrong in my email such as: too long, too short, harsh, too many details, not many details, grammar mistakes (I'm not a native speaker), anything, to help me improve for future e-mails?
  3. How do I have to take these silences? Should I solicit an answer or simply accept that they are not interested in answering?
  4. I sent them on a sunday night, is this a bad moment to send such e-mails? if it is what are the best days and time to send them?
  5. Feel free to give me any kind of advice you think could be helpful.

Here's a copy of my e-mail

Dear professor XXX, I'm a student of XXX at the university of XXX thinking about applying for PhD in FIELD X, therefore your group at the university of YYY attracted my attention. I'd like to ask two questions about the possibility of being admitted at your university:

1) Is there a good chance your group is going to look for PhD students in 2019/2020?

2) Is the topic of the master's degree thesis fundamental for a strong application? For example, what are the chances that a student with a thesis in TOPIC Y would have his application taken very seriously into consideration by a group like yours?

This is a very important question for me as it will have a great impact in my application strategy and maybe in the selection of the advisor for the thesis.

Thank you in advance for your time and help if you decide to answer me.

Best regards,

ZZZZ

Addendum 1: as suggested by iayork I have to be more precise and state that I'm European writing to professor in Europe and that I wasn't trying to bypass the application system by writing to them but instead following. As suggested I share the example of a professor I didn't write to: https://www.ics.uzh.ch/~jyoo/home.htm In the section jobs he says he has to be contacted for information by possible PhD students. Another example from a university I didn't write to: http://www.en.physik.lmu.de/promotion/berechtigung/index.html The point 1 is to find an advisor getting in touch with him/her

Addendum 2: Since it's creating a bit of confusion I have to precise that Topic Y in the letter is far from the research interests of the group contacted, I should have been more explicit in the mail and here explaining that the point of that question was to know if I had a chance even with such a thesis, and in case of negative answer I would change my master thesis advisor and topic to produce a thesis that allows me to have a chance to be taken in consideration by the group.

Thank you in advance for any help.

  • 76
    I recommend not ending you email with "Run Like Hell" ;) – chessofnerd Dec 6 at 18:03
  • 12
    @chessofnerd You think they may have followed the advice and that's why they didn't answer? :) – Run like hell Dec 6 at 18:06
  • 1
    how long haven't you heard from them? Does your current PI knows any of them? Have you ever met with them face-to-face? – aaaaaa Dec 6 at 18:08
  • 4
    4 days is a short period for people to respond in academia. PI=principal investigator, someone you've done research before – aaaaaa Dec 6 at 19:43

11 Answers 11

The statements

what are the chances that a student with a thesis in TOPIC Y would have his application taken very seriously into consideration by a group like yours?

and

it will have a great impact in (sic) my application strategy and maybe in the selection of the advisor for the thesis

tell me you are not specifically interested in applying here.

Are you interested in working with this prof or just shopping around? Giving general application advice to strangers isn't high on the list of the average professor's priorities.

(My direct experience is with German and Austrian universities. Programms with centralized admissions are becoming more frequent in continental Europe as well, but in general professors have more leeway here over whom to hire or take on as PhD students than in the US.)

  • 17
    You have to read between the lines in your message to actually understand that it's an application (or some kind of pre-application inquiry). Put this upfront. Tell them you want to work with them (or the institution or the group) and why, and leave the rest for when they get back to you. You should ask questions about application strategies to your current BA supervisor or browse this site. – henning Dec 6 at 16:12
  • 9
    @Runlikehell also tell them why you are a good fit, i.e. why you picked them and why they should pick you. – henning Dec 6 at 16:22
  • 5
    @Runlikehell also clarify that your master's thesis was on TOPIC Y instead of generalizing to "a student". Reading your mail I couldn't understand if you had actually done a master's thesis on the subject or were considering it for the future. – terdon Dec 6 at 20:07
  • 1
    @Runlikehell yeah, that's the sort of thing you need to clarify. As is the fact that you haven't yet finished your masters so aren't actually considering applying now. – terdon Dec 6 at 20:22
  • 2
    A cursory reading makes it sound as if you'll choose your PHD thesis supervisor, but you are talking about your master thesis supervisor. (I understand that's why henning emphasized it and thought it sounds like "shopping around".) – Peter A. Schneider 2 days ago

[This answer is relevant mainly for North American universities. In other systems, professors may be more easily able to staff their own labs without requiring admission beforehand.]

For many universities, this letter is pointless and the professor can't offer any useful or helpful advice. In the US and Canada (and probably elsewhere but I'm familiar with those) students are admitted, not to a professor's group, but to the overall departmental pool of graduate students. After admission, the students are expected to identify faculty with whom to do their PhDs.

Individual professors typically have nothing to do with the admissions process. They can't promise admission, they don't know who will be admitted, they can't bypass the normal admissions process, and therefore they can't make any statements about openings in their groups.

No matter how compelling your letter to them is, it's a waste of your time and theirs. The only answer they can give you is, "Go through the usual admission process, and if you're admitted we can talk then."

Typically professors with any kind of profile will get literally dozens of letters like this each month, or each week. Some professors are kind enough to have a standard copy-and-paste reply, telling the writer to look at the admissions page.

Of course, the fact that someone sends this kind of letter indicates that they haven't done any background research and have no understanding of the admissions process. Someone who is willing to waste a professor's time without bothering to do any background research is probably not a good candidate for their lab, so most such letters are deleted after a quick glance.

If you absolutely must send letters to individual professors, it's critical to indicate that you are aware of the admissions process. Perhaps you could say something like "I have already started the admissions process, and am trying to learn about my options if and when I am admitted."

But in general, writing to a professor at this stage is like writing to Beyonce saying you might be interested in her latest music, could she advise you on the contents and where it could be purchased? There's very little incentive for her to write back to you.

  • 5
    In 4 out of 5 cases it was explictly written to contact the head of the group for information about open positions and PhD opportunities there. Also could you address point 1, 3, and 4, since they are pretty general they could help me a lot in the future. – Run like hell Dec 6 at 16:17
  • "If they tell you there's an open position, what good is that to you, or them?" If they have a PhD position, I will apply and go through the process, if they are not looking for a PhD student I won't apply. So for me the good thing is that I will apply to places where there's a chance to be accepted, cause they're looking for students. For them the good thing is that they will only receive an application when they are recruiting students, and not every time all the time – Run like hell Dec 6 at 16:28
  • 14
    @iayork Although I agree with you that in the US it is typical to apply to programs, it is also typical for programs to encourage students to contact professors they are interested in working in, and doing so may make it more likely that they are granted an interview, especially if the professor has funding and is looking for a student. OP should acknowledge understanding the process in their email, though. – Bryan Krause Dec 6 at 17:46
  • 1
    I hope you won't delete this answer! It's very well written and makes an important point. Questions like this are useful beyond the specific circumstances of any one person, and this seems like the answer that most people in this situation most need to see. – D.W. Dec 6 at 19:03
  • 3
    This is completely incorrect in the US for a R1 PhD and is bad advice. A professor who wants a student and has funding will be granted admission. The committee will assign the level of support to a professor who wants a student but does not have funding. After that, only then are the remaining seats are filled up by the committee with unassigned students. I suspect you've confused admissions for a professional/terminal master's program with a full PhD program. The majority of PhD students in all of the schools I've been at go through professors first. – user71659 yesterday

[I'm answering from a US perspective. In many European PhD programs, advisors advertise funded PhD positions directly, only after funding is approved, and they have complete control over admission into their group. My advice may not apply in that setting.]

  1. I sent it to 5 different professors in different universities, is the sample too small to expect some answers? I know professors are flooded with e-mails so it could be normal not receiving answers.

As others have pointed out, professors are busy. In particular, we get a lot of emails like this, mostly from students who are poor fits for our groups and who appear to be spamming every professor they can think of. ("After looking at your research record, especially your paper [random paper title], I think I would be a great match for your group; I am also interested in high-temperature ceramics!") And there is little advice we can give other than "I can't judge your chances without seeing your complete application, I won't know for months whether I'll have funding, and admission isn't up to me anyway. Just apply." So many of us simply find it easier to ignore almost all emails from prospective graduate students. No, it's not friendly, but we don't have time to be friendly to everyone who asks.

On the other hand, if a colleague introduces me to a prospective applicant, I'm much more likely to pay attention and respond. In particular, if a prospective PhD student writes with a substantive technical question about my research area (not just a copy-pasted paper title), that question marks them as a colleague, and I'm much more likely to pay attention and respond.

  1. Can you point out something I did wrong in my email such as: too long, too short, harsh, too many details, not many details, grammar mistakes (I'm not a native speaker), anything, to help me improve for future e-mails?

Remember that by requesting this information you are asking a stranger to do work on your behalf. Don't be surprised or disappointed if they decline.

  1. How do I have to take these silences? Should I solicit an answer or simply accept that they are not interested in answering?

You should interpret the silence as "They must be busy". Nothing more. Contacting them again will not help; they'll still be busy. If you are interested in working with them, apply.

  1. I sent them on a sunday night, is this a bad moment to send such e-mails? if it is what are the best days and time to send them?

Email is asynchronous. It doesn't matter when you send it. On the other hand, even under the best of circumstances, from a professor who thinks you're a perfect match for their group, you should not expect a reply in less than a week.

  1. Feel free to give me any kind of advice you think could be helpful.

Figure out where you want to go. Apply there.

  • Thank you very much for the structured, clear answer and for the helpful advices, pointing out helpful things I didn't think about. – Run like hell Dec 6 at 17:52
  • I answered this question myself, but I've learned a lot from this answer about how the admissions process works in (I presume) the US from the professors' perspective. My impression is that in Europe professors have more discretion about who to take on. – henning Dec 6 at 18:28
  • @henning It seems the same to me, that's why as a European applying in Europe I found your answer very on point. – Run like hell Dec 6 at 19:44
  • @henning Yes in Europe professors - in a some universities at least - have more authority over who they take on, but the rest of the answer still applies. They rarely know long time in advance when they'll have an open position. Once they have an open position they typically advertise that through their standard channels and not by 1-to-1 communication (unless they already personally know a student) and then go through the applications. So the best advice imho is to check their pages (or the ones of the university) for their standard application process and see if there are any openings. – Darkwing 2 days ago

The concern that you indicate in your email, whether you intend to or not, is that you are asking for your own benefit rather than theirs. You are cold-calling someone and asking them for advice and to save you time. You probably aren't going to get a response unless they are really desperate for a student and know for sure they will have funding, and even then you might get ignored.

1) Make sure you understand the admissions process at these institutions: how do you apply, who makes admissions decisions, etc.

2) Assuming that applications are managed through a program rather than individual professors, just apply to the program you are interested in, and then when you contact a professor tell them that you are applying/intending to apply and let them know you are interested in their research if you are accepted.

3) "Is the topic of the master's degree thesis fundamental for a strong application?" is a question for your current mentors (and maybe even StackExchange), not for professors you haven't met. Asking them if they'd accept someone who did a master's degree in Y sounds silly to me. It makes you sound insecure and clueless about admissions decisions. Tell them what your master's thesis is on and what you are interested in doing in a PhD. You aren't asking about some mythical person who might possibly exist who has maybe done work in a certain area, you should be advocating for yourself.

Asking about your chances is just asking for them to save you the time of submitting an application. If you submit an application it will get reviewed by the same process as everyone else and what matters is not your chances but whether or not you are accepted.

  • Thank you, all the answer here are helping me in different way. About point 3, I'm not sure about asking to my current mentors or people in my university in general, there isn't a group working in the field the professor I contacted work. So my e-mail was mainly about knowing if a thesis in field Y would compromise my chances to work with them, and I couldn't think about better people to answer this question than them. I should have made it clearer in the e-mails and in the question – Run like hell Dec 6 at 19:51
  • 2
    @Runlikehell Even so, what does the answer change? If they say it's no problem, you apply. If they say it's a problem, you don't apply. This only saves you time, not them. In your email you are sort of trying to apply without going through the work of applying, which makes it seem like your email is just a spam to a hundred people to narrow down your focus. – Bryan Krause Dec 6 at 20:03
  • Of course it only saves me time, and I think the work of applying shouldn't be a waste of time, I want to apply where there's a chance to be taken, I don't want to apply to 100 universities, 90 of which aren't interested in me so I prefer asking beforehand and save my time, and their time since the professor may not directly look at the application, but somebody will, and 90 useless applications is a lot of time of people I wasted – Run like hell Dec 6 at 20:09
  • 2
    @Runlikehell Except from the professor's perspective, it isn't just you, it would be everyone else with a similar question. You need to do the work of narrowing it down, not them (which you have already done if you narrowed it down to 5, but your email sounds like it comes from someone who is trying to figure out which of 100). – Bryan Krause Dec 6 at 20:22
  • 2
    @Runlikehell Yes I do think you should just apply; I think if you did get an answer to one of the emails you sent it would be "apply and find out, your application cannot be evaluated by one small factor." – Bryan Krause Dec 6 at 20:28

A professor at the University of Victoria in BC has written a post about how to write convincing emails to potential applicants, although this is more targeted at undergraduates:

So you want to go to grad school but can’t figure out why no one is answering your emails….

Additionally, because professors can literally get hundreds of emails a day, you might want to make yours short and more 'to-the-point' while still keeping it polite.

Hello Dr. Professor,

My name is Student, I am an undergraduate at Masters University, and I would like to join your research group for a PhD. I have research experience in XXX and have studied YYY, and my Master's thesis topic is in ZZZ. I want to do research in QQQ and your group's research aligns with my interests. My CV and transcript are attached to this email.

Thank you, Student

...CV and transcript Attachments...

The short email should be the 'hook' that catches their attention and the CV is there to fill in the details if they are interested in looking further. The transcript may or may not matter depending on where you apply. Sometimes you need decent grades for scholarships.

New contributor
A. Ibrahim is a new contributor to this site. Take care in asking for clarification, commenting, and answering. Check out our Code of Conduct.

Asking

1) Is there a good chance your group is going to look for PhD students in 2019/2020?

might show that you haven't done your research, since professors usually advertise whether they are hiring. Do the professors you've contacted have positions advertised? Are they actively advertising that they aren't hiring?

Also, you're asking a subjective, probabilistic question "is there a good chance," which isn't trivial to answer, and "in 2019/2020" is ill-defined (what does it mean?).

Show you've done you're research and ask a straightforward, more-direct question, e.g.,

a) I see that you are currently advertising for X, will a similar offer be available in MONTH YYYY?

Many professors simply won't know the answer if MONTH YYYY is too far ahead, but at least they are then informed about what you are looking for.

Asking

2) Is the topic of the master's degree thesis fundamental for a strong application? For example, what are the chances that a student with a thesis in TOPIC Y would have his application taken very seriously into consideration by a group like yours?

might also show that you haven't done your research, because you should know whether TOPIC Y is interesting to the group.

The question is again rather indirect and non-trivial to answer. It may possibly reflect negatively on you, because the topic is fundamentally important, but there's lots of leeway and you needn't be focusing on the professor's area of interest to be taken on as a student.

Show that you've done your research into the group's topics, explain why your TOPIC Y will help you be a successful PhD student, and ask if you could visit or talk by phone.

  • Thanks, some of them advertise while in some of their university you have to send e-mails to ask them about it. I know topic Y isn't interesting for the group, but topic Y is what I'm better at the moment and it's probably gonna be the best choice for my thesis ( I could do a better job in less time), hence the question if I could get a PhD there with a thesis in a partially uninteresting topic. Should I let them know that I know it's not really interesting for them and I'm asking only to understand if my PhD application with them is pursuable? – Run like hell Dec 6 at 15:33
  • So the first question should be more precise, and you're right I'm too vague, but what if I can't be more precise? I have some family issues that could take or not take a lot of time in the next months and I'm not sure when exactly I will finish the thesis. Should I wait for a time where i could be more precise to send these e-mails ? The problem is that applications require you to move in advance by a lot of months – Run like hell Dec 6 at 15:37
  • 2
    a thesis in a partially uninteresting topic isn't something that professors are looking for. It reflects badly on you, IMO. – user2768 Dec 6 at 15:44
  • Should I wait for a time where i could be more precise to send these e-mails ? There are too many variables to offer an answer. – user2768 Dec 6 at 15:45
  • 1
    @Runlikehell I would recommend contacting research groups for whom the topic is actually interesting to maximize your possibility of success. – fa__ Dec 6 at 17:44

There may be several reasons that you didn't get a response. But your email is just very bad.

Dear professor XXX, I'm a student of XXX at the university of XXX thinking about applying for PhD in FIELD X, therefore your group at the university of YYY attracted my attention.

This sentence alone would make your email be ignored.

What is an ideal PhD student for a professor: someone who shares research interests, who is interested in research in his/her group, and who really wants to work with him/her.

That sentence alone showed that you have none of the above.

  • "FIELD X" ? Terms such as Machine Learning, Software Engineering, etc are too broad that they mean nothing, while PhD is about working on a very narrow topic.
  • The fact that his/her group attracts your attention because they work on the general FIELD X means you know nothing about research in his/her group. You just want to be admitted in a PhD on FIELD X, and not really want to work with him/her.
  • I'm not a native English speaker, so my feeling can be wrong. Somehow this sentence sounds very arrogant to me.

If this sentence doesn't stop a professor from reading the rest of the email, other parts are just very weird.

what are the chances that a student with a thesis in TOPIC Y would have his application taken very seriously into consideration by a group like yours?

Why would you want to do a PhD when you are not able to do your own homework? Why would the professor should waste his/her time answering your basic questions.

This is a very important question for me as it will have a great impact in my application strategy and maybe in the selection of the advisor for the thesis.

This also sounds very arrogant. It implies the professor needs (to try his best) to explain so you can select him as advisor.

Thank you in advance for your time and help if you decide to answer me.

This sentence is really weird. It shows that you have poor communication skills.

In summary, this email alone shows many evidences that you are an incompetent candidate for his/her group, and that's why you are ignored.


I guess, just guess, you would have higher chance to be responded if you wrote something like:

Dear Prof. XXX,

I'm a ... I'm really interested NARROW-FIELD and, I'm very impressed with your recent work published in WELL-KNOWN-CONFERENCE (2 or 3 papers), in which you discovered/improved blah blah.

During my Master, I worked on TOPIC Y, which is also very related (or NOT?). So I believe my background will be a good fit with your research. ...

  • Thanks for the feedback, I'm learning a lot from the point you're all making, I didn't feel it was that bad when I wrote it but now I see a lot of mistakes have pointed out. IIhave to edit the question at this point to precise that Topic Y is not their field of research and mine was a request to know if I had a chance to work with them even if I had such a thesis – Run like hell 2 days ago

If an email like this came to me, I might reply, but it would not be a priority. I would assume that you meant to email Graduate Studies. What would work better for me, is if you emailed to introduce yourself, and asked if I had any time to have a phone call or video conference in the next 3 weeks etc. This would be more intriguing, and the email is very formulaic. I also think your instinct is good about the timing. I often miss emails that come in on Sundays, because Monday starts off with a bang and they just get forgotten about. Good luck with your applications!!

New contributor
Holly is a new contributor to this site. Take care in asking for clarification, commenting, and answering. Check out our Code of Conduct.
  • Thank you for the insights, so not only it's not a bad thing to ask for some extra time for a phone call or a video conference, but you say it may even be good. I thought I would go to far and maybe harsh asking for something like this – Run like hell Dec 6 at 17:54
  • 1
    Absolutely. They can still ignore the request, that is their choice. You would catch my attention and it would show you were serious. I wish you luck! – Holly 2 days ago
  1. I sent it to 5 different professors in different universities, is the sample too small to expect some answers? I know professors are flooded with e-mails so it could be normal not receiving answers.

No, if you ask a simple question, you would likely get a response.

  1. Can you point out something I did wrong in my email such as: too long, too short, harsh, too many details, not many details, grammar mistakes (I'm not a native speaker), anything, to help me improve for future e-mails?

In my opinion, it is not direct enough, and not clear what you are asking, or why you are asking it.

  1. How do I have to take these silences? Should I solicit an answer or simply accept that they are not interested in answering?

It's not clear to me how these answers will impact the decision making process, so I would not push it.

  1. I sent them on a sunday night, is this a bad moment to send such e-mails? if it is what are the best days and time to send them?

It shouldn't matter. Trying to guess the optimal time to send emails likely isn't worth your time. A simplistic message is more important.

  1. Feel free to give me any kind of advice you think could be helpful.

The questions should be more direct. If you want to work with the professor, ask them that. Keep in mind they can't speak for other professors and that they don't know who you are.

For your second point in the email, asking if your thesis work will get you admitted shouldn't be asked to a professor, it should be included as part of the application process.

I would suggest rewording into something simple to answer, such as:

Dear professor XXX, I'm a student of XXX at the university of XXX interested in working towards a PhD in FIELD X.

I am attracted to your research group.

Are you (or other professors in the group) accepting new PhD students? My master's thesis work was on TOPIC Y.

Thank you in advance for your time. Please let me know if you have any additional questions.

Best regards,

Run Like Hell.

New contributor
Underminer is a new contributor to this site. Take care in asking for clarification, commenting, and answering. Check out our Code of Conduct.
  • Thanks for the very structured answer, I really like this kind of answer. My writing not being direct enough is a point that emerged a lot in the answer, thanks for having suggested a potential solution writing a more direct sample of a mail. – Run like hell Dec 6 at 20:01

As many have pointed out, this just isn't the work flow for PhD admission. We get dozens of mails like this a year, and many are from students sending out what seems to be hundreds of messages hoping for a hit-- because their research interests have nothing to do with mine. We ignore them.

If you're really interested, officially apply to the department. If you're offered a visit, send a message to the prof stating that you've applied, you'll be visiting, and you hope you can schedule an on site interview.

I see many emails like yours. I appreciate many applicants are sincere, but not realistic. PhD students are a source of income to our School. Their fees are paid for by their governments, institutions, or themselves.

If you have no funding, a random application is pointless as you could not be admitted. When funded PhD places are rarely available, they must be advertised openly. Preference then goes to students who have already studied with us, or published, or both.

New contributor
eBox is a new contributor to this site. Take care in asking for clarification, commenting, and answering. Check out our Code of Conduct.

Your Answer

By clicking "Post Your Answer", you acknowledge that you have read our updated terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy, and that your continued use of the website is subject to these policies.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.