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As I transition to faculty, I have increasingly gotten requests from people who want to do PhD's with me or want postdocs in my lab.

Often these emails are extremely generic and don't suggest they know anything about my research. The descriptions of themselves suggests they've mostly studied completely unrelated topics to my research field (even as broadly defined as the topic at even the department level).

I probably get at least one of these emails per day now (during graduate student application season), so it would be too cumbersome to send out a personalised response email to each one. And I imagine the volume will only increase if/when I become more established.

Most faculty surely just ignore/delete these types of emails, but I feel bad that these students appear to have gotten terrible (or no) advice about how to contact a prospective advisor, and I want to be helpful. How should I reply?

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    I just put a link to this SE question on my lab's website :) Sure, It's a solution that requires people to read the 'Generic emails will not be answered' line and even follow the link. I share your sentiment but I think that if people don't do that, they won't be too bummed if you don't reply, you're probably one of many. – elisa Apr 12 at 8:45
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    Why would you feel compelled to put more time into a response than the sender put into the request? – Scott Seidman Apr 12 at 15:18
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    Either it's some service they paid to spam the world with their resume, or it's a real person who will come back and try to press you for more info or argue with your denial. – A Simple Algorithm Apr 12 at 15:34
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    I'm not clear on one point: do you actually have job openings? And if so, are you advertising them? If not, a simple "Sorry, but I don't have any openings at this time" reply should be all that's necessary. – jamesqf Apr 12 at 15:41
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    @jamesqf In many countries (e.g. USA, Canada) there are no such thing as "job openings" for PhD students. Students are most often funded by the department and do not apply for specific funded projects (as they do in Europe). Some of these students have their own funding (sometimes only partial) from their country of origin to work on whatever topic they want at top universities around the world. – WetlabStudent Apr 13 at 4:31
79

What I currently do is save the following text on my computer, and simply paste it in an email response every time I receive this type of email.

I'm sorry to say that this email is too generic for me to consider you as a future PhD student working with me. Unfortunately, it doesn't demonstrate that you know what topics I work on. I'd recommend in the future sending only a few emails. Focus on max 10 or so potential supervisors that really fit your specific research interest. Explain what specifically drew you to them as a supervisor. Explain what you want to work on with them. You should have read one of their papers or at minimum read a description of their research from their webpage. The type of email you wrote will get very few responses because we receive several such emails. I hope this doesn't come off too harsh. I hope you might take this advice and improve next time if you send more emails in the future - because I really do want you to succeed.

Here is an example of what I sent to my prospective PhD advisor 10 years ago. I only emailed 6 professors, because I really wanted to spend a lot of time tailoring my email to their interests and convincing them I wanted to work on the things they worked on.

"My name is ____________ and I am a senior majoring in Applied Mathematics at UC Davis. I am interested in working in your lab during graduate studies because of my broad interests in theoretical ecology.

Your website especially stood out because you state that you encourage independent research and teamwork. Currently, I am collaborating with six other students modelling plant population dynamics in fragmented landscapes. We defined our own research question, and although it was the toughest part of the project it was the most rewarding.

During this project, I first came across your early work on the population dynamics of plants with a dormant life stage - and further reading some of your newer papers in epidemiology, predator prey dynamics and evolution, I really like the diversity of the problems in your lab.

Specifically, I am interested in doing research in spatial ecology and understanding how populations spread. This is because spread is not only a fundamental process in ecology but also because it is at the heart of controlling environmental pests and diseases. I think your work on integral projection models will be especially relevant to the spread models I want to study (integro-difference equations). I am in the beginning phase of drafting an NSF graduate research fellowship application on how to best choose the locations of pest control when a pest species spreads according to such equations, and think you’d be an ideal supervisor for the project.

I was wondering if you will have any openings for new graduate students in your lab this coming year? Any comments or feedback would be greatly appreciated."

Note the parts about teamwork and independent research are specifically on this professors website that talks about qualities he looks for in graduate students. I didn't put this sentence in any of my emails to other professors (in fact all the sentences except for the first one are very different for each prospective professor). For most professors, I wrote shorter emails that focussed on how their work related to mine. For example, sentences like the bolded one in this email.

cheers,

-Dr X

The goal is to provide them with useful advice that they might take and become more successful in the future. Often these students come from disadvantaged backgrounds or from developing countries and I think it is really important to try to help them and not just ignore their emails. Of course, as one becomes more well known, even this strategy might prove to be cumbersome.

Over this past graduate student application season, nearly all of the students I sent this email response to were gushing with gratitude for the advice.

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    Maybe consider putting something like this on your webpage as well. (As someone who emailed many professors in the fashion you are describing before I knew better, I appreciate your prepared reply. You may want to consider adding several relevant papers or books that you expect prospective students to have read.) – Lorenzo Najt Apr 12 at 3:44
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    @Lorenzo You could also put on your webpage an example of your early "begging" emails and then what you developed to.. From the other side as it were... – Solar Mike Apr 12 at 4:23
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    @SolarMike hmmmm... That might be too embarrassing, even for me. Maybe when I'm older. – Lorenzo Najt Apr 12 at 5:17
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    @SolarMike ? No, this person is the professor, receiving begging emails, and this is their prepared reply for students. By putting this on his webpage, she can save some time and some students some embarrassment. Many professors have something like this : a link to a page with information for prospective students. – Lorenzo Najt Apr 12 at 5:29
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    I like the first part but the second one is again a bit generic ;-) – lordy Apr 12 at 11:58
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If I am not especially interested in the student's profile, I simply delete the email. If no effort whatsoever was spent by the sender to address an email to me personally, I don't feel like I have a duty to respond to it.

If I am interested by the student's profile and they have just been clueless about how to get in touch with potential supervisors, you can answer generic advice as suggested in @WetlabStudent's answer, or you can write a one-line generic answer like "Thanks for reaching out. What would specifically interest you in working with me?" and give the student a chance to be more specific.

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    This seems efficient. You never requested the email, so it is up to the writer to earn your attention. Reply to those that made an effort but are not suitable. – David Apr 13 at 7:30
  • This is definitely my approach. I feel no more need to respond to a postdoc spammer who doesn't even bother to figure out what field I'm in than to a predatory journal spammer. – jakebeal Apr 14 at 0:23
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In our department, we forward those emails to the department administrator, who replies with a polite but generic e-mail encouraging prospective students to apply via our normal procedure. However, that’s a bit above and beyond, and I realize many departments don’t offer such a service to their faculty.

In lieu of that, if you are a Gmail user, I recommend the “canned responses” feature, which is even easier than the copy and paste approach IMO.

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    You can set the canned response as an alternative 'signature' in most email clients, as well. – Adonalsium Apr 12 at 17:25
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Life is about setting goals and priorities.

If your goal is to be a saint, then spend time helping these random unknown individuals to fulfil their ambitions. If not, just hit "delete".

Nobody can tell you whether to aspire to sainthood or to winning a Nobel Prize for your academic work (or something in between those extremes), but history suggests that trying achieve both simultaneously doesn't work.

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    It doesn't exactly require being a saint to help random unknown poor students every now and then, and it's not that time consuming to copy-paste a generic(!) reply for emails like that. – JiK Apr 12 at 11:39
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    @JiK agreed. We can be decent people and still achieve success - most of the time, the right thing to do isn't that costly, and usually has flow-on benefits in some way or another. – goblin Apr 12 at 12:06
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    well, I don't tell people who throw advertisements in my postbox how to make sure I read them either and I still consider myself a decent being. It all depends a bit on how it comes off and what information your page already has. After I got the first such mail I put a respective line on my personal page that redirected to the already existing well maintained university site for applications. If someone still manages to ignore both, I feel absolutely no indecency in just ignoring that request. I might still have a particularly good day and answer someone, but I feel it's not undecent not to. – Frank Hopkins Apr 12 at 17:12
  • but 2 button clicks = semi-automated reply, where one button click = delete. So in the grand scheme of things we're not talking about a massive time commitment here. – WetlabStudent Apr 17 at 23:13
  • Totally agree with this. I simply ignore such emails. – lllllllllllll Apr 18 at 12:37
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It seems like the consensus here about replying to generic emails with canned emails. I have nothing to add to the existing answers, except a technical solution to make the process of copy-pasting the emails easier. Two software I can recommend for Windows users are PhraseExpress and AutoHotkey. The former has a GUI and can sync with your phone, the latter gives you more flexibility.

For AutoHotKey, use:

:*:cemail::
SendRaw,
(
text text text
)
return

So every time you type cemail (shorted for "canned email"), text text text will be auto-typed. If you need to customize the text, use this template:

InputBox, string1, What to type?, Suggestion 1`, 2`, 3 
InputBox, string2, What to type?, Suggestion a`, b`, c 
SendInput text text %string1% text %string2%

The box will be like this:

  • @adonalsium points out that this can also be achieved by saving it as an alternative custom signature in various email clients. Great tips, both of you, thanks – WetlabStudent Apr 15 at 6:54
  • call this a bias if you want, but I would highly recommend you to use AutoHotKey if you are a Windows user. So powerful. – Ooker Apr 15 at 7:12
3

Interesting question. I went through the application process a few years ago, and quite a few professors never responded, and to be honest I think that's perfectly okay, and have told many of my friends to expect no reply when applying. If you really want to, I'd keep it brief and say basically that you're looking for students with a clearer idea of their research topics and ones who know better what you are studying. and then tell them best of luck.

  • Did the approach actually land you a position in a program? – Scott Seidman Apr 12 at 15:28
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    Hmm? I didn't employ that approach and am at my 1st choice. I wrote long detailed emails specifying my background, what I wanted to study and referencing the professors research, and attached my CV. Despite that I still didn't hear back from a couple professors. So clearly, if you don't customize your letter at all, expecting a response is silly. I helped many of my friends who applied in the last few years, either by giving them advice or editing their applications, and gave them all the warning that a busy professor may just choose not to respond, and it's not rare for that to happen. – EMP Apr 12 at 20:04
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    In the US, at least, you're not "applying" when you contact a prof. There is no route in that way. I get so many of these letters that I'm interested in trying to figure out if students look at this as an application process. The emails that start "I've applied to your program...." are much better received by me. – Scott Seidman Apr 12 at 20:33
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    I didn't see it as part of the application, I saw it as a prerequisite for it. I sent an email stating my background and research interests (which were tightly defined) and asked the professors if they were still doing research in that topic and if it was worth it to apply. In my case, I applied to more EU and Canadian schools than US. But even in the U.S. knowing if a professor is interested saves time. Where I am now in the U.S. I spoke with my advisor, I interviewed with him, and then he told me to apply and told the office to accept me. – EMP Apr 12 at 23:11
  • Yes, I was taught reaching out is practically a prerequisite for applications. I was only accepted/got interviews from professors I reached out to and talked to over the summer (3). – Azor Ahai Apr 12 at 23:13
3

How to politely respond to generic emails

Don't. If the email is unsolicited, you're not obliged to answer.

I know that this goes against our inner moral compass, but think of it this way: sending email is quick and easy. Too quick and too easy. Those people most likely have put less effort into sending such email than the effort you have put into reading it! It's you who's at disadvantage here. Responding is nothing short of letting yourself to be robbed of even more time against your will. That's why your colleagues just delete them. Don't feel bad for ignoring bad mails.

In fact, feel bad for replying! If you reply to bad mails, you're only showing that their strategy is working and encourage them to keep sending more. You're helping by ignoring.

You want to be helpful. But they're not asking for your help, they're asking for a specific favor. What you're currently doing is unsolicited advice, as unsolicited as their spam. And like most unsolicited things it only makes everything worse. You'll be seen as condescending and patronizing. You're basically saying "be more like me and less yourself". Nobody wants to hear that. You're not helping anyone, you just make yourself feel better about being yourself.

  • I don't agree with "You're helping by ignoring" a semi-automated response suggesting what they're doing won't get a response and why is way more helpful - these are folks who've never gotten any advice on how to get an academic position before. No response does not tell them "why" or what aspect of what they are doing is wrong. I totally agree that no one is obliged to answer these annoying emails, but we shouldn't confuse our lack of reply with altruism (it's just reasonable prioritisation of our time). – WetlabStudent Apr 17 at 23:11
  • @WetlabStudent "folks who've never gotten any advice" - You're preoccupied with usefulness of advice. Nobody listens to advice. Ever. People pay for advice in form of education or counseling yet they still work hard to forget it ASAP. All advice does is to make you (the giver) feel better about yourself. But just like drugs, you only feel better when you're becoming worse. psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/freedom-learn/201012/… – Agent_L Apr 24 at 17:38
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You should be careful to spend no more time replying to an email than was spent sending it. Don't feel bad about deleting an entirely generic email, but if I have time or the email has any merit I send a one-sentence email asking for details about how this relates to my own work, or if it is an undergraduate asking for an internship with a good email, I suggest in the future applying for a PhD with a proper connection to the work of the person they choose to contact. You can also write a web page about what you want written in PhD or postdoc "cold" applications (or saying that these are not welcome) and then just send the URL when you get these emails.

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