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I am applying for doctoral programs in biostatistics and have read multiple places to attempt to set up contact with a potential advisor before applying.

What if the department website specifically says to not contact potential advisors? There is a research lab I am very interested in joining (my top pick), but I still should not contact this professor, right?

Here's the exact wording of the website:

"Should I contact faculty about RA opportunities?
No. All applications are reviewed by our admission committee and students do not need to (nor can they) try to find their own mentors prior to admissions. Having an interested faculty member in no way influences the admission process, which is based on an evaluation of your application only."

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    It says "about RA opportunities". You can contact them about other things though. For example you can ask them what they are currently working on without breaking this rule. Although I might err on the side of caution and avoid doing this as it might be misconstrued. Commented Sep 26, 2013 at 0:43
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    I feel like I'm channeling JeffE: "Should graduate applicants follow instructions by department--?" Yes. Commented Sep 26, 2013 at 19:42
  • The first communication I received from a potential graduate student got deleted unread. The second one got forwarded to the admissions office.
    – Bob Brown
    Commented Jul 20, 2021 at 2:00

5 Answers 5

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There are multiple practical reasons for not asking you not to contact advisors prior to admission:

  • Advisors may not know how many RA positions they will have available until later in the year, and departments do not want that to discourage people from applying.

  • They may have an established procedure for allocating students to research groups; "jumping the gun" would therefore be discouraged.

  • They don't want undue influence from various faculty members lobbying the admissions committee in support of "their" candidates.

Note that this is also because at many schools—particularly in Europe—individual faculty members are responsible for advertising their open positions. This is not the normal procedure in the US, thereby leading many schools to explicitly state that students should not directly petition individual faculty members.

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If thats what the department says, then don't do it.

I was very interested in a couple of research groups in my university but I never contacted them before admission. After I was admitted, I had an opportunity to speak to all these faculty and then made the best choice for myself.

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Admissions are tough, and if you break the rules you make the committee's life easier (one less applicant to judge). So: don't break the rules, especially when you not in a position of power.

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  • Who said graduate school applicants are not in a position of power. I thought grad schools wanted to recruit bright, hardworking students.
    – emory
    Commented Sep 26, 2013 at 1:45
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    @emory: Of course they do; but there are typically lots of those applying. And what they don't want to recruit is students who will be a pain in the neck. If someone tries to weasel their way in when they've been specifically told not to, that's a pretty good indication they'd be a pain to deal with as a student. Commented Sep 26, 2013 at 2:52
  • If dealing with an applicant's legitimate queries is painful then it is best for all concerned to not proceed. If an applicant wastes people's time with unimportant communications, then it is best for all concerned to not proceed. If an applicant's legitimate queries are not painful to deal with and help the applicant and admissions committee make better decisions, then it is a positive. I don't see any downsides to it.
    – emory
    Commented Sep 26, 2013 at 13:43
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This position may be a little stern, but once you are on the other side of the admissions table, you get bombarded with "Dear Professor, I am highly interested in working with you, do you have any positions available?" emails every week. A lot of these emails suffer from poor grammar, and most in fact miss the point of what I do, researchwise. As F'x said, if you decide to take the liberty of sending such an email, it (a) may be lost among dozens such emails, (b) may get you blacklisted by the department. (This is a very good school, and they will have no shortage of highly qualified applicants, and you hardly will be in a position of power in negotiating with them.)

Ideally, you would've established a contact with a faculty much earlier with something like "I believe there is a typo in the Appendix of your recent Biometrika paper" or "What R package did you use? I can't get lmer to work on a similar problem" or "I thought that M=5 imputations is always enough" or some other question relevant to both your studies/interest and their expertise. I've established a couple of the most long-lasting and satisfying professional relations by asking these curiosity-driven questions, even though I never worked with these specific researchers, in the end. Don't try to make this up, though, and make sure to produce something that will really pique enough of the professor's interest to reply.

As a faculty, I have been receiving meaningful emails, too, saying "You've published on this and that; I am working on the intersection of this-that right now as an analyst in Iranian government, but I realized that I don't know enough, and want to learn more..." -- to which I would have to say that the contacts between Iran and US are kept low profile. The fraction of such emails is low double digits, most are obvious academic spam.

Finally, the department may have similar language in the faculty bylaws discouraging faculty member from discussing financial matters and/or open positions with potential applicants. Basically, this would be done to avoid a mutually unpleasant situation in which a professor may promise an applicant the RA support, but either the applicant would not make it based, say, on their GRE scores, or the professor would not get that grant that they were expecting. The department cannot commit acceptance based on such side negotiations, so they want to minimize the risk of that happening. Likewise, a professor may not be able to promise to take you as an advisee if they expect to have five more students, currently in their second year, joining their lab to support the work on a new multi-million R01 grant. You will be taking the fundamental required courses for a year or two, and talking right now about what is going to happen three years down the road is basically waving a big question mark in the air.

So my bottom line is, if you want to talk about research, there is little to stop you; if you are told not to discuss the admissions process and the existing positions with anybody outside the admissions committee, don't.

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  • Thank you, this helps a lot. I've heard from multiple sources that by not contacting potential labs, you're highly unlikely to be accepted. Your answer puts the situation in perspective.
    – jlajla
    Commented Sep 27, 2013 at 22:58
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    @jlajla, to echo/amplify on what StasK said: those sources are very likely to be wrong. I hear from many students that they get that advice (to contact multiple labs in advance), but in my experience it is bad advice.
    – D.W.
    Commented Sep 29, 2013 at 4:46
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As other have said you should follow their instructions. I just wanted to point out that you will have opportunities after admission but before deciding where to go to get answers to your questions. In my experience in math, this post-admission pre-decision time is the appropriate window to talk to potential advisors.

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