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I am currently a master's student outside the U.S., and I plan to contact professors in U.S. universities for PhD applications. I have a bunch of email addresses available, and I don't know which one is the most appropriate for communication.

My main objective is to make sure my email doesn't get lost in the spam folder, and a decent first impression would not hurt.

My options:

(1) surname@university.edu.xx: Email given from the current institution where I attend.

(2) surname@alumni.university.edu.xx: Alumni email from the university where I got my undergrad degree.

(3) f.surname@university.edu: Email from a well known U.S. university where I spent a year as an exchange student.

(4) firstname.surname@gmail.com : Private email address

My question is, do you think the possibility of getting a response depends on the email domain? What email domain should I use?

A friend of mine who ended up at a top-5 grad program suggested me to use (3), saying that it could increase my chances of getting a response. However I am cautious that it may look pretentious or delusional, considering I had been there some time ago.

Am I overthinking this?

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    I cannot believe you still have access to an email account at a US university from eight years ago. If you still have a forwarder from that address (strange enough), I wouldn't use it because your outgoing mail server and email address won't fit, which is guaranteed to give you a high spam-rating. – Karl Aug 11 at 21:03
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    @Karl I still have email access to an account at a US uni that I graduated from in 1994. They use lastname.#. It's not unheard of. – mkennedy Aug 12 at 3:00
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    @Karl Why is that so hard to believe? Many universities provide more or less permanent e-mail accounts for students. I still have mine from the IT University where I studied for two years between 2007 and 2009. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Aug 12 at 16:32
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    @JanusBahsJacquet I'll believe you, but all my universities disabled your account eight weeks after the end of your last semester, and switched of the forwarder after one year. There are legal problems, email accounts cost money (all mailboxes with a, say, 1GB per account must be on a fast and failsafe storage system, 4000 new students per year, since 25 years, thats 100 TB), and last but not least Joe Smith, freshman 2020, doesn't want to end up with the address joe.smith1472@uxyz.edu – Karl Aug 12 at 19:26
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    @Karl Wow, that’s rather harsh! Eight weeks is very quickly. To be fair, both the universities which have let me keep accounts use generic usernames (e.g., abc123@xyz.edu), which are ridiculous and annoying, but at least they’re equally ridiculous and annoying for all, not only for the newer users. I do think they cap the email accounts after you graduate, but in both places the email is tied up with the ability to log on and create exam result printouts, which is something they’re legally required around here to provide former students with these days. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Aug 12 at 19:32
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  • Personal email is OK, as long as it doesn't look too unserious (mickeymouse666@gmail.com is bad). Gmail looks more professional than other providers, but not by much.

  • Avoid email addresses that will expire soon. Unfortunately, many university addresses are like that. An expired address means you won't get late followup answers (and trust me, there are emails threads in research that span decades).

  • Avoid anything with alumni in it. Many people have a delete reflex when they see the word "alumnus", as it mostly appears in the context of panhandling by alumni orgs.

  • There is nothing pretentious about .edu addresses.

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    I think the pretentiousness comes from the fact they were only an exchange student at that university and are putting it because it's more prestigious than the one they attended full-time. – rlms Aug 12 at 12:34
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I suggest you use your current email address, i.e. option 1 with name@university.edu.xx.

The reasoning is that this is the email address that reflects your position. Writing with another email address from a different university does not really tell the person who you are. Especially if you are listed on the homepage of your current institution.

The second best option is to use your private address, but as darij grinberg stated in his answer, it should look serious.

Finally, to answer your question: As long as you use either of the two options (current institutional address, "serious" private address) your mail domain will not matter. You are probably overthinking.

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You are overthinking and your professor will probably not even read your address when your mail programm adds a real name to the from field, but there are two things you should consider:

Spam rating: When your e-mail ends up in the spam folder, you probably won't be noticed. GMail should not have a problem with this.

It should be a permanent address: This is the address, that the will be used forever.
It is rather common, that someone will start typing your name and use the first address that is suggested by the mail program, disregarding that you changed institutions and have a new primary mail address. So you probably should have a forward when you use an address that will change, or it really needs to bounce. When the e-mail is delivered to a mailbox that you do not read anymore, you will miss out on important mails, even when you told him the new address.

In addition, you may want to use an address that can guarantee to conform to data protection regulations. For your personal e-mail it is your personal risk, but when you start working for the professor and you exchange details about students, it may be a problem to use services like GMail. A university usually provides better data protection in their e-mail terms of service.

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You may be overthinking it, but everyone who wishes to communicate by email needs to find a way of avoiding spam filters.

Having been in your position a few years ago, namely wishing to engage the attention of professors who would never had heard of me, my strategy was to use an obviously personal email address, a very clear but brief subject, and a very brief email message (in impeccably grammatical language) with a clearly stated question, such as "Would you be willing to consider me as a possible graduate student?".

Brevity is crucial, but for a counter-example consider Ramanujan's unsolicited letter to GH Hardy. Ramanujan stated theorems that were very exciting but not so exciting as to suggest that he was a crank. Unless you are offering material of that quality, I advise a short clear statement of what you want from an honest personal email address.

  • I don't see how Ramanujan is relevant; maths professors in 1913 surely weren't receiving barrages of snail mails asking for internships and all the other junk that we get by email today. – David Richerby Aug 12 at 16:39
  • @Richerby the relevance is that famous maths professors in 1913 were indeed receiving unsolicited mail claiming eg that the circle had been squared, that Fermat's last theorem had been solved etc etc. Read Hardy's book ' A Mathematician's Apology'. The point is that something Ramaujan said lifted his unsolicited letter into the class of letters to be thought about, and away from the class of letters to be binned. – JeremyC Aug 12 at 17:59
  • I don't disupute that they received some unsolicited mail; the question is how much. – David Richerby Aug 12 at 19:29

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