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I am new around here so go easy on me :) this question is directed at anyone with experience with graduate studies in the US.

A little background information about myself: I am wrapping my up my M.Sc. in Aerospace Engineering in Germany and currently applying for a PhD in a well-known US University. I already did my GRE and TOEFL and have gathered all 3 Letters of Recommendation in time for the December deadline for start in Fall 2020. Regardless of my chances of getting in, I want to give it my best shot.

I have been told that in the US, it is very common or even expected for prospective PhD students to introduce themselves to their Professor before applying. I have been told that not doing so may even be interpreted as lack of interest on my part.

So the question is: is this true? Should I write my Professor an e-mail and introduce myself and tell him I am applying?

I would be extremely thankful for any advice or insights you can give me, as I kind of have no idea how such things work in the US!

  • I think the answer may depend on the field and institution. I am also currently applying for a PhD in Engineering at a highly-ranked US university, and I have been getting the strong impression that the norm there is: "get admitted first, then we can talk". – Time4Tea Nov 13 at 14:06
  • Having said that, I would also be interested to read answers from people who are currently faculty members in the US. – Time4Tea Nov 13 at 15:04
  • Did you contact them already? I think I will send an e-mail to the professor, I mean, there's nothing to lose, I guess. – bernabob Nov 14 at 9:15
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    I sent e-mails to a handful of PIs that I am interested in. Most ignored, but one replied to say effectively "Get admitted, then we can talk." The advice I have received is that it won't hurt to try contacting them, but the chance of a reply is probably low. – Time4Tea Nov 14 at 12:38
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    I just sent the mail. If you want to, I can let you know what the reply was (if I get one). Cheers! – bernabob Nov 18 at 12:50
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"Talk to the professor first" is the norm in most of the rest of the world, but in many graduate programs in STEM in the US admissions decisions are made by a graduate admissions committee and students are matched to research supervisors (and funding sources) after they've been admitted to the program.

It's quite common to have some specialized source of funding (e.g. teaching assistantships or fellowships) for first-year students to support them until they have matched with an advisor who can fund them through a research grant.

One reason for this is that many Ph.D. programs in the US have substantial course requirements, while in other systems it's more common for the graduate coursework to be completed in an MS degree and the Ph.D. degree only encompasses the dissertation research.

An important advantage of this approach is that it allows the faculty in the department to compare applicants and pick the best overall group of applicants while maintaining an appropriate balance between subfields in the department.

There's nothing particularly wrong with sending an introductory email to a professor and expressing interest in working with that professor, but don't assume that the professor has the power to admit you to the program. A response of "Get admitted first, then we'll talk" means exactly that- the professor can't make any promises to you until you've been admitted. Even then, the professor might want to see how you do in course work before agreeing to be your advisor.

  • What you describe is pretty similar to Canada as well. – puppetsock reinstate Monica Nov 13 at 19:39
  • Thank you for your answer. I just don't want to come across as not interested or not motivated enough because I didn't introduce myself beforehand. – bernabob Nov 14 at 9:13

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