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I will be applying for grad school soon and have drafted a few informal enquiry emails. When would be the best time to send out informal enquiry emails to potential supervisors? Would it be advisable to send them out as soon as the programme starts to accept applications or even earlier than that? I'm asking particularly for US universities.

Thank you!

EDIT: Since a lot of people have said this is field related, I thought I'd mention which field I'm applying for - I'm applying for microbiology/immunology programmes

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    This is a very subjective question, it varies from university to university, and even across fields. This varies from professor to professor as well, you can find a lot of information on the individual faculty pages as well. Some ask students to freely reach out, while others say strictly no because of various reasons. If you have to mail, then doing so after applying would be better, as the potential supervisor will be able to see the full picture, having all your credentials as well as that of other candidates. – Jihadi Aug 1 at 3:58
  • Professors are busy people, you can get a rough idea of potential openings and a lot of other useful information by asking other graduate students in the potential supervisor's group. – Jihadi Aug 1 at 4:00
  • See also this -- in the US, such mails are not required and may even be unadvisable. – cag51 Aug 1 at 21:53
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Most professors that I know in the US (in computer science) do not want to receive such emails and will ignore them. Many have a note on their website saying so. The expectation is that students should submit an application and only after they are admitted should they talk to faculty. If you are interested in a particular faculty member, you should note this in your application.

That said, norms vary greatly. In the UK, the expectation is the opposite in my experience -- you should only apply after contacting a potential supervisor.

You should look at the websites of faculty that you are interested in working with and see what they say about contacting them. If they do invite such inquiries, then you should contact them. In terms of timing, earlier is generally better, as long as you are at the stage of having reasonably concrete plans.

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  • I'm not familiar with computer science, but I think this answer is wrong. Professors do want customized inquiries from qualified applicants. – Anonymous Physicist Aug 4 at 1:48
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In my field --- history (so I would think applicable to other humanities disciplines) --- these sorts of e-mails are actively encouraged, and I would recommend e-mailing potential supervisors to see if there's a good fit. Once in a while an application for a PhD applies out of the blue without pre-contacting a supervisor, that's usually rare and it isn't always a great fit.

Why? A potential PhD supervisor might not be taking that students that year, or they might be changing their research emphasis away from what the student wants to do, and it both helps them manage their workload and helps the student save throwing away application fees.

In Canada, if applications are due in January, I usually expect to see e-mails from potential students in September or October, but anytime through December is usually OK.

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As people have said, this varies greatly by field. In my field (psychology), such emails are strongly recommended. In fact, to the point that it was suggested to me to not apply if I did not receive a response. At the very least, check that professors do not have a notice regarding emails or not taking students for 2021-22.

In my case, of the three professors I spoke to meaningfully, they were the only ones whose program I was accepted to (two) and received an interview for, but later declined (one). I emailed an additional couple, and applied to about three other programs "blind."

To answer your title question, I was told to send emails in August. My applications were due mostly December 1 - January 1. This also nicely is before the semester starts, when many professors will get busier.

However, I would check with a trusted mentor about expectations of doing this in your field. I note that you use a non-US spelling of "program," so best to check with someone who also has familiarity with the US system specifically.

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  • Thanks! I wanted to ask a follow up to that - what do you mean by "spoke to meaningfully" I recently got a response from PI sort of just redirecting me to the programme because first year is lab rotations (although the tone seemed very friendly!) but there wasn't much scope to develop the conversation further with questions/a discussion of projects, so am a bit confused as to what to expect from writing enquiry emails tailored to projects/interests – PC123 Aug 3 at 17:52
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    @PC123 Yes, I got a couple of those ("You sound great, please apply") and did not get an interview. One was a decent fit, the other weren't that great. By meaningfully, I mean we talked about my interests, and I had a phone call with two of them. The other wasn't a native speaker of English, and I think preferred emailing. – Azor Ahai -- he him Aug 3 at 17:56
  • @PC123 As others have said, expectations are different in different fields. That said, my best guess is that if the PI wrote you a friendly email redirecting you to the program in general, then that's a positive sign, and possibly a sign that you're not expected to "develop the conversation further". – academic Aug 4 at 9:43
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I'll write from my experience as an American professor in mathematics.

Generally I am happy to receive such emails, and I respond by thanking the writer for their interest, briefly describing our graduate program, and encouraging them to apply. If they ask about my research interests, or other aspects of the program, then I'm happy to answer questions. (Or, if they don't, I will tell them that I'm happy to answer questions.)

That said, I don't try to seriously evaluate them as applicants. If they include a CV then I basically ignore it. And I don't usually bring these conversations to the attention of our department's graduate admissions committee.

If you were applying in my field, I would say that sending such emails is a good idea, but that you should keep them brief, not try to "develop the conversation further" unless you have particular questions to ask (or are invited to by the professor), and take any sort of encouraging reply as a good sign. If you decide to send such emails, then now is a good time: professors are less busy now than they will be once the semester starts.

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