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I am about to send emails to potential PhD supervisor. In order to show my initiative to understand their research, I am thinking of writing a precis of their recent papers and attaching it with the email. I would include the following elements in the precis:

  1. background problems to be solved

  2. the proposed methods to solve the problem

  3. how the proposed methods are tested

  4. results

  5. shortcomings

  6. how the papers I have read are related to each other

  7. my own thoughts about how further research can be done based on the results on these papers

Is this a good approach?

I think the precis would be one to two pages long. Is the length recommendable?

I am also thinking of putting the main points as bullet points in a powerpoint instead of presenting the main points as paragraphs in a precis. So which format is better?

However, my concern is that professors are usually busy people. They would not bother to open the document and read. Also they are already familiar with their research. It seems meaningless to summarize their research and send it to them. Is it a genuine concern?

Thanks.

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  • 1
    Perhaps you can mention the country and field.
    – Buffy
    Jun 6 at 14:35
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    Please don’t write answers in comments. It bypasses our quality measures by not having voting (both up and down) available on comments, as well as having other problems detailed on meta. Comments are for clarifying and improving the question; please don’t use them for other purposes. Existing answers in comments have been moved to chat (note that we can only move comments to chat once).
    – cag51
    Jun 8 at 19:46
37

I don't think this is a good idea.You should aim for an email that is one or two sentences, not one or two pages, at least for your first email. You are much more likely to get a response if your email is short and contains a direct question.

I presume your goal in emailing these professors is to find out if they are taking on students next year. So, ask that, and in one sentence explain why you're interested in being supervised by them in particular.

Your email could read something like:

Dear Professor X,

I am a student in [subject] at [university] and am looking for a PhD position starting next year. Are you taking PhD students at the moment? I am interested in being supervised by you as I would like to pursue research in [common topic].

Thank you and best wishes,

Underdog

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  • 13
    Frankly speaking, such emails keep me puzzled, because they don't address "the elephant in the room" -- how they are going to fund this position. Some people just go to our PhD program on their own, some have a sort of scholarship, some expect us to fund them, and some want to apply for a grant with my help. It's a huge difference, and (at least for me) even a bigger issue than "alignment of interests". Jun 6 at 14:12
  • 13
    @rg_software, that is very country and field specific. In some places contact with the PI is the gate to admission as well as funding. In the US, not so much. I don't know about Japan.
    – Buffy
    Jun 6 at 14:33
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    @rg_software, actually, in the US, application is usually to a university department, not to a PI and most grad students are funded as TAs. In many fields, such an email would be noise, possibly ignored and possibly referred to the admission system. There are some exceptions, but that is the usual thing. The "some places" is more likely to refer to (IIRC) Germany and Austria. But not the US, anyway.
    – Buffy
    Jun 6 at 15:03
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    @rg_software I think your concerns could be addressed by adding one word to the first sentence above, namely : "I am a student in [subject] at [university] and am looking for a funded PhD position starting next year."
    – J...
    Jun 7 at 13:45
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    @rg_software Not entirely. PIs have only so much capacity for students. It's pointless to apply to the dept if that PI isn't open to supervising more students. Jun 7 at 19:28
33

In addition to the helpful answer given by @astronat, I would add that an additional sentence or two along the lines of your #7 could make your message stand out, but you will need to do your homework. Something like

I read your papers X and Y and I'm especially interested in the open question you mentioned about Z.

If you've learned enough to really understand what the next steps of research in this direction could be, you could go a bit further. But if you don't know as much as you think, you will make that obvious, so stick to what you actually know.

If you send me an email like the one in @astronat's answer, I will write back just telling you to submit an application to the program and I won't remember your name. If you add something like what I've indicated here (and it makes sense) I will make a note and look for your application in the pile.

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    This is the best answer. I emailed Professors asking about future directions to their work, and it got me into multiple top tier PhD programs. Jun 7 at 14:37
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I receive this kind of email regularly: I do not need someone to digest the contents of my own work.

What you want to do is make any mention of previous work specific but short. Something vague like “I read your recent papers on underwater basketweaving and find this fascinating” is something that anybody can come up by just scanning the title.

A better strategy is expand a bit (NOT 2 pages), describe how this is of interest to you, and how has your background prepared you for this topic:

I have read your recent work on underwater basketweaving. I was quite intrigued by your data of section 3 on basket stiffness in different water salinity. I studied general basketweaving as an undergraduate, and your paper has rekindled my interest in this field etc

Keep it short and focused, demonstrating your interest and making it clear you are not sending a random email. Failing this your email is unlikely to be answered.

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    Where can I find your paper on underwater basket weaving, out of interest :)
    – J_mie6
    Jun 7 at 8:03
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    @J_mie6 I’m afraid it’s still work in progress… Jun 7 at 16:07
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    @ZeroTheHero Yes, one could say that the author is a bit swamped with accruing more data.
    – orithena
    Jun 8 at 10:04
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I would rethink your goals and approach here a bit. Why do you want to send these emails? Just because it's something that prospective PhD students seem to do? Or do you have specific goals in mind? See XY problem.

The current top answer writes:

I presume your goal in emailing these professors is to find out if they are taking on students next year.

I think some other likely goals here are to increase your chance of acceptance and to learn about if the advising match would be a good fit.

For these goals it would benefit you to learn more deeply about the professor's research and papers. You will learn about the kinds of problems they find interesting and why. You will also learn about open problems or next steps, which could be what you work on next. The things you learn (at a deep level, not summary level) can be a good starting point for questions about the research, which can help open a conversation where you also learn more about what it would be like to be advised by that person.

So you see we come back to advice in other answers about writing emails with deep and specific content, but maybe with some more principled reasoning behind why (from your perspective, not just the professor's).

However, I'll end with a disclaimer that while some professors are happy to receive these emails, others are not or don't feel they have time to respond. (On the other hand, I'd expect a genuinely interesting research question/point to usually get a response no matter who sent it.)

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It is generally useful to show in your application that you know the topics of the laboratory you are applying to, and show some specific interest in them, that this is something you would like to work on, maybe more than on something else. You start looking more like a human and less like a spam sending bot that pumps identical messages all over the world without caring, where are they going.

However I do not think your analysis needs to be very detailed. A few correctly selected statements should be enough, respect also the time of the reader. Do not state any shortcomings you think you see and do not list proposals. Simply express your interest and put some short statement or two to show that your admiration is not script generated.

Such applications obviously take much more time to prepare. You need to read at least one of they articles, and better more than one. This works the best if you really worked or has been interested in similar topic so know the articles anyway.

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Don't do that. A brief statement about professor's works is enough, so they'll know that you have read their research. Also, you can refer to their research in your research plan. In your first email, briefly and politely say about yourself, your works and background, and a reason for why you choose this university and this professor; for this part, you can briefly write about the professor's works and their similarity to your research area and what you are planning to do during your Ph.D. program. Generally, you should somehow convince them that you are a potential candidate.

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