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I am doing a M.S. degree in a mechanical engineering program. In the previous three weeks I sent a letter inquiring for an opportunity to over 20 professors whose lab's website clearly showed Ph.D. position information. I received only 4 rejections, the others did not reply, is there any reason? Is there any way to solve this problem? Should I resend them my letter at a later time?

The format of my letter like this:

attachment-1:my transcript

attachment-2:my cv

Hello Professor,    

Paragraph-1: Personal information, like my name, graduate school, my thesis topic, my publication condition.         Paragraph-2: Where I found your position information, why I chose your labs(I indicated the interesting topics they listed in their page)

Paragraph-3: My qualification, like my programming level, practical experience of simulation, related courses I ever took.

Paragraph-4: An ending sentence, like: looking forward to your reply, have a nice day.

I found potential reasons to account for the lack of replies:

  1. Its summer vacation.
  2. I have a weak academic background.
  3. Professors do not think my research field can match theirs.
  4. The content of my letter is not unique, professors may think this letter can be sent by everyone.
  5. I didn't put the professor's name at the start.
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  • 3
    Do not expect replies in case of rejection (I never send these unless I already know you personally). No answer means a rejection for all practical purposes.
    – user9482
    Jun 22, 2022 at 5:41
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    What country? . Jun 22, 2022 at 11:22
  • You mention that their labs websites show PhD position information, but in my experience most professors who welcome direct PhD proposals like yours will state as much on their personal profile. Jun 22, 2022 at 11:43
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    Things that look like mass mailings are easy to delete without response. Blind emails that are long, with attachments, are easy to delete without response. In the US, applications are normally not made to a professor, but through a departmental system, though you haven't yet given a country.
    – Buffy
    Jun 22, 2022 at 14:48

4 Answers 4

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"I didn't put the professor's name at the start."

This! Obviously, this is highly subjective, but whenever I get one of those emails, they go directly to the trash bin. If you cannot even find the time to insert my name, this tells me a couple of things - be they true or not, but those are the immediate assumptions I am gonna make of you:

  1. You just want the degree for whatever reason, but have no actual interest in the work itself. No consideration is given whether our interests are compatible, and you are likely only vaguely familiar with my work (quoting a few topics from the website doesn't really cut it). There is nothing specific about my work that makes you want to spend the next few years with me over any other random researcher.

  2. Yet, you expect me to hire you, spend days writing grant proposals to fund you, support you for years (academically, socially, mentally) and spend many hours working with me, but you do not even have the decency to find a few seconds to enter my name. This would be unacceptable even for low-qualification entry-level job applications in many places.

  3. The reason you do not have that time is because you probably sent dozens of emails to any researcher you can find and expect some of them to stick.

I am sorry of this sounds harsh, but I know quite a few profs who've been there, invited some of those candidates, just to find that their concerns were justified. I am of course not saying this is true of you, but please understand that after many anonymous generic applications, a lot of them start to feel like spam.

So here are my suggestions for future applications:

  1. Address the person by name (and title, as some might be offended otherwise).

  2. Instead of showing interest in their topics, show familiarity with their work, i.e. read their papers!!, I repeat, read, and make sure you understand, their papers!! Be specific about what ideas and approaches are most interesting to you, and why. But make sure to be genuine and thorough - its their work, so they will know immediatly if you fake it because you didn't get the important ideas.

  3. Make sure to suggest what you might contribute to their lab. Academic research is a high stakes, high competition environment, and taking on a PhD student is a risky investment. The prof needs to get the impression that you are self-motivated and have something new to contribute, rather than being a diligent student who just does well in classes. A PhD is VERY different from getting a Master's, so don't think of it as "going to school" anymore. At the end, it's publish-or-perish for anyone in that line of work, and that goes for you as well.

  4. It's sometimes a good idea to state your reasons for doing a PhD. Want an academic career? Qualify for a senior position in industry? Become an entrepreneur? Different labs have different outlooks on that, and compatibility will depend on your objectives.

  5. In some cases, especially when applying to the US, some professors might feel that you are more interested in coming to the country than the actual PhD work. I obviously don't know your background, but do check your applications to see if they might give of that vibe. I get lots of applications from Pakistan and Iran specifically that only seem to have that purpose, as their previous work has almost nothing to do with my interests, but they do talk a lot about their visa requirements.

Hope that helps, good like with your other applications! :-)

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Each of the 20 professors you wrote to may have received hundreds of letters like yours.

I think a quick acknowledgment with a "sorry, no" would be better than no response, but I can understand why many emails like yours are unanswered.

I doubt that a second email from you would make any difference.

Keep trying at schools where you think you might succeed.

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    Lately I find that sending a polite "sorry, no" email often results in the applicant continuing to send inquiries, which has further discouraged me from replying to messages (like OP's) that appear to be generic and spammed to many people. Jun 22, 2022 at 16:53
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    @DavidKetcheson I have the reverse experience. Not replying can lead to resending but a polite “sorry but no” is usually enough to close the discussion. Jun 24, 2022 at 3:06
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This depends on what country you're in, but at least where I live, it would be rather uncommon to approach a professor about a position directly via email. Open PhD positions are posted in some university-wide job application system, and there is some designated contact person for questions, sometimes multiple for different questions (e.g. a professor for questions about the research, and an HR person for questions about contracts). Applications sent directly to the professor will just get ignored, as they don't follow the required protocol.

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Don't send during vacation time

I think during the vacation time July-August nobody reads their working emails, and even if they are, they ignore unimportant stuff till later time. So I agree with your "1" it would be better to send it in e.g. September.

Write personalized emails

I would definitely spent an effort to write unique emails starting with Dear "Professor Name", instead of simply "Professor". I absolutely agree with your item "4" and "5". It is a small change, but it makes a feeling of a general letter one can ignore, rather a personal inquiry.

Skill level is not crucial in the very first email

I would disagree with your "2", "3". I would say, skill level is usually determined by the interview or direct conversation. I think to get in contact with a professor, usually plain interest with some basic background knowledge should be enough. So don't think it is because of your poor knowledge.

Be polite and ask

I think very important part is to ask direct, simple yes/no questions, which people can easily identify and answer within seconds, reading your email.

Also entertain the idea that website information might not always be up to date, so it is worth to ask, whether the position you have found is still available.

E.g. instead of general: "looking forward to your reply".

" On the website xyz42.com I found an open PhD position in your lab, which I am interested in. Could you tell, if this position is still available? I am this with that background... Please, let me know, if it possible for me to apply."

HR department

Another thing, that maybe not everywhere professors handle initial PhD requests. Maybe try to send similar email to the HR department? They were hired to reply to emails like yours :) So the probability of the reply is much higher. And you still can mention professors name who you find interesting to work with.

Hope it helps and good luck with your PhD :)

P.S. I am not from engineering field, but from physics so my judgement of professors behaviour might be heavily off

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    Countless useful responds made in this thread. I feel sorry I can not choose each of them to be the best one. But, what you said actually helped me. Thanks a lot. Jun 29, 2022 at 14:53

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