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I have completed my masters, and am currently working on a year-long project, and I am hoping that I will be accepted for a PhD position sometime by the end of this year. Although, my current project is going alright, I want to 'explore' a new field by working on some concrete research project. By explore, I mean I have a general interest and enthusiasm towards this field, but I do not know enough about it to articulate a sensible research question. Hence, I was considering cold emailing a professor in this field asking for his supervision and expertise in this matter.

Under the guidance of someone who actively works on this topic, I was hoping I could gain a more thorough understanding of this field and a hands on experience of what it is like working in this field. I do not think my enthusiasm for this topic is fickle, so I expect that if there is a project, I will not abandon it midway. I don't think I will be wasting a Professor's time (at least in this sense) if I were to work on any project of this sort. I also do not ask for any financial support from them. But my concern is that there does not seem to be any backbone for this project, as is usually there for summer projects or MS projects. I also do not have a specific research question or idea in mind, so I can't approach them by trying to discuss a particular idea or problem. Adding to all of this, I am also very unfamiliar with the world of academia, and how these things work. So I wish to ask-

  • Is it appropriate to contact professors (whom I have had no previous contact with previously) for any possible research opportunities, for a person in my situation? How is it generally perceived by Professors? What may be the typical response (if at all there is one)? In general, how do collaborations work?
  • If it is appropriate, would you have any suggestions as to how one might approach them/email them? What should be the email's contents? What should I keep in mind when writing such an email?

Thanks for reading!

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  • That depends on the country where you want to pursue a PhD
    – Neuchâtel
    Jan 27, 2023 at 11:34
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    For what its worth, thats how I got both my undergrad research project, and post-grad research assistantship that turned into my current PhD. Just make sure you've read a paper or two of the professors and tailor your email to them to express genuine interest.
    – xelo747
    Jan 27, 2023 at 11:55
  • Where do you want to pursue a PhD?
    – Neuchâtel
    Jan 27, 2023 at 12:22
  • @Pikachu How so? As in the country? I was not considering applying for a PhD under the supervisor I had in mind in the question. My motivation was just to gain a better understanding of the field. Specifically, I am an Indian, the professor is also Indian, but I do not expect I will be doing my PhD in India, and am more likely to do it somewhere in Europe or US. Jan 27, 2023 at 13:48
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    As in the comment from @xelo747, if you are going to do this, "genuine interest" is the key. I occasionally get prospective student emails expressing admiration for my marvellous research; but since basically my whole job is teaching and my research output is 4 papers in 40 years, this is obvious nonsense.
    – David
    Jan 29, 2023 at 22:26

4 Answers 4

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Given all you say, I'd guess that very few people would respond other than to suggest you apply for a doctoral program. There is no incentive or payback to them for what you are suggesting. They are busy with their own duties and research. They are unlikely to take you on as a "hobby" project.

You seem to be asking them to become your teacher without offering them anything in return.

Cold emailing is unlikely to be fruitful, especially if you ask them to evaluate some long document. While there are no "rules" preventing such emails, they aren't likely to get a positive response other than "You are welcome to apply...."

However, if you want to make contact with someone who you know, from studying their own research interests, might possibly be interested, contact through an intermediary might work. If you have a former professor who thinks a lot of you, they might contact someone known to them recommending you. It is harder to ignore a request from a colleague/peer than it is from an unknown person.

I wonder why you are delaying applying for a doctoral program. The gap wouldn't be helpful for applications in the US, for example, unless your current project results in a publication in a respected journal. And that doesn't happen quickly.


Note that in Europe (some places) it is normal to contact a professor initially as part of the doctoral application process. They might be interested in you, but not necessarily in your project, as they have their own research program. But their help might be contingent on you getting accepted into the doctoral program.

In the US, such contact is rare as most (not all) applications are to a committee of a department, not to an individual.

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This probably varies by discipline, but I have cold emailed professors in North America and in the UK. I always make sure that the email is tailored, specific, and exceedingly polite. Many people won't be able to respond, but sometimes it works out. I can say that every opportunity in my career so far has come out of a cold (or close to cold) email, including my fully funded graduate studies and current postdoc at top UK universities. So, I can personally vouch for this route.

That being said, I would caution against asking for a supervised project, especially at first contact. Most people just won't have the time to take a risk on such an unknown. At first, you can at least ask to have a conversation in email or an online meeting to discuss what aspects of their work interest you. Be sure to prepare your thoughts and read their work to the point that you can structure the conversation somewhat.

I can understand wanting to take some time to develop your understanding and experience if you are considering switching fields, which I have also done. In my case, I was first a Research Assistant-a role that, again, stemmed from a cold email. If you have the chance to visit or contribute to a group locally, that might be a better way to build up your CV before applying? You might be able to sit in during journal club or attend department seminars.

I'm not yet a professor, but as someone who now receives these kinds of requests, I am always interested in enthusiastic and well-researched emails from self-motivated students. This has been, in my anecdotal experience, a better indicator of a successful project than someone who just did the right degree programme on paper. Good luck!

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Unfortunately, we receive too many extremely polite and flattering letters with requests for a postdoc or PhD position from people, who, when it comes to the background check, can hardly qualify for the middle school program. Normally, I ignore everything that is not substantiated either by a reference from somebody I know and respect as a professional, or by some example of previous work done in the area by the applicant. For the rest, the answer is "Read the university application rules and requirements and follow them" if I bother to answer at all.

It never hurts trying, of course, but think beforehand what cards you will be able to put on the table if the response is some polite version of "And who exactly are you that I should get interested?" and, perhaps, even throw some of them in during the initial contact. "I have read a lot of your papers" counts for nothing but "I've read [title] and discovered that [theorem] can be strengthened/proved in a simpler way/..." can raise genuine interest.

Just my two cents :-)

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In my opinion (and in my experience), such e-mails are normal part of collegial relations. Several times, I myself received such e-mails -- and gladly responded to them. It also happened to me that I needed consultation and wrote to experts. You can begin your message like this:

Dear Professor N, I saw your book "..." and your recent paper "...", and I understand that you are an expert in the field of ... A (soon-to-be) PhD student, I would be grateful to you if you could consult me on the following topic: .... Any advise or reference would be most appreciated. Many thanks, ...

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