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I am a prospective grad student and have been looking into potential labs that overlap with my area of interest. There is this one professor whose work sort of interests me and overlaps with my background. But, since I am straight out of undergrad, it is a bit difficult for me to understand everything in their publications and the research direction in their lab.

I am from a STEM background, and I was wondering if it is a good idea to email them enquiring about their research work and wanting to know more about the kind of work they are doing/interested in. They are a distinguished professor in their field, so I am a bit apprehensive.

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Most professors would appreciate the inquiry if you have interest in their field. If you don't hear back in about a week, don't be afraid to politely follow up. Most professors get 50-100 emails a day so a response time of at least a few days is normal.

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You cannot lose anyting by sending an enquiry. Researchers are generally flattered when somebody, irrespective of career stage or scientific background, shows an interest in their work.

Given your interest in the professors work, I suggest you write a succinct(!) email in which you briefly outline how your interests overlap with theirs. Keep it fairly general but drop one or two comments about specific aspects of their research that demonstrate that this is not a mass cold-email sent to many different labs at once. Also be clear about what you are looking for (you are not really clear in your question - you used the graduate-school tag in your question, so I assume you are looking for a PhD position).

While this will give you a good chance to raise the professor's interest in you, their response will depend on other factors too. To name just a few:

  • their capacity to take on new PhD students,
  • their ability to offer you any funding,
  • university regulations on how the recruitment process of PhD students works.
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  • I do plan to do a PhD eventually, but for now, I am vying for a Master's....for which it's generally advised against emailing faculties, but if given the chance, I would like to work remotely too. Commented Sep 22, 2023 at 11:04
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    I would argue that it’s NOT generally advised against emailing faculty about Master’s projects, but this may be country or institution dependent. Commented Sep 22, 2023 at 19:25
  • Understood, it's mainly in the US institutions, and I am technically a prospective international student. Commented Oct 13, 2023 at 7:16
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It's fine. But you should not ask what they are doing. You are able to get this by their research portfolio, recent papers. Just check that, if you like the topic, you can ask about the opportunities to get a position within a team, and PhD advising.

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  • Okay, thanks a lot for this. Commented Sep 22, 2023 at 11:02
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Professors are humans: they are flattened when someone shows interest in their work.

Additionally, they know that being professors they have a strong magnet for some subsection of the humanity: they know that young humans (<35 y.o.) write them with the general goal of working with them, middle age humans (>35 y.o., <65 y.o.) are either cranks, lawyers or sales representatives, older humans (>65 y.o) are either profesisonal cranks or passionate amateurs (amateur == positive trait).

Do your homework, show interest in the topic, be open and not eccessively formal (depending on your and on the professor cultural area this may vary) and do not be afraid of showing you do not fully manage the fine details behind their work ... keep in mind that ideally you would like to work and learn with them.

If you knew everything they need they would have been looking for you in first place.

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  • "Flatten" as in "knocked down?" Commented Oct 4, 2023 at 19:29
  • @MoisheKohan as I am too idiot to write proper english flattered ... you may think of a Freudian slip and my consideration of the average VIP (very important Professor that instillate in student this formal respect based often on ... nothing) ;) !
    – EarlGrey
    Commented Oct 5, 2023 at 7:11

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