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Here's the general situation. I'm a prospective PhD student and there's this professor (say, professor X), that is very well established, is from a great institution, and works on a topic which is very appealing to me. I've sent an email a few weeks back, but I got no response.

I feel like this is natural, since this professor probably gets a lot of emails, and I'm an unknown student from another country - I don't even know if the email got through the spam filter...

I'll probably send another email (instead of a reply to the original one) in a few days, if I still don't get a reply by then. That said, already considering the possibility that there's no reply from that one, I'm left wondering:

Is it inappropriate to call a professor's office number (as displayed in their webpage and in the webpage of the department) in order to establish a first communication?

On the one hand, I feel it may be seen as a bit pushy or unprofessional, as is noted in one of the comments of this post. On the other hand, I feel it may be seen as showing persistence and determination, and I don't really have the option of going in person and knocking on the professor's door to discuss in person, as some of the locals could do.

In short, would this be something that is basically sure to black-list me, or could it actually yield a positive outcome?

Thanks in advance!

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    Make sure you know all information for prospective PhD students given on the professor's department's website and the professor's website if existing. This may explicitly encourage or discourage you from contacting the professor. Oct 15, 2023 at 12:45
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    What do you want to tell or ask the professor? If it's just information that they can clearly also get out of your CV when you officially apply, it's a waste of time. Oct 15, 2023 at 13:06
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    @ChristianHennig, according to the department page, it is pivotal for a prospective student to contact a potential advisor before applying. They do accept applications without a specified advisor, but also say it isn't generally well received...
    – Gauss
    Oct 15, 2023 at 13:10
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    @user438383, not really. I read the post and the responses, and there was one brief comment about what I wanted to know, which is why I decided to create a proper post to elaborate on it.
    – Gauss
    Oct 15, 2023 at 13:11

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I strongly recommend against using the phone for such things. First, your call will probably interrupt something. That won't please the person. Second, they have to get some information from you, requiring time that they may not have to give at that moment. And, they aren't going to make any decision or even wade through a long list of emails to find the ones you sent. It just seems negative all around.

If I were the recipient, my only response would be that you follow ordinary procedures, whatever they are and you will learn something eventually. Good Bye.

One reason you may not get a follow up is that the professor decided early on that there was nothing to be gained by responding. I used to get (retired now) lots of emails from people who obviously knew nothing about me or what I did. I didn't respond to those as they just felt like "bulk" emails.

If they are busy then they will take a while to respond and may set aside time every week or so follow up on promising requests. But, again, interrupting important (to them) work isn't something they happily do. Likewise if they have no open positions, they have little incentive to respond.

If you think there is a reason that you aren't getting a reply, you could email the department and ask them if the professor is available and accepting students. And for some places (like the US) most applications are made to the department, not individuals, and so it is fruitless to ask.

Finally, use the phone only for calling people that you already know and for things that can't be dealt with in other ways.

One way to get a response from a "well established" professor is to do it indirectly through one of your own professors. An email from a colleague, recommending you, will probably be answered. It can ask how you can best connect with them. Ask one of your professors if they would be willing to do this on your behalf.

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  • What I dislike about not getting a response at all is that I don't know if, as you said, the professor doesn't want me as a student, or if the email was just not received/read. I did email the department, stating I tried email and got no response, and all they did was suggest I try again. As for asking a professor to do it for me, I have to ask: does this professor have to know/work in the same area as my prospective advisor? I ask because I'm slightly changing fields, so this prospective advisor probably won't know anyone at my university...
    – Gauss
    Oct 15, 2023 at 13:08
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    This is of course a nice answer from the professor's point of view, however using a public phone number is not a crime. From the candidate's point of view, if they believe they can show that they connect really well to the professor's work, the expected gain, even if very close to zero, may still be positive. To all professors who don't want to be called: Sacrifice the two minutes to respond to such emails. People who are thoroughly interested in your work deserve it! Oct 15, 2023 at 13:09
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From comments: "according to the department page, it is pivotal for a prospective student to contact a potential advisor before applying."

In that case I'd call. It's not a crime to use a public phone number, and this information on the website is a good enough reason to do it, even though other professors here may hate me for saying that. ;-) Forget about "demonstrating determination/persistence" in this way though.

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    If the professor has a secretary then that could be a reasonable compromise. Calling professors directly is indeed not a crime, but there is a very large chance that it will actually reduce your chances. Oct 15, 2023 at 17:32
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    @MaartenBuis "there is a very large chance that it will actually reduce your chances" - I doubt this. What's your evidence? Is any evidence you have from places where prospective PhD students are explicitly encouraged on the website to contact prospective supervisors? Honestly, I may not be happy if somebody calls me at the wrong time, but this is easily forgotten, and for sure I wouldn't (and nobody should) use this as a reason to not take on an otherwise good candidate! Oct 15, 2023 at 17:35
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    I second this answer. A professor who prefers not to be contacted should not make the phone number publicly available, or should at least make sure the call is redirected to a secretary or similar. I would add that it is important to be well prepared in case the professor wants to test the applicant a little. Oct 16, 2023 at 17:57
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I'm a professor at a top uni in the US and I get over a hundred of these emails this time of the year. About 2/3 are clearly from people who didn't take the time to understand what I work on. Those I delete. Among the others, I only reply to those (< 15) students who have research experience that is an excellent fit to my group and perfect or near-perfect GPA. Are you among those people for this prof?

If the answer is yes and they are still not replying, then it could mean that they are thinking about sabbatical, retirement, have no funding, or not on top of their stuff. If it's the latter three, maybe you should not work with them. If they have a big group and are thinking about sabbatical, it might be worth finding out. Giving them a call is neither good nor bad.

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