I'm applying for graduate school (PhD in computer science), and I'm considering writing to faculty whose research areas match with what I intend to pursue, to understand:

  1. Whether they'd be looking for new students at all in the coming year?
  2. If they did, would they be potentially interested in my profile (I know no-one would guarantee an acceptance without me going through the process of application), but it would help to know if they would not be interested at all in me - which would leave me free apply to other schools in which I get a neutral/positive response.

Keeping the above in mind, what would be the best way to introduce myself in the first mail?

  • What should be the salutation - I know "Respected Sir" sounds archaic, but was wondering if "Dear Professor X" sounded too informal or not!
  • Do I state my credentials (details of where I did my undergrads/masters) first, or do I state my purpose in writing to him/her?
  • How to mention my background concisely, without giving too much details, while at the same time not "underselling" myself as a potential grad student?
  • I want to give a link to my resume/profile hosted on my website - should I embed the hyperlink, or is it better to write the link in plain text?
  • How do I end such a letter - the obvious ones (such as "see you soon" or "till we meet again") being not quite suitable in this case)?

I'm basically afraid of saying too much (causing vexation) or too little (resulting in no response to my missive). I understand that the faculty are accustomed to seeing their inbox flooded with such mails each year, few of which ever get a positive response - which may not always be due to lack of an interesting profile, but the manner in which the mail is worded (Many professors have explicitly mentioned on their websites that they would not respond to generic "Do you have funding" type of queries no matter what the credentials of the student are!).

Though my interest is specific to CS, I believe it would apply to other fields as well. Also, I would be interested in the opinions of both present faculty members (who have to sort through such mails), and past applicants to grad-school (who have the experience of successfully writing to their advisers before applying)...

  • 1
    +1 Good question, broadly interesting and useful to many potential students. You've also generated some excellent responses below. – eykanal Feb 19 '12 at 18:06
  • Side comment that might help: in the UK, it might be helpful to contact postdocs / research-fellows who are eager to get students to work on projects, to introduce you to professors who are able to supervise. I had some success this way. Much easier to get the prof's attention if a trusted colleague introduce you. – Legendre Mar 16 '13 at 23:55
up vote 21 down vote accepted

I have a list of things you should do from my seniors (Some might disagree):

  1. Try not to over-sell yourself. There is a fine line between stating facts about yourself and boasting. Stay on the former side.
  2. Try not to mention things and leave them abruptly or incompletely. For e.g., Don't say "I was involved with a project in the University of X where we studied Cancer Treatment." (Thats it). What did you do? Where did it lead? What is the status now? Thats the crux of the information and sadly, that is left out.
  3. Have an interesting question or comment in the mail. Merely stating that you read a paper or attended his talk is not enough. Billions of other students will be stating the same. What made you like it? Why was it relevant to you? Side note: Surprisingly, many professors who I mailed have been interested on how I stumbled on his paper.
  4. Never ask direct questions that the professor wouldn't like answering (At least in the first mail). Asking him about his funding status isn't the best idea in the first mail. This is true for many reasons: For one, most profs wouldn't like telling you such details without you proving you are worth it (Why would they?). Secondly, your intentions are getting obfuscated. Are you really interested in the professor ( & his research) or his money? If his research was interesting but he couldn't fund you for X years, would you still go?
  5. If this wasn't obvious, don't mass mail/mail merge.
  6. Be honest about what you say. This includes no exaggeration.
  7. Make it short. No one likes reading a billion lines to find out who you are.
  8. Emphasize your work and what differentiates you from the rest rather than your grades and scores. Grades and scores (GRE/AGRE) are bonuses (or deal breakers) but they are secondary.
  • 4
    Very nice list of suggestions. Don'ts are often just as important than Dos—if not more so! – aeismail Feb 19 '12 at 15:17
  • 2
    Learn the gender and the correct spelling of the name of your prospective advisor. Not everyone in a male-dominated field is male, not everyone whose first name ends with -a is female. – user781 Jun 4 '12 at 11:46

As an adviser in TCS, I don't want new students, I want to work/advise someone who is in my opinion very promising.

  • First, the email must be concise (not necessarily short, but concise): be respectful, don't ask abruptly if the person needs students. Present shortly yourself: "I am XXXX, currently studying YYY at university ZZZZ"
  • Then, present your work interest, and more, show that you are aware of the work of the person you target: "this year, I educated myself on the problem of finding an algorithm of complexity XXX for solving YYY. During this process, I analysed in details the method for finding a lower bound that you present in paper ZZZ"
  • Ask for a short scientific discussion, you can either ask for clarification on the aforementioned lower bound, or explicitly mention that you have some ideas about the problem, or that you need some guidance on further reading about the problem. Anyway, make sure that you worked hard before coming to the meeting. If you cannot afford the travel (too far, too expansive, etc.), ask kindly if you can ask a few scientific questions in another mail.
  • Once you're known to the person, everything is easier. Then you can ask about your future.

The thing is to make yourself known for something different than job request. For instance, you target TCS, if you are known on TCS.SE, it will be easier to have guidance/advice from TCS researchers that are also on TCS.SE.

Concerning some of the points you mention, don't hesitate to join a resume to your mail or (better) a link your (serious) homepage.

  • 2
    +1 for "The thing is to make yourself known for something different than job request." — This is the same advice I give to incoming PhD students about finding an advisor: Become a colleague first, ask for administrative support second, and ask for money last. – JeffE Feb 20 '12 at 9:49

This is another example where internationalization of programs makes an answer more difficult. If the program in question is in the US, for instance, you should probably never contact the professor directly until after you've been admitted into the program in question. Since admissions decisions are handled centrally, it's just a waste of time.

For foreign professors, however, I believe you should again exercise caution before making contact, and also keep expectations low. For instance, I'm in the role of Assistant/Associate Professor that Charles mentions in his response. However, I will probably not take the time to respond to a request asking for positions in my group unless I think a candidate is an exceptional match, and would be one I would actively consider for the group if I had an available opening. Otherwise, I don't reply, just because it takes too much time.

To address the question of salutation, I would absolutely use "Dear Professor X," or some other salutation that includes the name of the person you're addressing. Otherwise, it doesn't look like you're doing other than sending out an email blast to a bunch of email addresses—another move which almost guarantees that your email is going to be consigned to the "ignore" pile.

  • 3
    +1 for the low expectation. We receive a lot of such requests, so it is not possible to handle all of them. – Sylvain Peyronnet Feb 19 '12 at 15:31
  • 1
    While this may be the case, students should be careful not to generalize to other fields. In many departments, contacting the professor in advance is almost essential. Admissions decisions in many disciplines are heavily driven by individual faculty indicating interest in specific students. For better or for worse it is your job, as an applicant, to generate that interest. – Corvus Sep 17 '15 at 16:20

My personal experience relies more on postdoc application rather than PhD application, but here my answers to your questions:

  1. Salutations: I think that "Dear Professor X" is the usual salutation, although if the person is using a different title on their website, it's better to use this one.

  2. I'd start with the purpose of writing, and more particularly, with a "personal" context, in order to clarify that it's not some kind of generic email. For instance: "Dear Professor X., I have read with much interest your papers Y and Z, (or I attended your invited talk at this conference, etc), and I would be very interested in applying for PhD under your supervision. Indeed, I believe that the idea you have developed is ... (very good) and intersects strongly with my own research interests." At this point, you can start putting your credentials, and to emphasize on the points that are the most relevant.

  3. In order to be concise, I would insist on the points that make you potentially different from other applicants. For instance, if you have a regular MSc in CS (i.e. not from a top Ivy Uni), then just mention it, because it won't be the "selling point", since pretty much any other applicants for a PhD got something equivalent.

  4. For your CV, if it's light enough (i.e. less than 1MB), I would actually include it in the mail. And I would also put the link in plain text (because personally, I like to know what kind of link I'm clicking on :)).

  5. I usually finish my emails with something along the lines "I'm at your disposal for any further information you might need. Best regards".

Also, as a general advice, I would contact the Asst./Assoc. Professors rather than directly the Professor in charge, at least for an informal query.

  • 2
    Charles: The correc abbreviations for assistant and associate are Asst. and Assoc., respectively. We frown on the use of the choice you've listed for rather obvious reasons. – aeismail Feb 19 '12 at 14:25
  • @aeismail Fixed, thanks for pointing it out :) – user102 Feb 19 '12 at 14:29

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