I am currently preparing for my graduate school application. There is one professor whose research interest in general matches mine. He has listed several potential research projects for prospective postgraduate students and I am particularly very interested in one of them, say Project A. Since Project A's scale is very broad, I planned to read some of his related publications to get familiar with the topic before I contact him via email.

The problem is I can't find any article written by him about Project A on his website or through Google. He did list some selected publications but they all seem to relate to other projects, which are different from Project A. In my view, those projects are more theoretical and related with asymptotic analysis while Project A is related with probability and stochastic modeling. I have not opened all articles to confirm my statement.

Do I overlook anything? Is it possible that a professor lists a project that he has published any related works in the past 3 years? Do it mean the professor don't want to intake students with Project A recently?

I don't want to send a email to the professor and ask for references because I think it's not polite. Currently I am searching the title of Project A and reading related publications by other professors. I have also browsed one of his papers , which is related to another project. What shall I do next? Is it proper to send an email to his current student and ask for reference?

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    I don't want to send a email to the professor and ask for references because I think it's not polite. — It isn't? Says who?
    – JeffE
    Commented Jul 18, 2014 at 18:36
  • 1
    Why to send an email to his student? Send email to that professor and ask him references for his papers.
    – enthu
    Commented Jul 19, 2014 at 8:06

2 Answers 2


With the current amount of information in your question it's going to be hard to state anything with certainty. But I think your issue may come in a difference between your understanding of the statement 'potential research projects for prospective postgraduate students' and the professor's intention behind that statement.

This is given with the caveat that I can only speak for my experiences and the experiences of those I know in similar fields. Nothing said here should be construed as fact or as the only option.

Many professors have a lot of research interests. Typically when you read something like 'potential research projects for prospective postgraduate students' that means that this is a research field the professor is interested in pursuing. Obvious right? What's not obvious is that this does not mean that the professor/lab/researcher has begun research in this area.

To take a directly related personal anecdote (with some details changed to protect the wicked)...

One of the professors in a lab I know has done a lot of research in the field of markov random fields and motion planning. This includes medical research using markov random fields, computer vision work using random forests, motion planning comparisons... etc. Hopefully you get the point; this professor has tons of work in the field of Artificial Intelligence with a pretty heavy bent towards robotics.

This professor also has a grant to explore human robotic interaction specifically with regards to direct or hybrid human control over robots. This is not directly related to any of the professor's previous work(though other work may have brushed up against this area). Additionally none of the professor's current students are interested in this area of research(already being involved in their own projects in other research areas.) The professor is now looking for students to do research in this area.

In this way you can have a professor/PI/researcher/lab that is looking for a researcher for a project that that particular individual or group has not yet published in.

So to be a bit more specific about your question. Is this particular research area a deal breaker for you? What I mean is - all other things being awesome, if you cannot do this research in this lab would you turn down a spot in the program? The reason this is important is that it could change how you interact with this professor.

I think the thing you should be most aware of coming into this situation is that sometimes research doesn't work out. This is especially true when a lab is entering completely new territory(an area of research it has never been involved with before). If this particular area of research is a dealbreaker for you(it is the only research in that particular lab that you are willing to work on) then you should be cautious jumping in. If somethings comes up and that research is, for whatever reason, not continued you need to ensure that you have other options or you will find it very difficult to finish your postgraduate degree.

Finally, it is not rude or inappropriate to contact a professor asking for more information about one of their projects or interests. What is rude is not doing your homework before hand. It's the difference between "I think cats are neat, tell me all about cats" and "I've done reading into cat psychology and I think your project on why cats put their butts in your face is very interesting. I've read but I was hoping to get more information from you about it." Professors(most professionals and experts) are busy people and no one wants to feel like you haven't done your homework. If you approach such communication with professionalism and courtesy then asking questions is almost never a problem.

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    I think your last point is important. It isn't impolite to ask questions of prospective advisors, but if you are potentially going to apply to work with this person you want to make the best possible impression.
    – Tim
    Commented Jul 18, 2014 at 22:44
  • Thanks for your help. I have heard that professors are very busy, so they seldom answer emails which require a long answer, especially for an unknown student like me. As you said, asking questions won't be a problem, but will it be welcomed? Obviously, sharing information with me will take the professor some time to type it or search relevant references. If I formulate my email as you suggested, is it likely that I can get a response?
    – John
    Commented Jul 19, 2014 at 5:22
  • Whether or not you get a response really depends on the professor. At the end of the day professors are just people - some are great at communication and some are not. A well crafted, personalized email is fairly likely to be answered - make sure you make the question obvious(maybe put it in your first sentence) and clarify in the rest of the communication. Additionally take care when writing the subject for your email - something like 'Questions about becoming a perspective student' is more likely to be successful then something that sounds complicated or spammy.
    – Nahkki
    Commented Jul 21, 2014 at 12:20
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    Ultimately, sometimes you just need to take that leap. The grad and PhD students who were most successful in my experience were the ones who recognized that if they didn't risk anything they would never gain anything. Worrying too much about an email being welcome or whether you will get an answer or not isn't really going to help you. What's your worst case scenario? Is it really any worse then where you are right now?
    – Nahkki
    Commented Jul 21, 2014 at 12:22

It is completely reasonable and polite to send an email to the professor, saying that you are planning to apply to his department, you were interested by the discussion of Project A on his web page, and asking if he can tell you more about it and/or suggest further reading.

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