I want to know about appropriate actions to take when not receiving an e-mail reply from professors after 2 to 3 weeks of sending an e-mail.

When writing my e-mails, I try to highlight questions and important points leaving other details in normal style to make the reader quickly understand what am I asking for. Additionally, I start the e-mail with Dear Professor , I conclude with a respectful salutation form and I proof read the text of the e-mails multiple times. I am sending e-mails to professors asking them for a graduation project proposal.

E-mails are sent to professors responsible for European or North American funded research projects. Professors to whom I sent e-mails are from various institutions and countries (USA, Canada, Switzerland). The same problem is faced in previous occasions when I needed to send e-mails for various purposes but I don't receive replies except for one or two times. I tried twice sending reminders after a reasonable time (one to two weeks) of sending the first e-mail but no response is received!

N.B: if it's helpful to mention, my field is not covered by any research lab and not taught in any university in my country. And this is what makes the problem more complicated!

  • 10
    I have a hard time understanding this question. You are sending profs. in different countries requests for graduation projects? What answer are you hoping for? – xLeitix Oct 8 '14 at 18:50
  • 28
    @ML_TN It is very ambitious to hope that profs. that you do not even know personally will offer you to work with them based on a cold email. The fact that they do not answer should presumably be interpreted as "not interested". – xLeitix Oct 8 '14 at 19:17
  • 25
    @ML_TN It is not the mail or the form that is a problem - it is simply that professors can't take up every student that "shares some interests with them", even if the student is not even enrolled in their university. Professors only have a finite amount of time. – xLeitix Oct 8 '14 at 19:29
  • 5
    You formulate a question about email contact with professors. But from the comments, it seems you actually want to know how to get involved in a research field that is not present in your country. Maybe you'll get more helpful answers by explicitly asking that question. – silvado Oct 9 '14 at 7:18
  • 6
    Not enough for a full answer, but as a professor, I can tell you that these letters are essentially spam to me. You're trying to cold-sell me something, just like the spam emails, and there are a lot of you. I have no idea what a graduation project proposal is. I can guess, but it sounds like something that involves a lot of work for me. If you want to know about something, I'll be more than happy to answer. One thing I can tell you doesn't get answers is someone in a different field clearly just fishing for assistanceship money. – Fadecomic Oct 10 '14 at 16:37

Professors directly teaching might have some obligation to answer your email (some university have quality of service policies, ensuring that students receive feedback within a given number of working days), if it's related to their teaching.

Professors from partner universities might fall under the same obligations, if there is a mutual agreement. However, professors from other university have no obligation whatsoever to answer you.

Professors are usually very busy, among other things dealing with their own students, they might not have the time to deal with other students. If you are asking about a proposal and you do not receive an answer, you should assume by default that they are not interested. There is no much you can do, apart from contacting other professors, or asking your own professors to contact them.

  • 22
    @ML_TN sending a reminder would be inappropriate - treat a non-response as the (reasonably expected) negative response. If they would be interested, then they would have replied, and a vast majority wouldn't be interested and should not be expected to waste time in replying to unsolicited requrests from unknown people, i.e.., spam. – Peteris Oct 8 '14 at 19:10
  • 4
    @ML_TN: I agree with Peteris. If the research field is not available in your country, it should be the responsibility of your university, not you, to set up international collaborations and dedicated communication channels. Sending a reminder is likely to be useless. – user102 Oct 8 '14 at 19:16
  • 4
    I know it's not the question you're asking, but have you considered doing a topic that is covered by staff at your university? or even changing university? Not only doing a remote supervision is not particularly easy, it might also be a problem for you to get properly assessed for your degree, if nobody there understands what you've been working on. – user102 Oct 8 '14 at 20:13
  • 2
    @horsehair: If the number of emails you receive is less or equal than the number of people walking up to you and beginning talking, you're lucky! – user102 Oct 9 '14 at 15:27
  • 3
    @horsehair: I am not a professor - but I regularly receive e-mails that start with something like "Dear Professor <my name>". After that, the people often write they have chosen me specifically (when I ask my colleagues, it almost always turns out they wrote the same text to them), listing a set of keywords that roughly match the topics my whole department is centered around, and then either ask for some assistance or ideas for some student project, as if I were their teaching personnel, or ask for a job "in [my] team", as if I were in a position to hire people. That is very much like spam. – O. R. Mapper Oct 9 '14 at 18:59

I get emails like this all the time and never reply. I can't imagine that anyone would give you a positive response, and I don't think there is anything you can do that will result in you getting what you want.

I think that my policies for responding to email are pretty typical. Aside from "professional business stuff" (e.g. invitations to speak, referee requests, inquiries from the media, etc), I generally only respond to emails from strangers in the following situations.

  1. Technical questions about my papers (or related things, e.g. my answers on math overflow). These always get a response, though sometimes I can take a little while if I'm particularly busy (e.g. when traveling).
  2. Mathematical questions. I'll always answer these if they are close to my research interests and are at a high level, and otherwise it depends on my mood. The speed is similar to questions of type 1.
  3. Questions from students at Rice. These always get some kind of response, usually very quickly (sometimes that response is a request that they come to my office and chat). I'll also usually respond to questions from students who have some kind of indirect connection with me (e.g. I'll respond to questions from students of my collaborators).
  4. Inquiries about our graduate program. For specific question, I'll usually quickly respond. For things that seem more like requests to work with me, if they sound serious then they get a very short reply with a link to the webpage saying how to apply to our PhD program (and a sentence about how I don't take students until they have been accepted and passed their quals). Sometimes they sound ridiculous (e.g. someone who has an engineering background and is clearly emailing everyone they can find on the internet), and they get no response.

Other than that, I just don't have the time. I have enormous amounts of stuff that I have to do that is directly related to teaching (at Rice; I'm not paid to teach anyone else) and research. I'm sorry that you can't get help from your own university, but sadly there just isn't anything that I can do about that.

  • 21
    @ML_TN : I don't think there is anything you can do (the only thing I can think of is applying to graduate schools abroad in the usual manner). You are asking people to do a large amount of unpaid work to help you. It just isn't going to happen. And it isn't being from North Africa -- you would get a similar response to unsolicited requests like this no matter where you lived. – Andy Putman Oct 8 '14 at 22:58
  • 19
    @ML_TN You are truly missing the point. What you are asking for is never going to happen. You are not a student attending the school where these people teach. You are not a student of a colleague. You are a complete stranger with no apparent credentials. It will never happen. As I see it you have three choices to get noticed: 1) Go invent something/write a paper in bioinformatics that gets everyone's attention, 2) change schools where there is a good program (and that only slightly increases your chances as there is a lot of competition), or 3) pay someone a lot up front to help you. – par Oct 8 '14 at 23:25
  • 6
    (and if they have something asking students to contact them for positions, almost certainly they mean students at their own universities; if you want to work with someone, apply to go to graduate school at their university) – Andy Putman Oct 8 '14 at 23:28
  • 2
    I work(ed) and live with a number of academics (aka my family and friends) and agree with the above with one caveat; it is possible (but not easy at all) to get responses to requests from professors whom you do not already work with by "networking" with them at conferences and impressing them in that situation. This method is hard work, costs a great deal in conference fees, and has a very low success rate. @AndyPutman has given you by far the best advice (+1) – MD-Tech Oct 9 '14 at 13:18
  • 8
    What do you suggest as a solution to overcome Professors' rejection of such e-mails? — I suggest a stiff drink, a walk on the beach, and an adjustment of your expectations. – JeffE Oct 9 '14 at 14:08

It sounds like you are e-mailing strangers and asking them to tell you what to do. This seems almost certain to fail.

Also, I don't know what a "graduation project proposal" is -- keep in mind that these professors don't know and don't care what the requirements of your university are. They might be willing to help you with their scientific expertise, but you should not ask them for help with anything that doesn't directly relate to what their expertise is in, or where it's not clear what exactly you are asking for.

Here is an e-mail that might get a reply.

Dear Prof. X,

I am a student at University Y where I am interested in bioinformatics. I have to complete a senior research project [... brief details]

One topic I was considering was XYZ. In particular, I was thinking I might try to investigate the effect of ABC on DEF under conditions GHI. [Note: do your own homework here, this should be something intelligent and then they might be willing to provide helpful input] I hope I can ask you two questions: In the first place, do you believe that such an approach is feasible?

If so, since University Y doesn't have much in the way of resources, do you know where I might seek guidance as I work on this?

Thank you very much.

  • Thank you for the proposed draft. The template of sent emails are generally as follows: - Saying a word about my current studies - Asking for an opportunity to participate in a specific project (that I give the exact name) in which the professor is involved in - Asking for a proposal in the field (as a graduation project proposal) that he is specialized in - Talking in a small paragraph that I have done previous work in the field without available resources (lack of funding and supervision) - a sentence about the attached C.V It's almost the same template that you are suggesting – ML_TN Oct 8 '14 at 21:19
  • 18
    @ML_TN No no no. Not only it's not the same template Anonymous is suggesting; it's very far from it. It's not even remotely close. Detach yourself from your current ideas about what to do, and then reread the comments and answers here. – Adi Oct 9 '14 at 8:17

Too long for comments: both the earlier answers are very apt.

The original poster's comment to the later answer reveals a misapprehension about how things work, and the relative work-load to accomplish certain things.

First, cold-calling is a bad start on anything... unless it is extremely polite, is clearly completely specific to the individual addressed E.g., I respond badly, or, simply, not at all to emails with no "greeting" whatsoever, or do not address me (politely) by name, and/or that give no indication of anything specific to me or my actual work, etc. My reasoning is that I should spend no more effort on a response than is visible in the initial email... especially if I'm being asked to do someone a favor.

Second, asking to participate in a project whose existence is unknown makes the inquiry sound very spam-y, so will invariably get a bad reaction. Already it'd be an uphill battle to get a spot on a project whose existence was known and relevant... since most likely there are more people wanting such spots than there are spots available. Again, you should "do your homework" about existing projects, and their specifics.

Third, asking for a "proposal" is asking for quite a lot, in fact. That is, a coherent, viable, state-of-the-art proposal is something that takes quite a while to craft, and has considerable value of various sorts. In many subjects, the writing-up of such is a major activity. Such things would not be donated to anyone, much less cold-callers, much less cold-callers who send "reminders".

... and this isn't "ungenerousness", it's that many academic research situations are very competitive, especially for funding, and people work full-bore to get that funding, ... leaving not a lot of energy left over to donate to unknown people.

Even if you're cold-calling, giving no or scant information about yourself (except that you're looking for participation in a project in subject X) gives the responder little ground to respond reasonably... and I, for one, am disinclined to go through several emails to extract information that should have been available up-front, etc.

In summary, there simply isn't any powerful way for you to induce responses of the sort that'd directly help you in the way you wish, understandable though your wishes are, and as unfortunate as your local situation may be. Some different path will most likely have to be taken.

  • Is starting an e-mail with Dear Professor <name of the professor> considered as a "cold-calling" ? Second, the projects I've asked to join are existing and they are regrouping many participants of the same or different universities ! Well, I start the e-mail with presenting my self and I speak later about my work in few words and I attach a CV to the e-mail: isn't that enough as pieces of information ? – ML_TN Oct 8 '14 at 21:31
  • 3
    It's better than spam to write "Dear Professor <name>", but still "cold-calling", in that you have no prior acquaintance, and you are asking for something. Attaching a CV is appropriate. Good that you check projects exist and are relevant. Still, people do get many such requests, and many take the view that an inquiry cannot/does not create the burden of response. I myself try to give a brief "thanks for your interest, but sorry, ...", but, mercifully, I don't have to spend too much time doing this each day. Others may feel more pressured, or feel that a brief turn-down won't help anything. – paul garrett Oct 8 '14 at 21:42
  • So what to do if sending reminders is not recommended ? The topic (Bioinformatics) I want to work on is attracting attention of researchers in my country but they are no institutions to recommend or encourage people willing to get in touch and work with prominent researchers abroad. – ML_TN Oct 8 '14 at 21:48
  • 5
    For the researchers abroad to take inquiries seriously, it would invariably work better (even if not easily accomplishing all desired goals) to have institutions (such as your university) do the inquiring in some quasi-official way. This might not necessarily help you yourself, individually or immediately, but would surely help you and your peer group collectively, and in the long run. – paul garrett Oct 8 '14 at 21:52

I agree with other respondents that you cannot expect unknown professors to respond to your emails.

Could you join an online community (email list) for your area of research interest? After lurking long enough to understand its culture, could you send a post explaining your situation (being interested in the topic and having nobody to discuss it with in your country) and ask if someone would be willing to comment on your proposal? Alternately, you could send your proposal to the list (although be prepared for it to be torn to shreds). The administrator of the list may be able to advise you on what is appropriate.

Good luck!

As the other answers already tell you, asking for a project proposal is asking for a very big favor, such that cold calling isn't likely to work.

The following piece of information is missing from the discussion as of now, however: many established researchers receive many cold-call requests for doing an internship with them. It is common practice in some countries to have them included in the students' curricula, and thus, it is not uncommon for students to aim high and try to get one at good schools abroad. Quite often, these mails are not very well targeted and researchers getting many of them are quite quick at pressing the "delete" key here.

Your request for a thesis topic/proposal may very easily be seen to fall into this category, even if it does not! Because such a request is so uncommon, people may expect that you would be asking for a (possibly paid) internship or (paid) PhD position in the second mail, and thus may not want to risk to be embarrased that they invested time on the matter if it turns out later that their suspicion was correct. So hitting the delete button quickly is a safe course of action for them.

I second the commenter's suggestion to ask your institution to build the necessary bridges for you. Does your institution already have a scheme for spending a semester abroad? Perhaps you can consider actually doing that?

One additional factor which I think may be useful at least as secondary background information: This sounds a lot like you are trying to bypass the regular admission process. You should start by finding out what it takes to become a student at their Department and follow the same enrollment process as everybody else. If your background and skills are a good fit, you could find yourself in a project even as a junior student (but this is arguably a very optimistic outlook).

I try to be responsive as much as possible, even if I cannot help. However, if I see that the person clearly has no idea what I am working on, tags on some keywords that seem to fit my profile or similar, and I am under time pressure, I won't respond. They haven't spent the effort finding out who they are addressing, and cannot expect effort of politeness in return.

Sometimes, I get what is effectively advice request from students from another university. If they work on something I am interested in, have done good work and bring something to the table, I consider this a collaboration across institutions, and I am happy to engage in it to some extent. However, if it is clearly a supervision request with no benefit to research that I am able to productively carry out, I am not prepared to invest my department's resources (i.e. my time) for this. Supervising my local students, for which I am paid, takes precedence.

I do give, however, brief advice where I can help with a little effort. This should not be extended into a back-and-forth discussion, to not abuse the time of the responder.

Your Answer

By clicking "Post Your Answer", you acknowledge that you have read our updated terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy, and that your continued use of the website is subject to these policies.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.