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In his answer of Details an applicant should include/exclude in an introductory letter to a prospective grad school adviser?, aeismail says

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.

Now I'm surprised with this, and I think I'm not the only one. For many times, not only in this site, but also in real-life examples in my university, I have seen that my friends get accepted through contacting professors beforehand, and those professors are helpful and willing to get you through the adcom. Recall it back, they don't go to US, but I don't think US should be an exception.

Why is it an exception? Why do the "admissions decisions are handled centrally", unlike other universities in the world, where the weight of the professors is heavier? Isn't that sorting the applications by score not good as checking their ability directly through interview? And who is the most suitable interviewer, if not the one who will advise you in the future?

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    I am very surprised to hear this. When I was looking at graduate programs in ecology, all of them at least recommended contacting professors beforehand, and several of them required you have a potential advisor before you could be admitted. Also, several of the programs either told me, or listed on their website, that the choice of who was admitted was made by the department, not centrally. – Karen Sep 17 '15 at 15:28
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    This is extraordinarily field-dependent, and for questions like this keep in mind the population of this site is in no way an unbiased sample of academic fields. – user4512 Sep 17 '15 at 23:24
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Let me answer this question from the perspective of our school. If a school does things differently the answer you're quoting might be very appropriate, but not in our case.

Our admission decisions are made by our department, and essentially everyone is on the admissions committee - we share the load of evaluating applications. So, there could be great benefit of talking to a professor ahead of time. If one faculty member strongly desires a particular candidate, that student will generally get admitted, assuming they meet our qualifications. (Note that, as a small school, we have enough capacity to take more students than we do because we don't get tons of qualified applications. Also, we almost always have TA funding available for qualified students. But this really varies from one university to another.)

So, this establishes that, at some schools, talking to potential advisors ahead of time can be very valuable. The interest of working with a particular advisor can also (and should) go into the personal statement. I read so many personal statements that you can tell are completely generic, with different school names copy and pasted in. So, when someone says something specific about my research area, I take notice, and I think other faculty do too.

The real issue is that I get so many requests from random students to look at their CV. Many of them have very little connection to my work and are probably mass-emailing professors. This should be avoided.

@Anonymous' answer has the right idea here. A few months ago a student contacted me with a list of publications and a precise statement of interest about my work. We exchanged a few e-mails and I looked at his work. Another student tracked me down after a talk at a conference and talked to me in more detail about the work. These were both appropriate ways to contact me that may benefit the students in the future.

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    My (large CS) department is the same. – JeffE Sep 17 '15 at 23:47
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It is sometimes good to talk to professors if you have something specific and credible to say. If you've written research papers related to individual professors' research interests, by all means write and share them. If your undergraduate advisor thinks you should write your Ph.D. under Professor X, then it's usually a good idea for them to contact Professor X.

It's also usually fine to write a brief message to individual faculty members expressing your interest in the program and the hopes that you will be admitted, provided you do not ask them for any serious commitment. As a professor, I am happy to briefly write back to applicants and wish them well.

What I am not willing to do is promise them help with the application process when I don't know how strong their record is. I trust our admissions committee; if an interested student should clearly be admitted, then generally they will be.

  • So isn't it best for the student to try to contact professors to prove their abilities? Is there any backfire on that? – Ooker Sep 17 '15 at 14:19
  • @ooker: No, seems you didn't read the answer. It may be valuable to contact the professor to share research interests and determine whether the match is good, which may well help make the decision if admitted to multiple schools... but "prove their abilities" has nothing to do with it because the student has to prove himself to the admissions panel before they have to prove it to the advisor. A side effect of the discussion with the professor may be that the student's application becomes stronger, by focusing on the right background, but this is still oriented toward the panel. – Ben Voigt Sep 17 '15 at 15:07
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    @Ooker: I would say that it is usually a mistake to contact professors to try and prove your abilities, because the application process does a much better job of that. Conversely, if you're not trying to prove your abilities or obtain commitments -- for example, if you are asking detailed questions about the professor's research, or questions about the research group beyond what you can discover on the Internet -- then it is often a good idea to write. If you do write, the more tailored your message is to the professor and his/her department, the better. – Anonymous Sep 17 '15 at 23:31
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    @Ooker: My CS department gets 2000 graduate applications per year; we admit about 150 students from that pool; and each individual faculty member takes on 0–3 new students per year. Contacting someone directly is only useful if you can give them an excuse to prefer you over 1998 other applicants, most of whom are smart, driven, passionate, and accomplished students that we can't admit. It's not a question of showing off your abilities, but a question of establishing a specific match of research experience and interests. – JeffE Sep 18 '15 at 0:01
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    @JeffE I think your boldfaced sentence is a little misleading. Assuming they're just as smart, driven, passionate and accomplished as those other 1998 applicants, somebody saying "I want to work on [the stuff you do]" is an excuse for you to prefer them to at least 1900 of the 1998 rivals. – David Richerby Sep 18 '15 at 8:07
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The answer quoted in your question may be specific to computer science. I cannot speak for that field. In the US in other fields, however -- particularly lab-based sciences -- contacting your potential advisor in advance is nearly essential. Admissions decisions are strongly influenced by the individual faculty who will be advising the admitted students, and if no faculty member advocates for an applicant that applicant almost certainly will not be admitted to the program.

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    Interesting. In some fields (e.g. mathematics), the student does not even pick a dissertation advisor until a couple of years into the program, so there's no expectation that they have someone lined up when applying for admission. – Nate Eldredge Sep 17 '15 at 16:35
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    The answer quoted in your question may be specific to computer science — It's not even universally true for computer science. – JeffE Sep 17 '15 at 23:43
  • @JeffE Indeed, in some universities, student applications typically get some preliminary screening by professors looking for students interested in their research areas. – Joshua Taylor Sep 18 '15 at 13:17
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The advice you quote does not apply to all programs. My experience is in regards to PhD psychology programs, particularly in the clinical or developmental area. In the programs I have been familiar with, while the decision is at least nominally at the area level, generally "spots" have been allocated to specific professors (the department or area has allocated them funding to take a new grad student), or they have extramural (or other) funding to take on a grad student--so every year, there are specific labs/professors who are taking on student(s). Thus while the area/department as a whole participates in the decision, the professor who is taking on student(s) is probably going to be the most important voice in the decision.

If you submit your application without making contact with the professor to ensure that 1) they are taking students and 2) think your interests/background could potentially be a match, some professors may take it as a sign that you have not adequately done your homework. Conversely, making contact before submitting your application (at least in the programs I'm familiar with) can show your potential advisor that you are prepared, thoughtful, and proactive--provided that how you reach out is appropriate.

Please attend to Nathan S.'s advice--don't spam-contact a bunch of faculty. Do your research and make it clear in your contact WHY you hope to work with that individual specifically (e.g. they specialize in the use of a particular research method or technology you would like to learn; they focus on X topic, etc.). Definitely read some of their work before making contact, and write an email that is concise, respectful, and specific.

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There are at least two reasons to contact a professor prior to admission. The first reason is to try to increase your chances of being admitted. (This seems to be what the quote in the question is talking about.) This may or may not be a "waste of time" depending on the admissions process in that particular department in that particular school and with that particular professor, so it's very hard to make a blanket statement. However, if you are going contact a professor like this, make sure to do so in a professional manner and be careful not to ask for too much. As the saying goes, "you never get a second chance to make a first impression". If you make a bad impression, you may be sabotaging your chances of being admitted.

The second reason to contact a professor prior to admission is to gather information. For example, is this professor even taking new advisees? If this is the only person at that school that you are interested in working with and they are not taking new students, then maybe you don't even want to apply. Even if the professor is not directly involved in admissions decisions, this can still be a good reason for early contact. But again, do so in a professional manner and avoid making a bad impression.

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Admission based on the faculty members' propensity is totally on-board in Canada, East Asia and the Europe (especially in the Scandinavia)... Actually, That's due to a variety of reasons; First of all, the professor would gradually guarantee the maximum coherency between his research interests with the applicant's background and his/her researching atmosphere. Furthermore, the funding would considerably be taken into account based on the industrial projects, has which been acquired by the faculty members. So, they are supposed to be noticeably unrestricted to choose the best one for their own projects.

But in US, a multitude of the funding resources are still stemmed from either government or university-driven fellowships. One might contend that the direct influence of the faculty members' to select the admitted applicants would lead to the abuse, in such that they could admit the students, are who not the best among the other applicants within the selection pool. Hence, it is not surprising that the university will sustain its impact on the admissions, until it basically does provide the financial aids to the students.

On the other hand, the number of the applicants, applying into some American universities is often very noticeable; so, an efficient merit-based selection strategy could be realizable just with consideration of such central system of admission. Within recent years, the aforementioned procedure has been changed, gently, and the faculty members' feedback sounds to be effective in selection of the successful applicants in US. However, the existence of the universities, in which the selection is solely according to the faculty members' signal, is undeniable. But In my estimation, exact matching of the US system with the former approach is not, considerably, expected.

  • "abuse, in such that they could admit the students, are who not the best among the other applicants within the selection pool" - I'd argue that an educational institution that only ever selects the best for further support is conceptually flawed. – O. R. Mapper Sep 17 '15 at 13:59
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    @O.R.Mapper can you elaborate that? – Ooker Sep 17 '15 at 14:04
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    @O.R.Mapper: That's the fact, currently running in the many universities, however, as you asserted correctly, such manner could be evaluated as a flawed approach... – Roboticist Sep 17 '15 at 14:10
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    @Ooker: For example, an applicant who has worked with a department before, as a student, might be chosen by a department because the people in the department already know that the applicant integrates well with the team, and they have an estimate of the potential he or she shows. In this respect, the applicant may be best suited for the position, even though he or she may not be the "best" from the point of view of a central admission body. Likewise, candidates that are, by educational merits, better than others could get rejected simply because a professor sees little potential for ... – O. R. Mapper Sep 17 '15 at 14:10
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    ... helping them further develop their career and education based on their particular interests in the department. They may be better served by applying elsewhere, whereas someone who is not the "best" in terms of grades or the like might easily be expected to have a more fruitful future in the department. – O. R. Mapper Sep 17 '15 at 14:13
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I am a computer science professor and I agree that this advice is not entirely correct.

It's true that you should never spam a whole bunch of professors at random asking them to look at your CV / take you on as a student. At best this is a waste of time, at worst the professor sits on the admissions committee and you make a poor first impression. I'm shocked by how many emails I get per year from students who want to study machine learning. I don't list machine learning as one of my research interests, and I've never published a paper even remotely related to machine learning. Don't waste your time.

On the other hand emailing the professor makes a lot of sense if you have a legitimate research connection with them. Perhaps you did some undergraduate research on a topic very similar to one of the prof's papers. Perhaps you met at a workshop and he told you to "get in touch when you graduate." Perhaps one of your mentors knows the prof and offered to introduce you. In these cases I say go for it -- in many institutions, if a prof really wants a student, that will weigh heavily during the admissions process.

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