16

The application season is coming, and I'm going to spam the mailbox of every professors.

OK, just kidding, but not completely untrue. Of course I will do my homework. As Anonymous said, it is fine to contact a professor 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

Does that mean that I need to spend time to dig into their papers (actually beyond the internet), or just reading the descriptions in their website is enough? I mean, sure, just like asking questions in SE, the more detail you give, the more likely you get the answer. But I cannot only concentrate on some particular professors, I need to increase the chance of being accepted by, erm, spamming other ones. One PhD student says that he had to contact 17 professors in order to find the best for him (good fund, good research, etc). I think contacting 17 professors, with all emails are careful prepared and worth to reply, will drain my energy soon.

Not to mentioned that in the email setting, you don't have to be obligated. If the email require you to spend a lot of energy to answer it, and if you are super busy, you will likely to ignore it. This will waste my effort.

Q: So, how likely is a professor to ignore an email even when the sender does their homework? How many professors should I contact in order to find the best one? And how much effort should I spend for a professor?

Also, there is a probability that after I read some papers of the professor,

  • the paper is easily to follow, that I don't have any question. How should I email in this case?
  • the paper is hard to follow, and I meet my limit of knowledge. Is this the gold chance for me to ask, or should I self-teach me this? This could be a trivial question, and asking it may bother them, increasing the chance to be ignored. Especially that I want to switch my field (a little bit).


Anonymous' comment on Is it unwise to contact the professor directly before getting admitted to a program in US?
Related: How to contact professors for PhD vacancies?

  • 6
    How many professors should I contact in order to find the best one? — There is no "best" one. – JeffE Sep 19 '15 at 21:32
  • 9
    the paper is easily to follow, that I don't have any question. — Regardless of whether the paper is easy to follow, if it doesn't suggest any further questions, either it's a mediocre paper, or you aren't thinking hard enough. – JeffE Sep 19 '15 at 21:33
  • 2
    I guess this is about PhD program applications, of the type where one applies for positions in a certain lab, rather than just to a department, yes? But this is not explicitly stated. Please clarify. – Kimball Sep 19 '15 at 22:40
  • @Kimball oh, they are different? I mean, of course they are different, but how different are they in the process? – Ooker Sep 20 '15 at 4:07
  • 1
    I am saying that the question (beginning with Q) doesn't make it clear why you would be emailing the professor in the first place, or that you are applying for PhD programs. But for general applications to departments, there is no need to contact individual professors, and sometimes it is discouraged (before offers are made). – Kimball Sep 20 '15 at 5:05
24

Does that mean that I need to spend time to dig into their papers (actually beyond the internet), or just reading the descriptions in their website is enough?

I strongly suggest you at least look over 2 to 3 recent, important papers of this professor. Not only will this allow you to write a mail that has a higher chance of being taken seriously, it will also inform you whether this kind of research is actually what you want to be doing for the next few years. This will indeed take time, but frankly, you should be willing to spend one or two hours to look over the work of a professor that you consider working with for your PhD. You don't need to read their papers end to end. Just figure out what research problems they work on, what methods they use, and so on.

I cannot only concentrate on some particular professors, I need to increase the chance of being accepted by, erm, spamming other ones.

Here's the thing: for me, if your mail even remotely looks like you have been spamming professors with applications, your mail moves directly to my "Will never be answered" mailbox. Seriously. I have a keyboard shortcut for that. I assume similar things are also true for most other people in PI-y positions. Avoid spamming people at all costs.

Edit: I will answer Ooker's follow-up questions here as they seem related enough to me.

"How likely is a professor to ignore an email even when the sender does their homework?"

Very likely. Cold mailing somebody about a position is always a long shot. The difference between doing your homework and spamming, from personal experience, is that the former has a small chance of success while the second seems completely pointless to me.

"How many professors should I contact in order to find the best one?"

I am not sure I understand. Given that your success rate with cold mails will be very small anyway, you (a) need to have a fallback plan anyway (this can't be your primary strategy to get into grad school, right?), and (b) it seems rather unlikely that you will have multiple offers that you then need to choose from.

  • I like the keyboard shortcut part. In my case, I'm using a single key, which has the symbol "←" printed on it. – silvado Sep 21 '15 at 11:08
  • @silvado I am pathologically averse to permanently deleting email. However, realistically, if your mail is in the "not to be answered" mailbox, it's as good as deleted. – xLeitix Sep 21 '15 at 12:49
  • if the lab's website is well written about the researches, is it fine to read just the website instead of actually read the papers? (I don't know if it is up-to-dated or not, but it seems to be) – Ooker Oct 7 '15 at 16:01
  • do important papers = most cited papers? – Ooker Nov 14 '15 at 14:35
16

As usual, you are trying to optimize the form of your application rather than the content.

First you should have well-developed research interests. Those research interests will naturally suggest papers for you to read. Those papers will naturally suggest further research problems for you to think about. You will naturally have several ideas about how to pursue those future research problems. Most of those ideas will be bad, but you'll quickly discard the obviously bad ones. Despite your best efforts, you'll get stuck on others.

At this point, it would be natural for you to contact the authors of those papers (or of similar papers), briefly discuss your ideas, and ask for further suggestions. And, oh right, by the way, you are also applying to their PhD program; do they think they might have any openings? But the important thing is to contact them as a potential research colleague, not just someone looking for admission or funding.

If you don't have a specific research question, don't bother to write. If your email to me contains only the titles of three of my recent papers and a few other buzzwords, I'll just delete it. But if you've thought seriously about and can write cogently about the kinds of problems I work on, I'm much more likely to take notice and respond.

Unless you have both extremely broad research interests, no other time commitments, and no need to sleep, you will not find 17 professors who share your specific research interests. Maybe three or four at most.

  • Consider a student(interested on a particular problem)who has advanced a little on that problem in a non conventional way and likes to move forward in that direction 'through' PhD. If he writes to a prominent academic for admission sending him his effort , how will that mail be assessed ? – Jim Oct 4 '15 at 20:50
  • @Jim That depends on the individual professor and on their judgement of the quality/promise of the student's work. Obviously. – JeffE Oct 5 '15 at 20:51

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