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I'm applying to a PhD program in computer science. My friends and advisors all recommend that I cold-email the professors I'm most interested in working with and have a conversation with them about their research. However, I feel like just asking something like "What type of research do you do?" would just come off as lazy since most professors already have information on their website.

So that leads me to wonder, what are some productive questions that I could actually ask professors in the context of a cold-email or scheduled phone call?

marked as duplicate by EnergyNumbers, jakebeal, scaaahu, Davidmh, Wrzlprmft Sep 30 '15 at 7:46

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However, I feel like just asking something like "What type of research do you do?" would just come off as lazy since most professors already have information on their website.

Yes, don't ask anything you could reasonably learn from their web site, their publications, textbooks in this area, web searches, or Q&A sites. It's incredibly annoying when people write to ask me to put work into explaining something to them, when they show no sign of having put any work into this themselves first. (The worst question of all is "how can I apply to your department?", since that one can be answered in a few minutes by anyone with internet access.)

Also, don't volunteer your services for the professor's projects or propose a collaboration in a cold e-mail. This might be appropriate later, after you have established a serious research connection, but until that point it's awkward. Nobody is going to say yes based on very limited information, and the choice of no vs. maybe puts people in a difficult position: if they say no based on very limited information, it may come across as insulting, while if they say maybe it can come across as overly encouraging.

So that leads me to wonder, what are some productive questions that I could actually ask professors in the context of a cold-email or scheduled phone call?

From my perspective, the only really productive approach is to engage seriously with the professor's research area. If you can propose new ideas or questions and start a conversation with genuine intellectual content, then that's great. It will be a worthwhile discussion for both of you, regardless of whether it helps you get admitted, and you may end up impressing the professor. But this is a high bar, and you shouldn't expect to be able to send substantive messages to many people. If you can't think of anything genuinely interesting to say, then it's better not to say anything at this stage (you can think a little more about this area before e-mailing the professor).

The focus should be on the subject matter. When random strangers write to me, I'm not particularly interested in telling them about myself (to the extent I want to tell the world about myself, it's far more efficient to do so publicly, rather than telling one person at a time). I'm even less interested in hearing an infinite series of random people tell me about themselves. Most of them want to be admitted to grad school in my department but aren't going to be, and it's just not a good use of time to read a lot of e-mails in which applicants tell me more or less the same things they are going to say in their actual applications. On the other hand, I'm always pleased when I get an e-mail that starts a genuinely interesting research discussion.

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Within the content of a cold-email, the primary intent is to impress the professor whom you are a complete stranger to. First show how well her/his area of research superimposes with yours. Then show how much you are interested with the work he/she has done (and make sure you are specific). The most pleasing question that could be asked to a professor in a cold-email to ask what sort of project that she/he is working on currently and how willing you will be to assist him/her in it.

I suppose the general guidelines for a cold-email provided in this link would benefit you.

  • what are some reasonable questions to ask a professor if they agree to have say a 15 minute phone call with me, that would increase my chances of admission? – user2562609 Sep 30 '15 at 4:18
  • Well, the same goes for the phone call too. In fact this is where you can truly show your interest by the way you talk. If after the mail, if the professor did call you it means that the he/she acknowledged your abilities. Your next task is to stage your interest. You could ask something like, "May I know what project you are currently working on, Ma'am (Sir)? It would be great if I could gain experience from it too." On a phone call, it would be best not to be too formal as in the email. – Ébe Isaac Sep 30 '15 at 5:10

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