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I am going to apply for a graduate program, whose outcome totally depends on the potential supervisor's propensity to recruit any applicant for his/her research group.

One of the professors' research interests have a myriad of overlap with mine. But he does not answer my emails. He is not in sabbatical, but very busy, such that I am suspicious whether my email has been read or not.

The last chance to know his opinion would be calling him by phone. But I am afraid that this way would not be so gratifying in his perspective.

As a rule of thumb, is calling a professor by an applicant a good idea?

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    To quote JeffE on another question: "I would consider a cold call very intrusive." – ff524 Oct 7 '15 at 14:24
  • What country is the graduate program in? I think the answer depends a lot on this. – Anonymous Oct 7 '15 at 16:11
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    Also, if you apply and are accepted, I think that your e-mails/phone calls might get a much better response. – Anonymous Oct 7 '15 at 16:34
  • @Anonymous: I am talking about a program in Canada – Roboticist Oct 8 '15 at 8:52
  • Then probably you shouldn't call, as applications will go through a central committee. – Anonymous Oct 8 '15 at 12:19
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In my case at least, the following helped me deal with busy academics who don't respond to my emails (both as a student or academic):

Face To Face Meeting: If an academic does not reply to your email, trying to talking to him/her face to face through an online chat (e.g., Skype) or in person, is much better for you, than a phone call from you. This is because, he/she will get a better understanding on what you are, and he/she needs to make a commitment to listen to you; because he/she knows you are looking at him/her.

Arranging The Meeting: Because he/she seems very busy, find his/her department, and try to find the secretary for his/her research group. And kindly ask the secretary to ask the academic for a meeting.

Worst Case Scenario: The secretary ask the academic that Mr.x wants to have a meeting you. The academic for some reason does not want to do that, so then he/she will search at his/her mailbox and then will answer your emails. At least you get an answer to your sent emails.

  • Thank you, buddy... But as I am an international applicant, the first two solutions might not work!... But asking the secretary to handle the case could be functional... – Roboticist Oct 6 '15 at 18:10
  • @matinking oh ok, good :-) – o-0 Oct 6 '15 at 19:38
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    This may be true for students already in a program, for peers with specific requests, or for people specifically recommended by a peer. It's inappropriate for students attempting to join a graduate program. – iayork Oct 7 '15 at 13:20
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Do not phone. You should not have emailed. There is a standard process for acceptance into graduate programs, and contacting the professor is not part of it.

In the US, at least, and in the fields I'm familiar with, professors with any kind of international profile are inundated with applications to work in their lab/graduate program, even though in most cases, the professor has little or no control over whether students are accepted into the graduate program, since that is run by a graduate committee. Accordingly, emails to a professor asking to be taken as a member of their lab, before the student is accepted into the graduate program, are worse than useless; they are pestering a busy person with irrelevant requests. Such emails are typically deleted as soon as the professor reads the first sentence, or at best -- if the professor is extremely generous -- forwarded to the appropriate person.

This is multiplied by ten if the email sender doesn't have a good grasp of English, because (fairly or not) such emails are often perceived as simply carpet-bombing, spammed to scores of people on the off-chance of a hit. Again, professors may receive dozens of such poorly-written begging letters per week, almost all from completely unqualified candidates. (The question here, while far better written than many such letters, is far enough from standard English that it would likely hit this barrier.)

It is multiplied by a thousand for a phone call. It's quite likely that if you did make phone contact with the professor, the act of phoning would add you to the "Do not touch this person with a ten-foot pole" list, even if you were accepted to the graduate program.

If you are interested in working with this person, there is probably little point in contacting her directly. Go through the standard graduate student application procedure and then once you're accepted, contact the person and make it clear that you are already in the program.

The exception would be a potential graduate student who is truly exceptional. This does not mean an overlap of interests; it means an overlap of interests plus a very strong skill set, meaning pretty significant work in the field already, or some other really out of the ordinary ability -- not grades, not a prestigious university, but actual demonstrated skills. And this would not, typically, be communicated by the prospective student, but by someone associated with the student whose judgement would be more reliable, like a professor or industry expert. So even in this case, the student should not be pestering the professor with emails or phone calls.

There may be individual exceptions, who welcome this sort of thing, but the odds are very much against you.

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Another strategy which I have used as a student: Call them when you would guess that they're not in the office, and leave them a message (it's a little less awkward), then, when they call you back, they will already know what you have to talk about and have a response prepared. This has worked for me in the past.

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