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In How to contact professors for PhD vacancies?, Suresh suggests (and I believe most of you agree with this):

Think about their work. Find something intelligent to say (even a question).

I have read a couple of the recent, most cited papers of the professor. It is considered to be a breakthrough in the field, and of course very interesting. I have some questions, but I'm afraid that they are just trivial, that the answers are lying apparently in the papers (in the professor's perspective) that I can't see.

But I decide to write an email to them anyway. When I'm about to describe what I've read, I come up with a joke about that breakthrough method. That joke is only one sentence long, and for me obviously it's funny. However, I'm afraid there are some backfires if I decide to joke about it. Maybe the professor will see that the joke has no relevant to the method (explaining kills the joke), or it will be too informal in the first contact.

So is it safe to put the joke into the email?

TL;DR: Women rates funny guys as more intelligent. Are professors the same?

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    It's not a good idea. The professor should be impressed by your preparation and your skills, not your ability to make jokes. You can make the joke later during the interview or when you got to know the person better. – dalloliogm Oct 16 '15 at 13:49
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    If you have already met this professor before, I think it is OK to make some little jokes but it will not give a good impression if you don't know him. The better is to be serious at the beginning. Also it does not worth to get some risks. What could happen if professor does not like the joke or if it reminds him something that he does not like ? So, it is better to not make jokes. – optimal control Oct 16 '15 at 13:54
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    Don't do it. It is difficult to gauge the sensibilities of someone unfamiliar, and, therefore, all too easy to make clumsy gaffes. – paul garrett Oct 16 '15 at 14:28
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    Women rates funny guys as more intelligent. Are professors the same? Some professors are women (and others are men, who are pretty similar to women) so this is a bizarre question. It's disturbing how many questions on Academia.SE assume the premise that professors are some special, all-powerful class of people that one needs to please, entertain, suck up to, and never ever dare offend. Professors are people. They are just like everybody else. If you want to impress one, just be impressive. Be smart, say smart things that are relevant to the topic being discussed. That's all. </rant> – Dan Romik Oct 16 '15 at 16:45
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    @DanRomik: Many professors are women, but their reactions to potential students are not likely to be the same as their reactions to potential dates. (In general, taking dating research and applying its insights to one's professional interactions sounds . . . risky.) – ruakh Oct 17 '15 at 2:07
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Well, if the joke is taken as funny, that could be a very effective way to develop a rapport with a potential PhD advisor, stand out from other applicants, and assess whether it is the sort of advisor with whom you would enjoy spending the next three-plus years. But it is a risky strategy if your sense of humour does not align with the advisor's right at the outset of contact.

More importantly, I have the suspicion that you might not be identifying the most effective types of questions. While asking questions about the advisor's research at least shows that you are familiar with it and have taken the time to investigate his group, specifically, you will get more mileage by showing that you can think of new research questions that expand on the work his/her group has already been doing. Is there a direction unexplored in his/her recent research that you find quite fascinating?

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    "new research questions". Glad that I'm asking this question – Ooker Oct 16 '15 at 14:33
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    Funny to whom though? The world is huge and obviously goes beyond your particular social circle. People have different sensibilities and find different things funny. – Lightness Races with Monica Oct 16 '15 at 17:18
  • Sure, the joke might flop; that's the risk. But for many labs, the OP is going to be evaluated both on his/her academic merit (e.g., by showing an engagement with the group's research), and his/her ability to integrate within the research environment. By making the joke, the OP suggests having a more social nature, which might help. There may be other ways (or times) to achieve that same objective, but I wouldn't expect many people to toss out a meritorious applicant on account of a bad (but tasteful) joke. – user38309 Oct 16 '15 at 18:43
  • By making the joke, the OP suggests having a more social nature, which might help — Or, for precisely the same reason, might hurt. – JeffE Oct 16 '15 at 19:27
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    @JeffE seeming to have a social nature would hurt? what? – dbliss Oct 16 '15 at 19:59
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TL;DR: Women rates funny guys as more intelligent. Are professors the same?

No, not really. In ordinary conversation, nobody is expected to say anything deep or knowledgeable. Making a joke at least shows more cleverness than many of the alternatives (such as chatting about the weather). On the other hand, in a context where you might be expected to say something with real academic content, just making a joke instead suggests that you don't have anything else to contribute. I think it would be better to try to engage with the subject matter, even if you are clearly not an expert yet, than to look like you are deflecting the issue with a joke.

The worst case scenario is making a terrible joke and seeming overly proud of yourself for making it. Don't write to someone doing gene editing and say "Your recent papers are really impressive and have been getting crisper and crisper (get it? LOL!). I guess mi Cas es su Cas, am I right?"

  • LOL, I will never joke like that. Anyway, I think you are right about the importance of the context – Ooker Oct 16 '15 at 14:49
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Though the the psychological aspect might be true, it wouldn't be advisable to use it under this context. Even if it is amusing, your research proposal itself might be mistaken to be just a joke.

Your sense of humour should be something to be witnessed in person. Bear in mind that sense of humour is only a supportive quality; it is your primary skills set and research passion is what would make the initial impact.

  • why will my proposal be taken as a joke? Ultimately, the joke only long for one sentence, while I have shown how I have done my homework? – Ooker Oct 16 '15 at 14:11
  • That one line could make all the difference, @Ooker. – Ébe Isaac Oct 16 '15 at 14:14
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    If you do not know the professor, joking on the first mail can be interpreted as bad form in some countries. Stick to formal until you have reasons not to (informal context, previous contact, explicit consent, etc). Keep it formal and respectful and save the jokes to when you go get beers with the lab :) – Fábio Dias Oct 16 '15 at 19:16
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I'd approach this based on a risk vs. payoff question.

The risk of the joke is that you're off-putting, offensive, or otherwise do some damage to your application, up to and including losing it.

The payoff is that the joke inspires some sort of "I like the cut of your jib" feeling in the professor, and marginally increases your chance of success.

The problem, as I see it, is that the worst case torpedoes your chances, while the best case only matters if you were already pretty borderline. It strikes me as not worth it, at least until you get an idea of the professor's sense of humor.

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You're over-thinking this.

You're not completely sure if you should include the joke but leaving it out doesn't hurt you at all. So just leave it out. You're wasting your time turning this triviality into a detailed question and waiting for responses.

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Short emails are better

Don't out everything into one big email. It will only end up in the todo pile, or be scanned for "what does this guy want from me?"

Consider asking to-the-point questions on his research.

Fact is that research has shown you are more likely to get an answer if your email is really short.

So use this strategy to start a discussion. Chances are that he'll invite you to come to his office (use a university email, so he knows this is an option!)

Once you've sent a few messages back and forth, you'll be able to tell wheter or not to make that joke. Your chances of getting an offer are also much higher if he perceives you as "persistent and curious" about his research.

  • I got that I shouldn't telling the joke in the email, but I don't know if I should form it as a proposal, and proving that I suit for them with new direction to expand the work, or just start a discussion about their researches only? – Ooker Oct 17 '15 at 15:21
  • Start a discussion first. You can still propose a research direction in the second or third email. – Anony-Mousse Oct 17 '15 at 17:57

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