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I have applied to PhD programs in engineering in the US. I have been early in applying to most programs (deadlines range from mid-December to mid-January). I have not contacted any professors prior to applying, as I have been told by many that it would largely be a waste of time. Instead I reached out to several grad students and read/skimmed through many recent published papers by faculty. In my statement of purpose, I talked about at least two professors that I thought had interesting topics for research and why they interested me. I tailored this part of the statement for each program.

My question is, is it appropriate to contact faculty post application submission? I would like to say hello, let them know that I have applied and that I would be interested in working with them if I am fortunate enough to get in, and ask them to keep me in mind if they are looking for students.

I thought it might be a good idea to just put myself out there. Who knows? Maybe they'll recognize my name once they start going through applications and give it another good look. But I also do not want to annoy them. I recognize that these professors are busy and that they get many of these emails every day. I want to be considerate of their time too. I also do not want to come across as being arrogant or silly or needy..

What is your expert advice? Would you recommend that I sit tight? With my application already out of my hands, I understand that there is nothing I can do now to improve my chances. But I am always hoping. Thanks in advance for your advice!

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    I'm surprised people told you that talking to professors ahead of time would be a waste of time. That seems wrong to me. Contacting them now would not be as good as before applying, but it still seems like a good idea. I'm not an expert in this field, though. – user24098 Dec 10 '15 at 6:47
  • @dan1111 at least in my case (applying to applied math programs which are almost all engineering), I contacted a few professors before applying. None ever responded back. This means either (a) my email came off as spam, doubtful, (b) I appear to be a terrible PhD student, hopefully not, or (c) they just don't want to talk to prospective students. For my sake, hopefully it is (c) in which case I'm not surprised Amywhc has been told not to contact them. – NoseKnowsAll Dec 10 '15 at 16:19
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After reading some of the other reponses to your questions, I feel I need to give you fair warning that we receive tons of these emails, many of them obviously scripted (e.g., my name is in different font, the area described is irrelevant to me, for female faculty the email starts with "Dear Sir," etc.) My default reaction is to delete. Mind you, this is not to say your email would be like this, I'm just letting you know what you're up against.

The only emails that I try to pay attention to are of two types:

1) There's something obviously strong about you by just quickly scanning your email: You are an undergraduate student from a top school, or your grades are super-strong, or you've done some interesting research, or it's obvious that you've read some paper of mine and have legitimate comments about it.

2) Your subject line reads: "Undeterred prospective student." This is actually at the bottom of my info page for prospective students, which is linked to prominently on my home page. The vast majority of email requests I receive is from students that didn't bother to read it, so when I get an email with that subject I make a point of looking at it.

This is irrespective of when I receive your email; in fact, one could argue that the closer to the review period, the better.

  • Very interesting method on the subject line. – user-2147482637 Dec 11 '15 at 1:22
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It is generally ok, and sometimes beneficial, to contact professors before, during, or after the application process. Keep the emails brief and stick to a format. Something along the lines of: "I just finished my application to XXX in engineering program and was wondering if there are any opportunities opening up for a PhD student? I am interested in your project/ publication YYY and would like to explore the tools/ application of the work."

Something that shows you know what they do and that you are looking for a space. It gives you a leg up on getting the best lab space for you and you can figure out if someone has funding for you or not as well. Good luck, and do your research!

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