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I haven't finished applying to one of the grad schools I'm interested in. But, one of the professors emailed me asking if I was still applying. He said I had strong letters of recommendations and told me a little bit about a project he is working on. Says he has student positions to fill. I assume he's partially interested in me because of my degree in mathematics where other applicants probably have degrees in other fields.

I want to know a few things. One, if I havent actually sent in my application can he see it? Or can he only see the letter of recommendation? Two, is it common for professors to be the ones to reach out to a student? I know most people encourage contacting professors you potentially want to work with but was surprised when a professor contacted me. Three, would this increase my odds of getting into the grad school? I.e. if this professor decides he wants to work with me could he have influence over my admission? Lastly, he said if there's enough interest on both of out parts he'd be willing to "support a trip to his lab". How should I interpret that?

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    Not sure how common it is, but I also had professors contact me, although it was after my application. My fellow students thought that was odd. In my case, it was young PIs though, who I assumed were desperate for students: is that your experience as well? For the trip, I assume he means he'll pay for travel expenses if you want to visit, similar to post docs visiting etc. – ConfusedStudent007 Dec 10 '16 at 15:04
  • He has been at this institute for 14 years. He has a 5 year grant to do research on something he already has promising results for. I assume he needs mathematicians since he brought up mathematical analysis. It sounds like he has a few positions he would like to fill in general, though. And I wasn't sure on "supporting a trip" if he's implying he would pay for me to visit. Doesn't seem like something a professor would normally do for someone with little experience. – Sarah Wilson Dec 10 '16 at 16:14
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    Don't forget, it may be hard to find people with a very particular expertise and you may just have it. Is that a possibility? – Captain Emacs Dec 10 '16 at 17:47
  • I think it's likely my math background. In his letter he said that they will be exploring different forms of mathematical analysis. Im applying to a biomedical program where I imagine most applicants don't have a math degree. – Sarah Wilson Dec 10 '16 at 21:25
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    My guess would be that while gender imbalance can play a role, it's probably more that one of your letter writers has been going to bat for you. That is an enviable position to be in. While you should still check with this professor and with your letter writers, I think you should interpret this as a promising sign. Make sure to see what other offers are out there! – stankewicz Dec 11 '16 at 17:35
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In my field it is fairly common for a prof to take the initiative. This will typically happen when (s)he got a grant for funding a number of PhD students and now needs to fill those positions on fairly short notice. So if (s)he hears of a promising candidate (s)he will likely contact that candidate.

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  • Since you have experience with this: can I ask how much this increases my odds of being admitted? I know I have strong letters of recommendations- I have good relationships with my professors. I don't have the strongest academic record, though. My GPA isn't anything special but I have experience doing research in labs. But I would think if this professor has a true interest in me, my odds would significantly increase. – Sarah Wilson Dec 11 '16 at 20:56
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    That very much depends on the internal politics within the department or the organizational unit that decides on your application. I suspect that most of the time such support will help, but there are (dysfunctional) cases where the supporting professor is so much at odds with the rest of the committee to the extend that it might work against you. If your department is that dysfunctional you probably don't want to be there anyhow.. – Maarten Buis Dec 12 '16 at 8:49
  • If I may ask a follow up question- is it common for a grad professor to request the student to visit? I know students are encouraged to visit the grad schools they wish to apply to, but he suggested a conditional visit- the condition being that we are both interested in working with each other. – Sarah Wilson Dec 12 '16 at 23:27
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    You are committing time when you visit and so is he, so it makes sense to only do this if both parties are in principle interested. All I would read into the "conditional visit" is a way of making it easier for you to say no if you want to say no, which many students find hard to do to a professor. Whether it is common is hugely dependent on the field and country. It was common in the Netherlands, but the Netherlands is so small that I lived less than an hour travel away from most institutions. I do think it is good practice: you two will be spending some time together for the next years. – Maarten Buis Dec 13 '16 at 8:53
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This isn't very common in my field, but my field doesn't involve labs so I'm confident our fields are different. I can see why you would feel skeptical of what seems like, on the surface, such an important stroke. Always investigate things that seem too good to be true. Here's some steps I would take:

  1. Talk to your undergraduate advisors and letter writers. This is the most important one; knowing you, your work and your field, they can help you with your specific questions, and possibly suggest things to find out that you haven't even considered.
  2. Research the facility and professor. It sounds like you've already done this, or at least started on it.
  3. Ask the professor how your work came to his attention. You don't have to make it challenging, just tuck it in with a reply along the lines of "Thank you for contacting me, I'm very interested. Can you give me some more information about (research specifics)? Also, what brought my work to your attention that made you feel I would be a good fit for your lab?" The answer to this should help you answer your questions about whether he's seen your letters of rec or your application, or something else.
  4. If everything looks good and you feel you're a fit for this lab, don't sell yourself short! Most grad students go through some form of imposter syndrom, so this can actually be an obstacle you'll need to overcome.

Good luck with grad school regardless; applications can be stressful and a lot of work.

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Do a little research on the professor to see if you'd be interested in working with him. If so, accept his offer to visit his lab and see if you'd like working in that environment; especially if other grad students share the lab. If the professor agrees to sponsor you and your application is strong, it will make your acceptance more likely.

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