How to Email Professors at Prospective Grad Schools

And get a response

A male student working at a laptop in a college library

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As an applicant to graduate school you have probably wondered more than once exactly what professors look for when they select students. Wouldn’t it be easier if you could just ask them? Before you go any further, keep in mind that emails can backfire. Many applicants email professors at graduate programs they wish to attend and receive terse replies, or more commonly, no reply at all. For example, consider the following common scenario:

I am trying to figure out a topic that would be most suitable for me. I have reached out to many professors with little luck. Occasionally, they will share articles, but rarely will I get a response to a question. My questions range from graduate opportunities to specifics about their work. 

This experience is not unusual. So why are professors sometimes unresponsive? Consider how to change your approach in order to get the response you're seeking.

Figure Out What You Want to Study

First and foremost, it seems that in the example above, the student needs to do more work before contacting prospective mentors. As an applicant, realize that choosing a field of study is your task and one that you should do before emailing professors at graduate programs. To help you decide, read widely. Consider the classes you've taken and what subfields interest you. This is the most important part: Talk with faculty at your university. Approach your professors for help. They should be your first line of advice in this regard.

Ask Informed Questions

Before you email a professor for advice, be sure that you have done your homework. Don't ask questions about information that you can learn from a basic internet or database search. For example, information about a professor's research and copies of articles they have written are easily available online. Likewise, don't ask questions about the graduate program unless you have carefully reviewed all of the information on both the department's website and the professor’s website. Professors might view answering such questions a waste of time. Asking questions about information that is readily available might signal naiveté, or worse, laziness.

This is not to say that you should never contact professors at prospective programs. Before you email a professor make sure that it is for the right reasons. Ask informed questions that show that you are familiar with their work and the program and are simply seek clarification on a few specific topics.  

Here are three basic guidelines for emailing professors at prospective graduate programs:

  1. Do not inundate the professor with questions. Ask only one or two specific questions and you will be much more likely to get a reply than if you ask a series of questions.
  2. Be specific. Don’t ask questions that will require more than a sentence or two in response. In-depth questions about their research usually fall in this area. Remember that professors may be pressed for time. An email that looks like it will take more than a minute or two to answer may be ignored.
  3. Don’t ask questions that are outside of a professor’s purview. General questions about financial aid, how applicants are selected by the program, and housing, for example, fall into this area.

What should you ask prospective graduate mentors? Probably the question that you are most interested in is whether the professor is accepting students. That simple, direct question is most likely to yield a response.

Ask If They Are Accepting Students

In a simple email, explain that you are very interested in the professor’s research on X and, here’s the important part, would like to know whether they are accepting students. Keep the email brief and to the point. A short, concise email will likely yield a response, even if it is a “No, I am not accepting students.”

Send a Thank You Email

Immediately thank the professor for their response, whether it was positive or negative. If the faculty member is accepting students, then work on tailoring your application to their lab or program. If you'll be attending a program at their school, you'll want to leave a good impression with your future mentor.

Should You Continue the Email Dialogue?

You can’t predict how a professor will respond to multiple emails. Some might welcome them, but it is better to play it safe and avoid emailing the professor again unless you have specific questions about their research. Professors don't want to mentor students who require hand-holding, and you want to avoid being perceived as needy. Should you decide to ask a specific question about their research, remember that brevity is the key to receiving a response.