How to Email Professors at Prospective Grad Schools - and Get Replies

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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, let me warn you that emails can backfire. Many applicants email professors at graduate programs they wish to attend and receive terse replies, or perhaps most commonly, no replies. For example, consider this question from a reader:

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 reader’s experience is not unusual.  So what gives? Are graduate professors simply rude? Perhaps, but also consider the following contributors to the poor responses from faculty.

Figuring out What You Want to Study Is Your Job

First and foremost, it seems that this reader 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 do so, 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, Not Ones Whose Answers Are Readily Available

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 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. Moreover, 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 his or her work and the program and simply seek clarification on a few specific topics.  

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.

How Do You Ask a Professor Whether He or She Is Taking 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 he or she is accepting students.  Keep the email brief, just a couple of sentences. A short, concise email will likely yield a response, even if it is a “No, I am not accepting students.”

What Next?

Thank the professor for his or her response, regardless. If the faculty member is accepting students then work on tailoring your application to his or her lab.

Should you start a dialogue?

You can’t predict how a professor will respond to multiple emails. Some might welcome them, but it is better playing it safe and avoid emailing the professor again unless you have specific questions about his or her research. Faculty doesn'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 his or her research, remember that brevity is key in receiving a response.