At this time of year, potential grad students send email messages to potential graduate advisors. I've been getting these emails for months, but I have been getting more of them as the application deadline approacheth.
I answer all inquiry letters from students, but my response varies with the tone/content of the inquiry letter.
These inquiry letters come in several varieties:
Type 1: Form letters: Some students send out inquiry letters to many professors and don’t have the time or energy to tailor each email to each potential advisor. (note: in my department, students need to have an identified advisor from the very beginning, although it is certainly possible for a student to switch advisors once admitted to the graduate program)
My response: Cursory. If the email was really annoying and the student didn’t even take the time to write my name (“Dear Professor” or, worse, "Dear Sir"), I write back a form letter reply (“Dear Student” or "Dear Ms. X"). If I am in a good mood or if the letter gives me hope that the student is not terminally clueless, I write a brief email inviting the students to look at my research webpages and write back with specific questions if they are interested. I figure that in some cases, students sending form emails have not gotten any (or any good) advice from professors/advisors at their undergraduate institution and somehow do not know that a “Dear Random Professor: Tell me about your research” letter is not going to get an enthusiastic response.
Type 2: Specialized letter, but unfocused, poorly written, or otherwise demonstrating cluelessness. Example:
“Dear Professor FSP,
Hello my name is Student X. I want to start graduate school in the fall. Please let me know if you are accepting new students. Do you have research funding? I am interested in learning more about your research.
My response: polite and somewhat informative but not detailed. I provide information that the motivated student can use to find information (e.g., on my webpages) and formulate a more focused letter. In some cases, this type of inquiry letter indicates some advising about what to ask potential advisors, but either this information was not complete or was not completely understood. For example, asking about funding and asking whether a potential advisor is even considering taking on new students likely indicates some advising about what to write, but the vagueness about research does not make for a strong first impression.
When a student writes “I am interested in learning more about your research”, and that's all they say about it, I have no idea what – if anything – the student has done to learn about my research in the first place. That is, did they just read a brief description on a webpage somewhere or have they trolled through my research webpages and/or read some of my papers? If the latter, it would be good if the student gave some indication of that in their email, not by writing “I have read 16 of your recent papers and I think they are fabulous” but rather by showing that their interest in my research program involves a specific research focus (see Excellent letter).
Type 3: Excellent letter: focused, well-written, demonstrates that the student knows something about my research and why he/she might actually want to come to this university
“Dear Professor FSP,
(brief intro about who they are; school, degree/date, any research experience). I am interested in X, Y, and Z, and am particularly curious about investigating A and B. I am familiar with your research on W, and would like to pursue a Ph.D. in [something related]. I saw on your webpages that you [something demonstrating knowledge and ability to form a question about research opportunities]. (+ some questions about grad program/application logistics – these are fine, but best placed after discussing research)
My response: enthusiastic and detailed, engaging the student in a discussion of their research interests and possible research topics for their graduate work if they come here to work with me.
Ideally, I will meet some of these students at conferences or visits to the department, but in some cases all I have to go on is what is in the application file ± email correspondence. Given the disparity in the number of applicants vs. the number of positions, the written record (including the research statement in the application) is extremely important.
6 months ago