Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Do Reply

It turns out that I have one more thing to say (for now) on the topic of e-mails from prospective graduate students to potential grad advisors..

On Friday's post, there were some comments to the effect of "How do you have time to answer all those e-mails?" or "Why do you bother to answer those e-mails, even the form letters?"

How do I have time? Of course I don't have time; most of us don't. In fact, I don't have time to do anything, not even write this, but somehow.. we find time, not to do everything, but to do some things we want to do or think are important.

Which leads to question about why/whether answering these e-mails is important.

I have probably told this anecdote before, but it is important for understanding why I answer these e-mails:

Years ago, I went to an awards ceremony for an early-career scientist who, in subsequent years, has continued to do excellent research, fulfilling the promise of his early years as a researcher. He is originally from another country, one in which many young scientists send many e-mails to many potential advisors in the US. In his acceptance speech, this young scientist said that he sent out many e-mails when he was starting to think about graduate work in the US, but that very few professors wrote back. In fact, he really only got one serious reply from a potential advisor. So he applied to that place, was accepted, got his PhD, and went on to do award-winning research. In his award acceptance speech, he thanked his graduate advisor for taking the time to write back to him and encourage him to apply. This changed his life.

The students who send us these e-mails are our potential graduate students. 

We want excellent graduate students, and my hypothesis is that you can't always tell from these e-mails who is going to be an outstanding graduate student and who is not. You can get an apparently sophisticated e-mail from someone who doesn't have a creative bone in their body and who has no real passion or motivation for research.

But what about a clueless, unfocused e-mail? Does such an e-mail indicate a fatally clueless graduate student? Some would say yes, it does, or at the very least it means that the student is far behind some of their peers and will be slower to get on track in a research environment.

So, my latest question to you grad advisor readers is: Do you think that an apparently clueless e-mail (a) definitely, (b) maybe, or (c) does not indicate/s a terminally clueless student who will not do well in a graduate program?

19 comments:

AnEngineeringProf said...

I think a clueless email gives close to no information about whether the student will do well in our graduate program. That's probably one factor in why I rarely answer such emails.

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

I generally reply to even the clueless messages (when they don't get trapped in my spam filter), but I think that there is a positive correlation between sending clueless e-mail and being a clueless grad student.

Being socially inept is not a major problem though. (Can you tell that I was both a math grad student and a computer science grad student?)

What bothers me as a potential future adviser are incompetence and being whiny. A student who blames others for his failures is not a positive addition to any grad program. Those who can't figure out how to use Google or think that special exceptions should be made for them when they missed all the deadlines are also unlikely to be good grad students.

Clueless I can deal with. Incompetent, not so easily.

mOOm said...

I always answer e-mails from prospective students...

Anonymous said...

Wow, I'm still impressed that you reply to all these emails. My personal opinion is that if they haven't bothered to write a personal letter to me, I'm certainly not going to take the time to send a personal reply.
Like many other commentators, I typically receive several of these requests every single day, upwards of 500 per year, and the only ones I reply to are the few (3-4) that clearly show that the writer knows who I am and is actually interested in my research area.
Typically I can only afford to hire about one PhD student per year (maybe two), and it certainly won't be someone who doesn't know what my name, my gender or my general research field is. Anyone who writes to me asking for a project in a field completely unrelated to mine is highly unlikely to be the person I end up hiring, so I don't think there is much to gain by "encouraging" them.
Even if there is a slight chance that one of these people could be a future student who will do great research, the odds are so ridiculously low that I can't very well justify using paid (let alone free!) time to answer them.
To answer your question, the quality of any letter I might receive from an actual potential candidate (who formally applies) has rather minimal effect on my choice of student - the ones that show clear motivation and interest might tip things slightly in their favor, but it is highly unlikely this will make a real difference unless they are already a top candidate and there are a few who are very close.

Anonymous said...

I would encourage everyone to go look at their very first email they sent to their advisers. Looking at mine makes me think "how did this guy accept me with this letter?" (Of course over the years I have seen much worse, and decided that mine was in the better pile, but regardless, as a fresh undergraduate with only an inkling of knowing what you want to do, one doesn't seem to have a ton to offer). I could not understand even the titles of the papers let alone saying anything about them! (PhD in Engineering )

a physicist said...

(c), there is no correlation. Happily, I have reached this conclusion after following this blog for some time and having read many thoughtful comments from graduate students who have emphasized how clueless they were. It's become clear that there is no correlation between clueless emails and PhD-student-abilities. Along the lines of yesterday's post, though, I do take seriously recommendation letters. If a recommendation letter indicates a general pattern of cluelessness, an inability to get clued in, then those are big red flags. But one clueless email? Not a problem.

Anonymous said...

I suspect it's hard to judge future potential. I reply to all emails (even if it's only a brief reply) *except* for those that start 'Dear Sir' since I find the lack of courtesy and the blatant lack of any research at all so ridiculous that I can't imagine wanting to work with someone who could not be bothered to even glance at my website.

Anonymous said...

To add in your anecdote, I am also one such person from the country who sent many such emails to potential advisers. I did it not as a graduate student but for a post-doc position. I was picked up by a well known scientist in my field (I still don't know why he choose me over all other candidates from big places), and after 10 years, I am doing well in the field and have faculty position in a state MRU. So yes, sometimes students can be clueless, but it's no sign that he/she will be poor student as well.

Rosie Redfield said...

It must be true that past clueless behaviour is at least a weak predictor of future clueless behaviour, in emails to potential supervisors as in everything else.

So the real issue is how tight a screen we want to impose on potential grad students. If I got several emails a day I'd want a fairly tight screen.

Anonymous said...

I reply to nearly all e-mails I get (it's easy since I don't have funding to take anyone right now). One notable exception - a week ago I got a post-doc interest e-mail. Replied and said 'no funding, best of luck' (in more polite terms). He replied 'thank you for your reply'. Two days later he sent me the SAME FORM LETTER. Seriously??? That one went straight to trash folder.

I sometimes reply and clue them in that they should not call me Sir (fairly obvious female name, very obvious from picture, and my research is in women's health where it's not uncommon to be a woman!). Again, I try to do it politely in the hopes that they will learn from this and not blow their chance with an advisor who has money.

Phillip Helbig said...

If it is unsolicited, and it is bulk (i.e. identical text sent to several recipients), it is spam. I do not reply to spam. (Note that this very useful definition of spam is independent of the content.) I reply to emails obviously addressed to me (i.e. based on the content, not the To: header) except (usually) those from obvious crackpots. Even if the reply is "there is no point in sending me more emails", such a reply saves time for both sides compared to not answering at all (which might initiate repeated attempts on the part of the sender).

Anonymous said...

I reply to all but the "dear sir" but I typically don't say much. I've only ever hired once from such emails and it was someone already on campus who was persistent enough to come talk to me in person after the email. That was enough. The rest just seem so clueless!

Anonymous said...

I am anon who said yesterday that I thought clueless emails reflected clueless students. I retract that slightly - I think certain clueless behavior can't be blamed on anyone but the student, e.g. obvious spam emails sent to 100 different advisors with no attempt to disguise it and no indication of any knowledge or interest whatsoever in the fact that they do completely different things. But I don't hold it against a student if they don't really know a lot about what I do, if I can tell that they have at least made some effort to find out and individualize the message.

I do usually reply to emails - even clueless ones - in some form if they are addressed individually to me with even the most minimal recognition of anything about who I am or what I do.

Anonymous said...

I think generally c - clueless e-mails don't provide much information. That said there are ridiculous e-mails that do. I had one student introduce themselves by informing me s/he WOULD be joining my lab the next year and that while I only worked on things peripheral to his/her interests that I would do - at least for the time being - later they would probably need to work with someone else. That told me a lot. That isn't clueless though so much as weird. I knew several really bright students who got terrible advice from undergrad advisors and wrote clueless e-mails but eventually excelled in grad school. There are graduations of clueless.

Anonymous said...

Many undergrads are clueless. I sure was.

I don't think there's necessarily any correlation between success in graduate school and having a clue. However, I suspect there might be a correlation between how pleasant it is to work with a person and whether that person has a clue.

Ananya said...

I can certainly tell you the value of getting reply. I strongly believe there is no correlation between clueless emails and ability as a graduate student. The only way to find out is to test on a toy problem. I am planning on having some toy problems on my website that can get some student's enterprise and attention and provides a basis for meaningful evaluation and conversation. Yes, we do not have time, but that is why we are in research, to do more than we can in a regular possibly better-paying 9-5 job. Future colleagues are, imho, the biggest investment we can make and someone who grew up different may be trained to never say Prof. X but "Madam", like many of my Indian students call me.

Anonymous said...

I was once a clueless graduate student, who had no idea that people actually contacted profs to discuss being in their group. I was the first in my family to go to college, much less grad school. I had profs in college who encouraged me to apply, but it seemed they were not aware of some of the nuances of the application process. I think my grad advisor took a gamble with me, and I hope he is glad he did. I have been a productive and successful scientist (I now work at a gov't research lab).

I know it's a lot of work to answer such e-mails, but thankfully some profs do and are willing to take chances on clueless students. Hopefully they are rewarded more often than not.

Anonymous said...

It takes no time at all to send out a meaningful, canned reply email with information about your research and department. You might really help a student out.

Anonymous said...

Yes, these small tokens of acknowledgement, encouragement, advice, etc., *do* make a difference to us young scientists. Let me share my story:

My first undergraduate degree was not in physics. In fact, it was in one of those much maligned "liberal arts." I graduated with my useless B.A. and went to work (not the highest paying jobs, but jobs nonetheless).

Seeking to redeem myself, I decided to return to school a couple years later. I decided to do what many holders of liberal arts degrees do: APPLY TO LAW SCHOOL!

So, I'm on campus, picking up LSAT books when I bump into someone. This "someone," as it turns out, was the department head of Physics at the university. I disclose that I always wanted to study physics--I even had the aptitude, just not the academic guidance or encouragement I needed to pursue it the first time I was in college. The department head invited me to his office to talk more about physics, etc. It was a great discussion. I think he could tell I was very interested in the subject and capable of handling the subject matter (though it had been YEARS since I had done a lick of math or physics).

Before the end of that day, I had applied to the university to get my second bachelor's degree...this time in physics.

Fast forward a few years: I'm now a physics grad student in one of the top programs in the country. In addition, I'm a NSF Graduate Research Fellow. Every once in a while, I drop a line that professor who encouraged me to pursue physics to let him know what I'm up to (and to thank him, again).

That little gesture--taking the time to talk to a young woman who always wanted to study physics but never did--has made all the difference in the world to me. I'll be grateful to him for the rest of my life.