Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Writing To Me

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)

Student X"

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.


Anonymous said...

Thanks a lot for posting this. It was informative and gave me the rare opportunity of knowing what a professor thinks on seeing such emails.


Ψ*Ψ said...

Convenient post! I've started doing this at one school I'm applying to and need to get around to it for the others.

Anonymous said...

This makes me think of a quote from a recent NY Times article about the person behind the recent stem cell discovery:
The best place to learn about genetics and knockout mice was the United States, where Dr. Yamanaka had no friends or contacts. He said he sent some 30 letters to American universities and specialists whose names he culled from science magazines and journals. One of the few to respond was the University of California, San Francisco, which offered him a post-doctoral position in 1993.

I've seen enough "Dear Professor" letters to wonder, even if he did research the people he contacted, what was in his letter. It's impossible to respond to every mediocre letter, but it's sad to think that some very good people who had bad or no advising are behind some of those letters.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the advice! I had always believed that professors were so busy that they would prefer a more concise letter, so it's good to know that you are interested in seeing more specifics about our research and interests. Is it better for students to email professors before they apply or after they are accepted?

Anonymous said...

This week I received an email of the first type, very generic. I'm interested in "your work."
It did have some good details about the student's background and interest, so I forwarded it to some more relevant research groups and mentioned this to the student.
I haven't found out if this was a favor for the student, or a bit embarrassing since others might have already received the same email.

Female Science Professor said...

I like concise letters, but it is possible to be concise and still show that you have done some reading/thinking in advance of writing the letter.

I do not like letters that ask me to do lots of things for the letter-writer (send papers, send lists of papers they should read, respond to a list of detailed questions at this early stage), but I am happy to discuss research opportunities further by email.

In my field, it is best to contact professors before applying, or at the very least soon after the application is sent.

Anonymous said...

I ignore types #1 & #2 (really ignore them). Depending on my mood, I might respond to #3. So, the advice I give is to remember that the person you're writing to is busy. If you've written a type #1 letter, you probably don't expect that you're talking to someone specific. But, with #3, if you've encountered someone like me, a lack of a response does not mean that I've decided you're a looser. It could just mean that the email came at a bad time.

But, as I've already established to myself that FSP is more organized about getting stuff done.

In our program, contacting a professor isn't particularly meaningful, unless you really have a special contact with an individual investigator. Otherwise, our admissions is centrally handled and labs are chosen after you enter the program. Reasons to contact professors include finding out if they are really accepting students (i.e. their lab isn't full, they have potential funding, they aren't retiring or moving elsewhere). Profs won't be completely honest about those things, but it's worth emailing if there's a particular person you want to work with to see if they are really available. But, it won't really help you get into the program unless you would be admitted anyway.

Anonymous said...

I just dug up some of my old emails from when I applied (and got into many grad schools). Detailed doesn't mean long.

In general, I wrote:
3-4 sentences saying I'm applying to the program, might be interested in working with you and would like to talk more.
3 sentences stating my interests
1 sentence link to my online resume (At least at the time, large attachments were annoying and I still find using an online link less pushy)
1 sentence stating who else at the school I am contacting
1 sentence asking if there's anyone else in the school I should contact.

It was enough to make clear I did some background research and leave the space open for more emails (which often happened). For those really looking into me, my resume was very detailed in the type of research I had done. If you've never done hands on research, going straight into a PhD program is usually a bad idea.

I felt that the last 2 sentences were important because it gave a good feel for the types of people whose work interests me and helped me be upfront in saying that I'm contacting these 3-4 people. When you get an email and don't know if it was written just to you or every member of a department, it's hard to know how to respond. I always asked for more contacts because campus websites are often incomplete and you might not know about person X takes students from department Y. I actually ended up working with a person who wasn't actually in the applying department and who I would never have contacted if one of the people who I emailed hadn't suggested his name.

As for total length, this post is longer than my emails.

Anonymous said...

I find it rather annoying when a student asks about RA support before s/he asks about the science. In my dept, most students are on TA especially the first year, and I personally do not place anybody on RA until they pass their qualifying exams, after a couple of bad experiences (i.e. the student, supported on RA, did not show up in lab because he was too busy with preparing the exam).
Recently a student asked me how much grant money I got, which is very different from asking in general terms about funding. My reply: You might as well ask me how much I weigh! (I'm a big girl).
Seriously, this is way too much detail t ask. Even between colleagues, one does not ask the dollar amount. On the other hand, asking if the project is funded would be appropriate.

Anonymous said...

I disagree with anonymous 12:00AM
I applied to several programs where we weren't tied to a lab from day 1 (including the one I attended). Even though you aren't linked to a lab, whether specific labs are interested in student X was very important in the admissions process. If student X was great, but the research interests didn't match anyone in the program, then student X wouldn't be admitted.
At many schools, the first cut was based solely within the admissions group, but then there was a fly-out where I met faculty - often the people I emailed in advance. Whether my interests would fit well with theirs was a real part of the admissions process.

Anonymous said...

I went back to look at e-mails I sent to professors when I was applying to grad school (I'm an e-mail saver) and I would say they fall somewhere between #2 and #3. I included a few details about my background and interests but didn't get very specific about projects in groups I was interested in. One of the reasons is that so many people have uninformative or out of date websites. In that case it's the student's responsibility to look for some more recent papers, but even then, papers published in the last year don't necessarily reflect what a group is planning on doing in the next few years. So, typically, I asked if the professor was planning on taking any new students and if they had particular projects in mind. I didn't expect detailed research plans, but a sentence or two about where their research was headed was always appreciated.

A large majority never responded, but what I thought was interesting was that most of the detailed enthusiastic responses came from well known people with large groups--exactly the people one might assume didn't have time to respond. Over time I've found this is often the case with other kinds of requests (research related questions, access to shared resources, etc.) so I assume the busiest people just find ways to get more organized and get things done.

I would never be bothered by receiving an e-mail at the same level as the one I sent so I think it's great that you take the time to respond regardless. It reflects well on you and probably says a lot about the quality of your advising. Email non-responsiveness is often just one symptom of a broader lack of interest or respect.

Anonymous said...

Dear FSP,

I'm a FPG (Female Postgraduate Student). I've been reading your blog for a while with enthusiasm, you make me feel more positive about my future career in science.

I am in the first year of my PhD and last year I had to go through the process you are relating in this post. I tried to write emails where I introduced my self and then show interest on the person's research.

The problem that I found when considering potential supervisors was that it was very difficult for me to really understand what their research was about. This might be a special feature of my field (String Theory) since I know that in other fields people even write a PhD proposal when applying for a position (which would be impossible for us).

I just wanted to point out that sometimes, as an undergrad, you know what field of research you are interested in but you cannot be very precise and maybe you don't want to be (so that you don't close possible opportunities).

Thank you for your blog!

Female Science Professor said...

That's fine. It's OK if you don't know exactly what you want to do, but you should have some idea why you want to do graduate research and why you think you want might be interested in working with a particular advisor. Showing sincere interest is a big first step, even if you don't have it all worked out yet.

Anonymous said...

I found those emails so difficult to write when I was applying. I had already decided that, for me, who I worked with and whether or not I felt happy and comfortable where I was working was more important than the precise project that I did. (At the time I wasn't particularly fussed whether I worked on molecule X or molecule Y within this specific field.) I also wanted to join a group/university with good opportunities for further learning - most UK PhDs don't require any coursework, so it can be hit or miss what's available to help in different universities/groups.

This made writing letters very difficult, especially as the impression I got from my own university was that in this area of science you tended to get admitted to the research group, and then you did a project that your supervisor decided on (or you had a limited choice of available projects). I don't think my letters were great - I mainly asked if there would be an open day/ would they be at a graduate admissions event before I had to submit a formal application.

Drugmonkey said...

"A large majority never responded, but what I thought was interesting was that most of the detailed enthusiastic responses came from well known people with large groups--exactly the people one might assume didn't have time to respond."

These are also the people for whom the cost of failure in screening a particular trainee is low. They have copious funds, training grants, etc to draw from and lots of people in the lab. They also have a broad set of projects to work on, making it more likely that any given trainee will find something that is of interest and fits their developing skills.

Smaller labs have no such luxury and are more likely to be obsessed that the one trainee they can afford really, really knows about the scope of work and really, really wants to join that lab.

So for you letter writers out there, I'd suggest one of the best things you can do is communicate that you really understand what that PI has been publishing lately. It doesn't matter if it is slightly out of date, this is the best way to get the PI to respond enthusiastically about their current directions. And it is NOT enough just to rephrase the paragraph on the PIs website!

Unbalanced Reaction said...

This is great advice! I will forward to Undergrad. (I didn't contact individual profs back when I applied to grad schools, so I was at a loss for how to give such advice to my undergrads.)

Anonymous said...

Yes, I would concur with what I have already read in other posts. Expressions to avoid, that make me and many others discard the letter without even bothering to respond are such as "Esteemed Professor", "your reputable institution", "interested in joining your research group", without a single specific reference to me personally or my work.
I also have to say that sometimes these applicants will include a CV, based on which I might be able to infer that they may be a decent match for the research work of some of my colleagues; at that point, however, I am so turned off by the letter and am so unfavorably disposed toward the applicant, that I won't even forward the letter to such colleagues.

Having said all of the above, I also have to add that I am becoming with time increasingly concerned about the practice of admitting graduate students based on the match of their (stated or presumed) research interests with those of some of the faculty, sometimes even at the cost of admitting students who are academically weaker than other applicants.
I find that this tends to yield academically weak entering classes more often than I would like to see. Personally, if I am sitting on the admission committee I always recommend a student who seems academically stronger, even though (s) he may not have yet a clear idea of his/her research interests, over someone who may already have made up his/her mind research-wise but who run immediately into trouble with course work.

Anonymous said...

I agree with your take on the letters, FSP. But, let me offer some perspective.

I am from India and #1 was exactly the sort of letter I would send to people. I offer several reasons/excuses.

1) This was way back in 1997. We had no access to the internet from our college and had to pay about Rs. 60 for 30 minutes to access internet from a 'net-cafe' with poor dial-up speed connections. The goal was to send the most number of letters in that one hour.
It was way too expensive to download papers or print stuff. Even today, people in smaller colleges and remote cities have problems with internet access.

2) There was no research done in our colleges. The lecturers taught and left and never had office-hours or TAs. We simply had no idea on how to interact with professors or how funding and research projects worked in the US. All we knew was what subjects we found interesting. We did not have defined research interests. So we emailed professors in the general area of our interest.

3) Our parents' generation spoke and wrote 'sarkari English' (Bureaucratic English learned during the British rule). This writing tends to be very stilted and formal and includes typical phrases like 'Esteemed professor' etc that you must have encountered.

4) Upon getting admissions to schools, the top priority was to get funding. This was the only way we could come to the US and study here. The specifics of research were not the priority (in fact, as I said before, we did not care about the details of the research). Getting funding was the only thing mattered.

Luckily for me my parents were college professors. I had a somewhat clearer idea about what I wanted to study for my MS and was able to get a fully funded RA position. My writing has not improved only marginally over the years, but I do good research and had consistent funding for all 7 years of my MS+PhD.

Indian Anon

Anonymous said...

As I read this excellent post and comments, a vague worry started to form: is it possible that this kind of reaction to emails could disadvantage minority students (and perhaps female students)? Here's my thought: Many first-generation college students are clueless about college - they don't form strong connections with their professors and they don't do enough independent work. Also, many of them are at lower level schools, either because of financial limitations or because they have clueless parents like mine were, who truly believe all colleges are the same and you should just go to the cheapest one available. These schools may be less likely to provide good advising. Also, female students may be slightly less likely to form strong relationships with their advisers (I don't have any evidence for that, but it's possible). If these clueless students even consider graduate study, they pursue it in a clueless way, and they find themselves rebuffed, ignored, or discouraged, but they don't know why. Once they get to grad school, they probably take quite a bit of time to get the hang of things, and in the meantime they may drop out or at least turn off some of their professors. All of the generalizations I'm making are probably based on small statistical differences between groups of students, but when you consider all the disadvantages that some groups face, they add up to a large problem. Applying this idea to the current topic: of course, one shouldn't have to respond to form letters with detail and enthusiasm. But a possible solution would be to reply with a form letter that would help the clueless students. It could say something like: "Dear Student, I do not have time to respond to mass-mailed inquiries that lack detail. If you are genuinely interested in my lab, please write a more detailed email that contains specific questions, and I will be happy to respond to it." This would give the sincere but clueless students a chance to improve the way they present themselves.

Anonymous said...

I'm anonymous at 12:00 AM, and when I said that "it wouldn't help you get in" to make contact, I was speaking specifically of my program (which isn't all that useful, when you don't know what program that is).

Obviously, it's worth emailing folks -- even for the #1s & #2's, all I do is ignore them. I don't write their names down and send it to the admissions committee as someone they shouldn't admit!

Weak letters don't help, but the don't hurt either. You might always get a bite with them. More effective would be the type of letter BSCI said he/she wrote. I particularly liked the advice about saying who else they had written to at your university. That kind of letter certainly won't hurt you, and will increase your name recognition, even in a program like mine, where we don't do significant matching between labs/students.

We do this precisely because we want to admit the best students, not the best match, and because we don't think students necessarily know exactly what they want to do. Our program is also large and broad. If someone expresses a committed interest in a particular narrow area that we know we don't have interest in we're more likely to advise them of that in the interview process and let them make their own decision about whether they want to come.

Professor Staff said...

Some type 3s are really 1/2 in disguise.

I get a lot of letters where W/X/Y/Z/A/B are merely copied verbatim from my web page. They are usually strung together in a manner that makes absolutely no sense to anyone who actually attempted to figure out what all those words mean.

As a graduate chair I response to all letters (1/2/3).

As a professor I respond to those that are like #3 and thoughtfully written, even if I don't anticipate hiring anyone. Funding can always change on short notice ...

C W Magee said...

Dear Professor,
What do you do when you get type 3 letters describing knowledge and interest in a field you published extensively in 10 years ago, but no longer study?

Female Science Professor said...

That's fine, and in fact is quite common - it shows that the student has some knowledge of the kinds of research my group does (or has done).

Anonymous said...

This is how I see it: In my field at least, a lot of papers are written so that only people EXTREMELY familiar with the topic understand them. Not defining their quantities or detailing experimental procedures or mathematical approximatons/assumptions are just some examples of things that make it really hard for a newbie to read. If you then add the (incomplete, if you ask me) education most studets get in college it is impossible for many students to be able to understand the research a particular professor does.

Now, one way to compensate for that is for students to do a couple REU's and become familiar with some fields. This has its own problems: what if you are then attracted to another unfamiliar area? Do you apply as a interested person in the area you are familiar and once in switch? Is that lying? What if once in there is no funding for the area you like? Would departments prefer total honesty to lack of familiarity with research?

I have a very smart friend with good rec letters, but due to his personal situation couldn't do REU or research in his own school (he had to work to pay for school, many hours with a salary much better than as an undergrad assistant) and he didn't get into any school other than his. I wonder why being familiar with a field puts you at a much better position than someone new to it? Why does it matter so much? Isn't potential enough?

A message for those professors that do not respond (or send a short, unspecific response): You better be teaching a GREAT class. It wouldn't be fair that you don't like to waste your time with someone that didn't put "dedication" into writing an email but then students have to put up with your poorly teaching skills and preparation for several months. Sometimes academics don't measure with the same ruler. Although I do not know you FSP, I get the feeling that you are dedicated, so maybe you can "afford" to separate the letters into those 3 types.

EcoGeoFemme said...

arl, IMO, potential is not enough. Too much of the success in science comes from self motivation and the gratification comes from within. There's little point in pursuing a career that requires so much of a person for relatively low pay if the person is not very interested in it. I think a student who isn't sure what s/he wants because of lack of exposure should either get some work experience or a MS before embarking on a Ph.D.

Nicholas said...

I love my academic advisor, but after the graduate school application front has finally passed I'm left feeling incredibly unprepared. I worked in a lab for four years and got mostly a slurry of confusing and disjointed opinions on graduate school, but I was certainly never made aware (at all) of the reality of it. I had just assumed it worked mostly like the undergraduate education, where you apply and then, if invited to go to the school, you go from there. My advisor never even mentioned that writing to potential PI's was the norm, or even occured at all. Hence it was extremely alarming when, conversing with a friend at a different school, he mentioned how he had "written his 13th letter and can see why people send form letters." I attempted to inquire without sounding like a complete dullard; a few minutes later I was driving home thinking I'd completely missed the boat by only spending six hundred dollars sending in applications, GRE scores, and transcripts, and, you know, standing on a record of research and published papers. Apparently PhD programs are really more like some kind of crazed mating ritual where a huge fraction of suitors get turned down. Yikes. Then again, I've made a life of being unprepared, and it seems to have done me in.

Pending Framing said...

Thank you for posting this (and keeping it up, since I'm seeing it long after it was first published). I know it must seem so elementary, but I'm currently getting my nerve up to contact potential grad school advisers and getting to actually see what's proper and expected is a major reassurance.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes it's really disheartening when potential advisors you would like to work with seem not to care about your effort to contact them. The world needs more FSPs :)

Houda Nashawi said...


What about the professor who replies to a type 3 e-mail with a form e-mail that he seems sending to all students asking him about research opportunities?

I tried to write the e-mail very carefully, explained exactly why I'm interested in that person's work, and asked if they will be accepting students next fall. Their reply was polite (and unexpectedly quick - within a few hours!) but did not answer any of my questions or even mention anything about research. It was a very general e-mail about logistics and the admissions process of their program!

rb1412 said...

This site has been really helpful to me. I am just starting to write my first letter to the most important professor on my list. It's a nerve wrenching process and I am hoping it will be over and done soon with great results.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting this. I am a newcomer in Canada and I want to continue my academic career in Canada.And I write a few inquiry letters for applying Ph.D., but no one feedback. I am very upset. Is the reason possible the common situation or I did not do good job in research and education background or my bad English skills.

Dracus_Prime said...

What should I put in the subject line? I have to be honest I didn't even apply the first year after graduating because I am so nervous about the whole process.