Thursday, December 11, 2008

Help Full

In the comments on yesterday's post, there were some excellent suggestions of ways to email a potential advisor about getting together at a conference.

I can of course speak only for myself in terms of what I would like to see in an email of this kind; it's possible that other, nicer professors would be happy just to see a student (however naive) showing interest, and other, crankier professors would not want to be emailed at all.

For me, the best approach is simple and direct. See examples below; brackets indicate optional text.

[Dear] FSP,

[Brief first sentence, if necessary, explaining who you are.] I will be at the Z conference next month and would like to meet with you if possible to discuss my [possible] application to your grad program.

I will be giving a talk/poster at DAY/TIME. Would it be possible for us to meet at/after that?

Serious Science Student

or this:

[Dear] FSP,

[Intro sentence if necessary, as above.] I will be at the Z conference next month and saw that you are giving a talk/poster on [topic]. I'm very interested in this topic and, if possible, would like to meet with you at the conference and discuss graduate/postdoctoral research opportunities. [Mention possible days/times, especially if you are also giving a presentation, or ask if there is a good time to meet].

Serious Science Person

I like short email messages that provide the essential information and/or ask the most essential questions.

Potential advisors are not (all) going to examine your email in great detail for hints of laziness and instability. Even so, you don't want your email to give the wrong impression, so it would be best to avoid the following:

(1) Do not ask for information you can easily find out yourself, e.g.: asking "When is your talk/poster?" to a potential advisor.

(2) Do not assume that you will meet; ask first. I have had students write to me and say "I'm going to find you immediately following your talk in the X session". The difference might seem subtle, but it would be better to write and ask "Do you have time to talk after the X session?".

(3) Don't ask for personal information. I realize that professors can be elusive and, even with a prior appointment, it can be difficult to separate an individual professor from the conference herd, but I don't like it when appointment-seeking-students write to me and ask me where I'm staying at the conference, what my cell phone number is etc. I'm happy to set up an appointment to meet during the conference, but I don't want to be stalked.

I suspect that a more common problem, however, is that some students are too timid to approach a professor for a conversation. The best way to deal with this is to send a pre-conference email, either to set up an appointment or just to announce your existence. It is mutually beneficial for prospective students and advisors to meet, so as long as the email is not obnoxious, this is an excellent way to make sure you both have that opportunity.


Anonymous said...

Subject lines. Why can't people use subject lines? e.g. my most recent email from a student is entitled "Regarding permission". The student wants to be added to my class, which is at capacity.

Tom said...




Anonymous said...

Hey, this post might be really helpfull. I already do that stuff if I want to talk to someone at a conference.

But what if, hypothetically, I'm visiting a family member who happens to be at a big city with several universities, and I want to visit a professor at their office to talk about opportunities for science jobs in the area, their/my research, (but really about applying for a postdoc two years from now or subtly getting to the point as to whether there will be any tt openings at their university two to three years from now after I finish a PhD and first postdoc)?

Do you think most professors would not hate you if you took up half an hour of their time and how should that email be structured?

usagibrian said...

Ah, cross-generational disconnect. It never goes out of style, it just changes form. This is not to say I disagree with you in any way, shape, or form. I think learning how to write a "formal" note (even if the delivery medium is email) is a necessary skill for any student.

By the same token, the request for time is a common one (oh, the number of times I've received calls and emails this year about when a class is scheduled and replied with a copy of the quarterly schedule--boundaries, so important), and I ascribe it to a false assumption that I naturally have the full schedule committed to memory like the train schedule savant in an Edwardian period mystery novel. And in fairness, schedules change from the published times so it may just be an inarticulately posed query if it has. The assumption that of course you will meet with the student is just another manifestation of entitlement in the contemporary student (the expected negative reply would be for you to say so--it's just the way setting up appointments has shifted with ubiquitous instantaneous communication. I find it disconcerting too, but anyone under 25 thinks this is how meetings are supposed to work--they've had no experience otherwise to this point with their peers). The request for contact information such as the cell phone is purely a mutual convenience to connect at the appointed time. Stalking would be asking you to join the student's circle of fiends in the phone's GPS tracking software so you could be location tracked in real time.

Anonymous said...

Possibly the loveliest slip I've seen in a while:
"...the student's circle of fiends..."

usagibrian said...

Yes, I guess "circle of fiends" is more Victorian than Edwardian, isn't it?
Totally meant to do that...
Not over reliant on the Firefox spellcheck at all...