Thursday, November 11, 2010

Getting to Know Me (and You)

Here's my recent essay for The Chronicle of Higher Education. I must admit I was not too happy about the title, and in particular the subtitle of the CHE piece. There is a throwaway line deep in the essay about Facebook, and I wouldn't have selected that as a topic to highlight in the title. Anyway, I am having a Perfect Storm week of long meetings, proposals, longer meetings, teaching, boring meetings, proposals, and random crises, so here is the CHE essay, which may lead to future discussion of the perennial topic of how graduate students and potential advisers initiate contact in certain academic disciplines.

Every year around this time, I get e-mails from prospective graduate students who want to know if I will be taking on new students in the next academic year. The content of their messages varies a surprising amount, as does, I suspect, the responses we give as professors.

Undergraduates who send those exploratory e-mails have typically been advised to do so. I am in a physical-sciences field in which graduate students often apply to work with, and be advised by, a specific professor or professors. It's the departments—usually a committee in consultation with the chair—that decide whom to admit, but advisers have a major role in those decisions. That's why undergraduate advisers recommend that their students write to prospective graduate advisers.

It is useful to send an exploratory e-mail because some professors may not be interested in advising a new student—depending on how many advisees they already have, and on what grant money is available to pay research assistantships.

Graduate-student support can be supplemented, to some extent, by departmental teaching assistantships and fellowships, but faculty members may be asked to make a financial commitment for at least the first year or two of a student's graduate career, especially for international students who might not arrive with sufficient language skills to be teaching assistants.

Although departments try to admit as many of the "top" applicants as possible, there are typically more qualified applicants than openings. The decision about whether to admit particular students, therefore, involves not only their qualifications but also whether a student would be a good match with a particular adviser. E-mail messages from prospective graduate students are a way for them to determine whether there is even any point in applying to work with a particular professor.

What do students write in those introductory e-mails? What should they write? The former is easy to answer, if we can assume that the messages I receive are representative of the genre. The answer to the second question will vary from professor to professor, but I can explain what I like (and don't like) to see in an e-mail from a prospective graduate student.

Most of the messages include some or all of the following: the name of the student's undergraduate institution, major and minor fields, graduation date, relevant research experience, and field of interest for graduate study. Most e-mails ask some version of this question: Is there any point in applying? And then they make a vague request for "more information."

Some students ask about money (tuition, benefits, salary attached to a research assistantship). Others mention details of their personal circumstances (spouses and significant others).

All of those issues, however, are better left for another time: Money is important, but you as a student can probably find out the numbers some other way (via our Web site or an e-mail to a staff administrator). And personal situations are, well, personal. Your first e-mail to a potential graduate adviser should be professional and short.

Something you probably should mention in the e-mail, but most students don't, is whether you are interested in pursuing a master of science, a master's and then maybe a Ph.D., or definitely a Ph.D. That information is critical to my answer about whether I will be looking for new graduate students in the next academic year. For example, I might be looking for a new Ph.D. student, but not a new M.S. student, or vice versa.

I like a succinct e-mail. Your message is not a pre-application, so I don't want to see your full CV or research statement. I will look at those later, if you actually follow through and apply to the graduate program and you have a good enough application for the admissions committee to pass it along. To cover yourself, just in case the potential adviser you are approaching does want to see such detailed information at this early stage, you could provide a link to a Web site where that information is posted. Professors can follow the link, or not.

Some students ask if they can visit, or mention that they will be at a particular conference and would like to talk with me in person there. I always have mixed feelings about those requests. On the one hand, requesting a visit or a face-to-face conversation demonstrates serious intent. Meeting a potential adviser can help applicants with their decision about whether to apply. The encounters can also be useful for me as the potential adviser because I can form an impression that helps me make an admissions decision later in the process.

On the other hand, it's hard to find time for many of those informal meetings, including at conferences. Fortunately, not every potential applicant wants to arrange a meeting before he or she even applies. I can, however, meet a few.

If a potential applicant and a potential adviser are going to be at the same conference in the near future, it's fine to ask if it would be possible to meet. I do not, however, like e-mails in which students inform me that we are going to meet. I have had students write and tell me that they will meet me directly after my talk at a specific conference (without checking with me as to whether that is a good time). I've had others tell me that Monday would be a good day for us to have lunch together, and I've had students ask me for my cellphone number so they can find me at the conference. One potential applicant—in what I hope is not a trend—sent me a friend request through Facebook. I am actually not that friendly, although I do try to chat with prospective students at conferences.

If you do want to meet a potential adviser in person, my advice would be to keep your request general at first, to see if the professor is interested. Or, if you don't want to request a meeting, just try to track down the professor at a conference, such as at a poster session.

E-mail messages from potential applicants typically end with a request for more information. I can appreciate that it's difficult to know how to finish such a message to an unknown professor, but "more information" is too vague.

My department Web pages describe my continuing research and my published work is accessible, so there's quite a lot of information already available about likely research opportunities. I typically respond with a few sentences about research opportunities, but I don't provide much "more" information.

Of course, the questions that students really want answered aren't appropriate to ask, at least not to me directly: Am I a mean adviser or a nice adviser? Do I expect my students to work nights and weekends? Am I a control freak, or do I have a sink-or-swim advising philosophy? Will I scream at them if they don't run a spell checker before handing me a document, or will I merely sigh?

To find out that kind of information, you will have to write to my current and recent graduate students—something I encourage potential applicants to do.

And what about my response to you? Do I even bother? Yes, I always write back, except for the cases that are obviously mass-mailed form letters that start "Dear Sir" and mention a research field that is completely unrelated to mine.

Barring those, why do I answer every legitimate message? I write back because maybe one day the student will be my student.


Anonymous said...

I don't want to see your full CV or research statement. ... you could provide a link to a Web site where that information is posted. Professors can follow the link, or not.

Also, if a student includes their CV directly in the email, you can choose to read it, or not. It is precisely like choosing to visit a webpage or not.

Anonymous said...

Nowadays if you write the word "Facebook" on the title, it will guarantee high readership. It is obvious that your piece wasn't centered around Facebook. This highlights how low CHE has gone. Excellent piece, by the way.

Anonymous said...

Any thoughts on the appropriateness of phoning a potential adviser? I had someone do this a while back. They had sent me email first, but since I wasn't at all likely to take them as a student and my department doesn't admit MS students, (and I've had at least 20 messages about potential students 90% of which I did respond to) I didn't respond. I hate being phoned in general, because it interrupts whatever I'm doing at the time, so I was quite short with this person.

sarcozona said...

I'm so glad you wrote this! I'm sending out emails to advisors I'm interested in working with this weekend and have been agonizing over what to say. You've made this a much easier process!

Anonymous said...

I remember the time when I was on rotation on various project. As they were all interdisciplinary it was even more important that I've had an informal chat with all potential supervisors collaborating in one room! The reasons being that how I start and where I start are very much agreed upon beforehand. It was also a great opportunity to see the cracks before they form. Still, I guess that's a different situation altogether...

Anonymous said...

Also, if you meet a professor at a poster session be sure to say who you are, that you contacted the professor about grad school, and what you are interested in. It's hard when students walk up at a big conference and say "Hi, I'm John" and then stare expectantly.... That goes for the cold phone call. Please remind me of who you are. If I'm not expecting to chat with you, I might not associate your name (especially since we have never met or spoken).

Anonymous said...

what about contacting people for potential postdoctoral positions? I'm about two years from graduating, and I'm going to a conference far away from where I currently live. I was planning on contacting PIs to see if they could meet with me during that time.

Anonymous said...

What do you do when you get a Facebook request? Do you simply reject the request, or do you also message the student back, saying that it is not professional or sth. ?

Anonymous said...

They had sent me email first, but since I wasn't at all likely to take them as a student and my department doesn't admit MS students, (and I've had at least 20 messages about potential students 90% of which I did respond to) I didn't respond.

I will never, ever, ever, ever, ever understand this attitude. Let me measure the time taken to write the following:

start time: 9:04:20

I'm sorry, but I am not accepting new students at this moment. Good luck in your search.

Prof. Busier-than-thou

end time: 9:04:50

Even though I don't know anything at all about your situation, your other commitments, your job, your research field, or your personal life, I can say with absolute confidence that if you think you are so terribly, pityingly busy that you cannot afford 30 seconds to respond to a sincere, non-mass-mail request from a student, then you are delusional. No one in the whole world is that busy. It's laziness and self-pity, pure and simple, and it is an personal insult to this student.

I'm glad the student called you and annoyed you. I hope that if you continue to treat them as if they are morally equivalent to a Viagra spammer, that their next step is to send you a singing telegram that deletes another precious minute from your day.

Anonymous said...

I'm impressed you write them all back -- I am overwhelmed by this "academic spam".

I too dislike these "Dear Sir, I've been looking at your website..." emails. I stop right there since they obviously did not look close enough to realize I am a woman.

I agree that it was a poor choice by CHE to put facebook in the title. This piece would be an excellent thing to give students who are currently applying, but the title makes it kind of weird.

Anonymous said...

I am with the last anonymous. I am in my 2nd year of tt so I haven't been getting these messages for too long yet I already am sick of the "Dear sir" messages. Why should I write back to someone who didn't even bother to check what field I work in... Think molecular biologst asking to work with a computer scientist with no explanation of a link...

I do respond to anyone who seems to know who I actually am.

I would be livid if someone phoned me out of the blue. I just don't like talking on the phone and consider it very private.

Very useful post.

Anonymous said...

FSP, did you ever get an email to your FSP address asking for being your phd student?
That would be fun!

Anonymous said...

View from the other side: as a prospective, I emailed about a dozen potential advisors. About half emailed me back. I pursued one who didn't reply by finding him in person and he ended up being one of my coadvisors (together with one who did reply to my email).

Anonymous said...

I'm in a field where direct contact with advisers varies from institution to institution. In our department, all admissions decisions are made by the faculty as a whole, and prior contact with individual faculty usually is neither an advantage or disadvantage.

Since I am the grad director for the program, most of the requests get forwarded to me to answer. I will often get copies of identical messages forwarded to me from several faculty. Those students go on our mental list of applicants to avoid giving admission to, as they are clearly clueless and going to cause problems.

I have a canned reply I send to everyone (about 3 pages long) that answers all the usual questions, and I often add a sentence or two at the beginning to answer specific questions, in the rare cases where a student has asked something worth answering. Often the answer to the question is a pointer to the specific answer on our FAQ page (but I'm polite about that, as the navigation system on our school's web site is terrible, so prospective students can legitimately have looked for the answer and not found it).

I never look at student CVs sent through e-mail and never will---the time for that is when the student has actually applied, in which case the information is in the grad student application database, where it can be easily found.

I disagree with the first "Anonymous" who said
"Also, if a student includes their CV directly in the email, you can choose to read it, or not. It is precisely like choosing to visit a webpage or not." The CV in my mailbox bloats my mailbox with lots of junk, and I can't save the message easily without the junk. E-mail attachments are generally evil and should be used only when absolutely essential, 99% of the attachments I get would have been much better handled as URLs to web pages.

Personally, I hate getting the clueless requests to work with me in which the student obviously has no idea what field I'm in. A lot of these e-mails come from India, so I suspect that there are counselors there urging students to spam all US professors.

Anonymous said...

As an undergrad looking to be a graduate student in the hard sciences next year, all of this is v. interesting, but in general I think I wouldn't have done anything too ridiculous.

My real question is - WHEN should I be writing professors I'm interested in working with? I emailed one in September because I needed to talk to someone for a funding application proposal, and she was very helpful with that but said it was too early for an answer re: advising (understandably), but applications are due early January - should I email professors before that, or after?

Female Science Professor said...

Definitely email before the deadline, although there might be some advisers who won't be able to give you a definite answer about whether they are taking on new students if they won't learn about pending grant proposals until later. If you think you might want to work with that person, apply anyway.

Gingerale said...

To find out that kind of information, you will have to write to my current and recent graduate students—something I encourage potential applicants to do.

Actually I disagree. First we thin the list of applicants. After we get that to a short list, only then do we encourage applicants to interview current grad students. We also ask current grad students to make these into bidirectional interviews.

Anonymous said...

Well.. I had a student title his email: "Request for Collaboration"

jersey said...

Do you respond to LinkedIn, after you've worked with a student for a couple of years? Even if its only one class?

My students Link me, and I want to link my professors. I don't know what the rules are there.