Friday, October 07, 2011

Writing to me (reprise)

In 2007, I wrote about the different types of e-mail messages that I receive from prospective graduate students. I've received a heap of these e-mails in recent weeks, so I was thinking about this general topic and looked back at what I wrote 4 years ago. Below I sort-of reprint that post, but I have edited it, in places extensively, based on my current thoughts about these missives.


In my field, at this time of year, potential grad students send e-mail messages to potential graduate advisors.

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; hence, these e-mails.

I answer all such e-mails from prospective graduate students, but the content and length of my response varies with the tone/content of the e-mail from the student.

These e-mails come in several varieties:

Type 1: Form letters: Some students send these e-mails to many professors and don’t bother to tailor each e-mail to each potential advisor. Some are clearly not even appropriate for the particular research field of the recipient. This does not make a good impression.

My response: Cursory, particularly if the e-mail starts "Dear Sir". (The correct form of address is "Professor", which avoids the hazard of not being able to guess gender from a name, particularly one in an unfamiliar culture, although a Dear Sir letter to me is a sure sign that my correspondent did not look at my faculty webpage because, despite being a flaming feminist, I am quite recognizably female from my photographs, I think.) My response typically consists of something like this: "Dear S, If you are interested in applying to the graduate program in X-Science at MyUniversity, you can find information about application procedures at [link]. Sincerely, FSP."

Type 2A: More specialized letter, but unfocused, poorly written, or otherwise demonstrating cluelessness. I got one of these recently and it really made me wonder if this student, who is apparently a native English speaker and who may well be very smart and hard-working, can or will get past this severe disadvantage when applying to graduate programs. Example:
Dear Prof FS,

Hello my name is X. I am interested in graduate school for next year because I really love Science! I am especially interested in [garbled name of my research subfield]. Can you tell me more about it?
My response: No.

My real response: polite but not detailed. I point the student to my webpages, which have information about several ongoing research projects.

Type 2B: More serious than 2A, and not as clueless, but still asking in an unspecific way for me to describe my research. When a student requests more information about my research and that's all they say about it, I don't know what -- if anything -- the student has done on their own to learn about my research. I am not expecting a prospective student to write "I have read your last 18 papers and they are all fabulous", but a less vague question will get a less vague answer.

My response: Similar to above, but a notch more detailed; I provide a link to my research webpages.

Type 3: Excellent letter: focused, well-written, demonstrates that the student has thought about why they might want to apply to my university and possibly work with me.

Dear FSP,

I am a senior at X University, and am interested in obtaining a PhD/MS in Your Field or A Closely Related Field. I became interested in Your Field (briefly mention class and/or research experience). I saw on your webpages that you [mention something of interest as a possible research opportunity]. (Alternative: I read your recent paper in Journal and was interested in [specify]). 

.... (see below for examples of how to end such a letter)...

My response: I respond to any specific questions, providing details about research opportunities.

So, how do prospective applicants end these letters? This is the awkward part for some.

It is OK to ask a potential advisor if they are taking on new students in the coming academic year. You can end the letter with this; it is easy enough to answer with yes, no, or maybe. Whether someone is even interested in taking on new advisees is critical information for potential applicants. Someone might well be doing the most fascinating research in the world (to you), but if they already have 17 students and are not taking new students, maybe you don't want to apply there (unless there is someone else you want to work with). 

It is OK to end the letter with an expression of interest in the graduate program and something like "I plan to apply for the graduate program, and hope that your department will seriously consider my application." It's a meaningless sentence, but it shows intent and is a possible way to end the letter without making an open-ended request for information. Most professors (in fields in which these letters are common) will know why you are writing -- to get your name out there, to show seriousness of intent -- so you don't have to work too hard to explain why you are writing.

If you are going to be at an upcoming conference, you could end the letter by letting the potential advisor know if/when you are giving a presentation, in case they are interested. Speaking only for myself, I don't like getting requests for extensive meetings/discussions with potential applicants about whom I know nothing other than what is in their e-mail.

I am, however, happy to chat with prospective students at poster sessions or professional/social events or during breaks. Instead of making an appointment (which requires the professor to look through the conference schedule in detail in advance and make a plan), just try to track down people of interest in likely spots at conferences, or, better, have one of your professors introduce you. [But that's just my preference. If you like making appointments with prospective students, leave a comment so that it will be clear there is a difference of opinion on this issue.]




Alex said...

The really amusing ones are the ones I get from people who want to be my PhD student, and my school doesn't even have a PhD program! It's usually something like:

Dear Professor [Insert my last name],

I know you are most famous professor in [field vaguely related to something that one of my papers touched on]. I am hard-working student who would do good work as your PhD student. I am most excited you take me.

I always politely explain that my department doesn't have a PhD program. I then recommend the use of a copy editor, or at least a grammar check.

What's even funnier is that I got one of these as a postdoc! So, yes, at that time, I was in a place with PhD students, but, um, I wasn't a famous professor. (Not that I'm a famous professor now, but I at least hope to be infamous some day.)

Anonymous said...

Do you ever just say "no, not interested" to type 1 or 2?

I respond exactly the same way, but I always thought it was cowardice. I don't want those letter-writers as students, and I don't think they have a chance of getting it. But I never tell them that.

a young fsp said...

You are kinder than I to the "Dear Sir" reflex is to immediately delete those e-mails and not read past the greeting. If they cannot be bothered to invest a few seconds to discern my gender, I find it very off-putting.

I'll generally respond to all other requests, including gender-neutral greetings, in some manner. I just want them to get my gender right!

Yael said...

Your blog post would also apply to potential postdoc candidates. My advisor gets plenty of "dear esteemed professor" (and then spell his name wrong) which s/he dismisses right away.

Anonymous said...

I get a lot of these (mostly from India) as the former grad director of our program. I have a 3-page boilerplate response that everyone gets. I may add a sentence or two at the beginning if it is clear that they have customized their request.

Our department does not admit directly to advisers (students have to do 3 lab rotations before being allowed to choose an adviser) and prior e-mail contact almost never increases the chance of admission (though clueless prior contact can easily decrease the chance).

The one prior contact that will increase chance of admission is research collaboration. Undergrad students who have worked on research projects with us often have a better chance of getting in (assuming that they did well in the research, which not all do). But then, undergrads who have done well on research projects with anyone who can write a convincing letter also have a better chance of getting in. It is doing the research that matters, not the prior contact.

jb said...

Should that be Type 2B?

Anonymous said...

I'm sure it's easier for the non-outgoing or non-confident students to make an appointment with a professor to meet at a conference, instead of trying to intercept them at the posters or in a corridor, but I admit that I don't like having to organize my plans in advance sufficiently to make a conference-appointment with a prospective student. Conferences are just too crazy to do much of that.

Anonymous said...

How do you have time to answer all those emails? It can hardly be worth the time, especially the form emails.

I've adopted the rule of deleting all the "Dear Sir" ones, because if they don't know my gender, their interest in working with me must be nil, because they did not visit my website.

With all others, I've been moving them to a folder in my mail, and just accumulating them there. Just a few days ago, I wrote one email response, and dragged the addresses of all student enquirers into the Bcc field. Then I deleted the emails from the folder, to start accumulating anew—there were more than 200 of them, since last July (the majority from Iran, and some from China, none from the US or Europe).

The mass response said, very politely, something like: Thank your for your interest in PhD at My University. I apologize for not being able to reply to your email personally, but I've had more than 200 enquiries from students in the last couple of months. Please inform yourself of application requirements in this web page [link].

Then I gave some advice about contacting me in the future (addressing specific interests, visiting my website, etc.), and explained that admission offers are made by Committee in our Department.

Even while doing this, which did take a bit of time, I felt that I was wasting my time, and I wondered who ever bothers to reply to these enquiries. I was surprised to read your post!

AnEngineeringProf said...

I'm amazed you respond to these. I delete them all, except the rare ones from someone who clearly has done some research in advance and is addressing me individually.

I was told by one PhD student from India that professors there often advise undergraduates to send these form emails to professors. Apparently they seem to think it will help their chances with admittance. If so, I can't blame the students for sending these emails, if they've been given bad advice. But neither do I feel obliged to reply personally.

Anonymous said...

I'm a postdoc, but I've been getting a lot of emails from students in China who want to work in my lab. (Not only am I not a professor, I'm a theorist -- I'll never have a lab.) I feel vaguely rude about sending no reply at all but don't really know what to say. I've also received several emails from graduate students in South America or eastern Europe telling me they have funding to go to the US to collaborate with someone for a summer or a semester or some such thing, and want to collaborate with me. I keep thinking it would make more sense for them to find a collaborator before getting funding, but again, I feel rude about ignoring the emails (but do so nonetheless).

Anonymous said...

I also use the "Dear Sir" as a filter for ignoring the request, although sometimes if i'm in a bad mood, i'll write back "Dear Madam," - it's almost always male students doing this - and then some advice on how blanket emails are not going to help anyone.

Naresh said...

Just a thought:
Engineering Students in India, almost never get good research opportunities. The equipment you have in your labs is far too expensive for anywhere outside of the top public universities here. They are typically more often than not crunched for time due to 'intensive coursework' and harsh grading systems(at-least at my institution, where students are graded on a curve). We typically don't have SURF or similar programs for undergraduate students as well and a lot of Professors just treat the summer vacation as a vacation and do no research-work at all. In such a situation as a student, what would you expect them to do?

I think it would be far better to 'scold' them than to ignore them. If they don't have any sort of feedback from the Professors in US, then they will continue sending mass-emails.

Lastly, professors never tell students to send the mass-emails. Its generally the seniors who have gotten into graduate programs, and had earlier done this who say this. Professors in India, especially in the smaller colleges hardly care about the students and typically are not well-qualified either, generally having a Masters degree at most.