Some tips on writing an email of interest to potential graduate school advisors

**Adopted from the Evans Lab DEI page

Finding an advisor is important for attending graduate school. Graduate programs have an official application to the program you submit through the university, but many graduate programs will only accept students if a professor has agreed to accept or interview them. (Note: an exception is a program that accepts students then matches them to advisors in their first or second year, through rotations or other means). Therefore it is essential to make connections with advisors before you submit your application. Finding and contacting an advisor is up to the applicant.

How to start? Start by learning more about what research you are interested in and what others are doing, with the goal of finding a pool of people doing work in your area of greatest interest. “Doing your homework” in this way is essential to focusing your topic areas and reflecting on what you want to do. Look at the lab website of principal investigators and reflect on your own constraints (e.g. geographical). Scientific papers or conferences are also a great place to learn about someone’s research. If you are interested in a lab, see if there is a page on their website for prospective students. If so, follow the directions for reaching out, and use the information there to craft your email.

When to start? Ideally you would contact potential advisors several months before you submit an application (this document doesn’t cover other things you should think about before applying, like taking the GRE or developing relationships with supervisors who will write letters). If applications are due in December, generally you should contact advisors by the end of September. However, reach out to potential advisors as soon as you can articulate your interests. If it’s a long time before applications, you might be able to meet up with the advisor at a conference or their university. If it’s after you’ve submitted an app, it’s not too late.

What to say in an email? It’s important to spend time on this email because it can make a good first impression and catch an advisor’s eye. You will need to state your research interests and why you are interested in this laboratory, so it is important to understand the lab’s research by reading the website and papers. The ability to articulate why you are interested in a certain research topic (theme or paper) in your own words – what you find exciting, how you came to be interested in that through past work experience, why it’s important – is critical. The length should be one paragraph or at most two short paragraphs.

Other things to be sure to include: Any research experience you have. If you don’t have research experience, other work experience can be mentioned if you can connect it to why you’re interested in the lab. Connecting your past experience with your future goals in your lab of interest is essential. Your timeline – for instance, “I am applying to graduate programs this winter for anticipated start in August 2022” If you have some professional connection to the professor, mention this. This is NOT required but as humans we look for personal connection and if you have one, it can help the person notice your email and give you peer-credibility. If you will be attending a conference in a relevant field sometime soon, mention this. It is a great place to meet potential advisors and (if applicable) for them to see your research presentation! The question: are you accepting students right now? Attach your resume or CV.

Avoid: Copying and pasting phrases from the professor’s website (but do read it over), or using the same exact email and sending it to multiple professors (it won’t be very strong). Weird formatting, like multiple fonts, or unprofessional language Typos or mistakes like including the wrong professor’s name. Proofread.

Followups: If you have not gotten a response, it is appropriate to email the advisor again in a few weeks, and I would encourage you to do so. After a second email, I’d assume they are not taking students, and drop it or make contact another way (e.g. attend a talk) if possible (this is my personal opinion, other profs might feel differently). As for what to say in a ‘followup’: I recommend re-sending your first email, adding to the top something like: “Hi Dr. __, I wanted to make sure you saw my email, please let me know if you are taking graduate students this year”. or “I know you are busy, but wanted to reach out one more time…” It might just have trickled down in their inbox. The faculty I surveyed said if this ‘re-mail’ came a couple weeks after the first, they would not consider this pushy at all.

How many to contact? There’s no rule on this, but I’d suggest you develop a list of 10-15 labs you are interested in, and contact them by the end of September. Any more and you probably need to focus your interests more. Do not get discouraged if some never reply. A goal might be to have 3 advisors that are willing to take you on as a student by the time you apply. But you only need one to get in.

International students and labs: These tips apply to many PIs in the US. Many similar concepts apply to contacting anyone, but you may want to ask around for country-specific conventions if for schools outside the US. _____

The bigger picture: This document is partially motivated by uncovering hidden or unwritten curricula in STEM. This type of informal knowledge is often only communicated to those with the right networks or privilege, and thus reduces opportunities for other groups. Read more about unwritten or hidden curricula here.

Other things that you might not be explicitly told during the grad school process: You can ask to speak to other people in the lab when evaluating whether it is right for you! And you should! This is a good way to learn about the advisor’s advising style and mentoring quality, and the lab climate. Listen for red flags that may indicate the advisor is not a good mentor. You can ask about funding sources! Most grad students in STEM receive a stipend for the entirety of their schooling. Funding for graduate students can come from teaching assistantships (TA), research assistantships (RA), or other fellowships either inside or outside the university (e.g. NSF GRFP). Ask what funding the advisor has available, or other opportunities for funding, and what your grad experience would look like (e.g. are TAships widely available or guaranteed? Are any RAships available?)

Other resources for this task - read these over to get other perspectives. Talk to your current mentor, colleagues, or others familiar with academia! As I’ve said, there may be lots of opinions and perspectives on how best to do this - this is just one way. PIs, talk to your undergrads about this, particularly first-gen college students or underrepresented groups.

ONE example from a former student is below Note that customizing a letter to your own voice and interests is essential. See info above.

Dear Dr. Evans, I am a senior Biology Major at Villanova University. I am interested in attending graduate school at Michigan State University, particularly in relation to the startup of your new lab there, and would like to inquire if you are currently accepting graduate students. I was intrigued by your recent paper, “Climate change alters ecological strategies of soil bacteria”. The conclusion that of the 127 species found in both the ambient and delayed rainfall regimes, only 18% did not show changes in strategy, was profound in regards to the impacts of historical conditions on microbial communities. The question you pose at the end regarding the unclear distinction between alterations in ecological properties, being due to shifts in species composition or strategy, aligns with the types of questions I would look to pursue under your advisement.

This year I am working on a senior thesis project under the advisement of Samantha Chapman. Using a warming and snow removal experiment, I am addressing the question: will variable soil temperatures affect enzyme activity involved in P, N, C, and cation cycling in a Pennsylvania deciduous forest. While performing this research I found I was particularly interested in the mechanistic aspects of soil ecology and would be interested in exploring related questions in a starkly contrasted environment such as the Namib Desert.

I greatly appreciate your time during this busy time of year and hope to hear back from you soon.

Doc written by S. Evans 1/15/19. Thanks to Nick Haddad (Michigan State University’s Kellogg Biological Station) and Kathryn Docherty (Western Michigan University) for feedback and an additional perspective on these subjective tips!

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