UPDATE: Make sure to also read the comments at the bottom of this post for some additional and different perspectives.
Disclaimer About This Post: There is no one-size-fits-all approach to reaching out to potential grad school advisers. If there was one magical method that always worked, you would know about it by now. Each student, adviser, department, discipline, and overall situation is unique. My advice below is based on my perspective, experiences, and biases. I’m just one person. Also, please realize my advice is specific to geoscience and may not be valid or relevant for other scientific disciplines. I encourage students to seek advice from a diverse pool of mentors and peers. Finally, this advice is not comprehensive, one could write a book about this.
It’s that time of year where undergraduates at my institution want my advice about how to apply to graduate school. I figured it might be useful to write this post and share it more broadly.
(1) Start Early
Sometimes I get an email from an undergrad in our department around mid-December saying “Hey, do you have any advice for applying to grad school? Thanks!” If you haven’t even started the process and it’s December, it’s too late. (Not to mention that you’ve given me very little time to respond, and it’s final exam time, good luck with that!) Okay, maybe the application deadline is still a few weeks away, so it’s technically not too late. Sure, it’s possible that things will still work out for you, but you’re not maximizing your chances by waiting this long.
Start researching potential advisers/departments (more on that below) in August at the very latest, which would be approximately a full year before you would start. Yeah, that’s right, at least a full year before. You’re not deciding which toppings to get on your pizza, this is your life. Not only does starting this early allow sufficient time to learn as much as you can about the adviser/department, but it takes time for correspondence to happen. Additionally, you might learn that a potential adviser will be attending a conference in the fall where you could meet them in person. If you start too late, you could miss that opportunity.
(2) Do the Research
This is going to take some time and effort, at least to do it right. First, there’s the easy stuff. What’s the application deadline and process? What are the departmental requirements in terms of grades, scores, etc.? Most departments have this information on their websites — don’t email a potential adviser with a laundry list of basic questions that can be found on a website with a little bit of effort. Find it yourself, you’re an adult, get it together. In fact, if I get an email from a prospective student asking about this stuff (and nothing else), I may reply with the link they could have found in less than a minute and then proceed to grumble aloud. Not looking good for that student.
Create a spreadsheet or document, a database essentially, of information about each adviser/department. Create different columns or categories as you go so you can stay organized. Put website links into the document so you can easily access them later. As you compile more information, this database will help you make decisions (e.g., ‘pros’ and ‘cons’ categories).
In terms of researching what kind of science potential advisers do, this can be less straightforward. Some professors have updated and easy-to-navigate websites highlighting their research group (I think mine is pretty good). Other professors, even very prominent and successful scientists, do not have a website. Or, if they do, it was last updated in 2006 or something like that. If you’ve heard of someone or found someone on a departmental site and it looks interesting to you, try searching their name in GoogleScholar and ResearchGate to find more. This is where the ‘research’ part comes in to this process — the amount of time and effort you spend learning about potential advisers will vary significantly.
Okay, so what kind of things are you looking for?
- What is their overarching scientific interest? What types of questions and problems are they interested in? If they have a website, they might have a high-level statement that encompasses all their work.
- Take a look at their publication list. This is one of the best ways to see what they actually work on. Don’t fret if you aren’t familiar with all the details and nuances of a particular paper. You want to get an overall sense of the type of science they do. Note the journals they publish in — the titles of the journals will also be a window into the type of work they do (e.g., field, laboratory, modeling/theory, integrated).
- What are their current projects? This is important because these specific projects could be the ones for which they have funding (and, thus, $$$ for a new grad student). This isn’t always the case, they may have new projects coming online that aren’t listed yet (e.g., funding still pending).
- Look at the ‘People’ page of their website (if they have one). How many grad students do they currently have? What types of projects are they working on? Is it mostly master’s, PhD, or a mix?
I’m sure there’s much more, but hopefully you get the idea. Again, try to capture this information into your database. Have a ‘comments’ category to write down your impressions. Once you start looking at multiple options it’s nice to be able to refer to one document to remind you of some details.
(3) You’re Applying to Work with a Person, not Just an Institution
Going to grad school is not like going to college. Not at all. When you apply to undergrad you apply to an institution primarily. When you apply to grad school you are applying to a department, but you are also applying to work with a particular person. Yes, there are situations where students apply to a department and then, after acceptance, find an adviser in that department to work with. It’s not to say it doesn’t happen, but it’s rare.
The adviser-grad student relationship is somewhat like an apprenticeship. You will be learning the trade of doing science from a mentor. You want to learn about what working with this person is like. You are not going to learn everything from a person’s website, I realize that. But, it’s worth putting the time and effort in. I’d add that this is especially important for Ph.D. students since you’ll be working with this person for 4-6 years.
(4) Writing E-mails to and Corresponding with Potential Advisers
Okay, you’ve done some research and have a list of professors whose research programs look interesting to you. Now, it’s time to reach out to them. How does this work? This is where things get tricky because everyone is different. So, I want to reiterate that this is based on my own perspective. (Perhaps any faculty reading this could add their two cents in the comments.)
Firstly, take this seriously. Don’t send off an email you composed on your phone over lunch. Treat this as a cover letter. Create a Word document(or whatever software you use) so you can save and modify the text. Potential advisers will be consciously or subconsciously evaluating your writing in this email. This is what we do! Why would I take on a new grad student who doesn’t even put the effort in to writing a proper email? If you think that’s absurd and unfair, then good luck to you in all your endeavors.
Is there a form-letter you can use where you just change the names? Of course not! If that worked, you would know about it by now. This is going to take some effort. (You’re probably sensing a theme here.) Not only do you need to put thought into this letter, it’s likely it will be different for each situation. That is, you will end up with as many Word documents for as many advisers/departments you plan to contact.
Here’s what I like to see when I get these emails:
- Not too short, not too long. Two paragraphs max. A very long letter, regardless of how well its written, will probably not be read in full. That’s just the way it is.
- State your name, what degree and institution you have or will have, and the date or expected date of said degree. Do that all in one sentence.
- State what you want. For example, “I want to pursue a master’s degree in geoscience and your research program looks like a great fit for me and my interests.” As an adviser, I like to know if a student wants a master’s or Ph.D. from the start. You might think being flexible is better, but we are constantly planning and looking ahead about the make-up of our group.
- State your long-term goals. Do you want a master’s degree and then pursue a career in industry? Do you want a Ph.D. and pursue a career in academics? I appreciate that you may not yet know what you want to do. In that case, put some thought into writing a sentence or two that communicates that.
- All the above would be in the first paragraph. Close that paragraph with a direct question to the person. For example, “Will you be accepting new graduate students to start in Fall 20XX?” A direct question prompts the person to do something, to act. In this case, to reply to your email. You might even put it in bold.
- The second paragraph can summarize and highlight things you’ve done/are doing. I especially like to hear about any undergrad research projects you’ve participated in or are currently participating in. Don’t get too hung up on if the project you did doesn’t match exactly with what the person does. From my point of view, doing any research as an undergrad is valuable because you (hopefully) see the process of doing science.
- But, don’t go overboard on this second paragraph. Keep it succinct. You can refer them to the resume/CV you will attach to the email at this point. (Bonus tip: Include your last name in the file name of your resume/CV. There’s not much more annoying than a folder on my hard drive with 15 resumes called “resume.pdf”. Oh yeah, and convert it to a PDF, don’t send a .doc/.docx file.)
Okay, you’ve sent off this important email that you’ve put a lot of thought and work into. Now what? What if you don’t get a reply immediately? Well, in all likelihood you won’t get an immediate reply. Professors are busy people. Some are better than others with this sort of thing. Don’t take it personal. If you don’t get a reply after 2-3 weeks, then I think it’s appropriate to send a follow-up email simply saying you’re emailing again (and then include the original text in there so they don’t have to go searching). This is another reason why it’s important to start the process early. It may take up to a month to get a response.
When they do reply, hopefully you get some solid information. They might say “Sorry, I’m not taking on any new grad students right now.” This is a bummer, but obviously important to know. Or, they might say “I might be taking on grad students, but I’m not sure just yet, please contact me again in X weeks.” Sometimes we are waiting to hear about grants or other sources of funding and aren’t ready to make a decision. Or, they might say something like “I will be looking to accept a new graduate student, I encourage you to apply.” This is very good. It’s exceedingly rare that you’ll get “OMG, yes, please apply and I will definitely accept you into my program!”.
The types of replies you might get are too variable to even categorize here. It really just depends on their situation and how they do things. Expect different things from different people. If you get a reply back encouraging you to apply, then reply back saying that you’re aware of the application deadline and process (basically, that you’re ‘on it’). If you get a reply saying they aren’t taking new students, it’s good to send a quick message back thanking them for the information.
(5) Get It Together
Finally, this is the most important message (and is advice that goes way beyond applying to grad school): Get your stuff together. (You can substitute another word for ‘stuff’ if you like.) Get organized. Stay on top of things. Get your ducks in a row. Etc. Seriously, there’s nothing more frustrating than a talented and creative student that doesn’t have it together. I don’t care how good your grades are, how high your IQ is, where you went to undergrad, etc. … if you aren’t ready to jump on an opportunity when it comes your way, you could miss it. It’s competitive out there. Get it together.
Okay, I’ve already written a lot in this post. I’m sure there are a thousand other things to talk about from both the student and adviser perspective. Again, this is not meant to be comprehensive. Feel free to chatter away in the comments.