Emailing Future Ph.D. Advisors
This is an important, but often overlooked, step in the application process.
Posted Oct 01, 2014
An advisor (sometimes referred to as a “major professor”) is a faculty member who directs the research and training of a Ph.D. student. When applying to a Ph.D. program, you are usually expected to name a potential advisor based on interest in his/her research and the desire to become an apprentice to this person. An advisor will serve as the head of your dissertation committee and train you to become an expert in his/her area of research. Emailing potential future advisors has become a crucial step in the process of applying to Ph.D. programs.
In this blog post, we will cover why emailing a potential advisor is important and how best to do it. Please note: Emailing advisors is not necessary when applying to Psy.D. or Masters programs because these programs do not run on an apprenticeship model like Ph.D. programs.
What is the purpose of emailing a potential advisor before applying?
Making initial contact with professors you would like to work with as a Ph.D. student is extremely important for two reasons. First, it is your chance to make a positive impression even before your application is submitted. Unless you know this professor from your undergraduate education or you have met him/her at a conference, the email exchange will be the first impression you make, and as psychologists, we know how influential first impressions can be on subsequent attitudes about people.
The second reason the initial email is important is because it will play a significant role in determining whether or not you will actually submit an application to that professor’s program. In the email, you will seek to find out if he/she will be accepting at least one new Ph.D. student the year you will be applying.
Research faculty members are not likely to take new Ph.D. students each and every year. This could be for a variety of reasons. For example, a professor might be going on sabbatical, taking on an administrative role, or phasing out for retirement. It is also possible that the faculty members in a program take turns admitting students each year due to funding constraints, a limited number of openings, or lack of office/laboratory space.
Ph.D. programs are very selective and, therefore, applicants should focus their efforts primarily on those advisors who are actually seeking new students. Spending energy on applying to work with faculty members who are not accepting new students is not well spent and reduces one’s chances for admission.
Truth be told, when I applied to Ph.D. programs, I was unaware that I should email advisors before applying to work with them. I applied to 11 programs and later found out that only roughly half of the professors who I named as possible advisors in my personal statements were actually accepting new Ph.D. students. Fortunately, admission still worked out for me that year, but knowing better now, I advise others not to cut their chances for admission by neglecting this important step in the process.
What should the email be like?
Keep the initial email to a potential advisor short, to the point, and professional. It should be no longer than three brief paragraphs with a closing statement (see suggested structure below). Ideally, in this small amount of space, you want to show that you are a competent student coming from a good educational background and that you are involved with research that is related to that of your reader. Importantly, you also want to ask if this person is planning to at least consider applications for a new Ph.D. student or two.
Send emails to potential advisors in August – October before applications are due in November – January. At this time of year, faculty member’s minds begin to shift to the upcoming round of applications and whether or not they are seeking a new student will become clearer.
Contact only one faculty member per department. It will not appear that you are uniquely excited to become a part of his/her lab if he/she discovers that you have emailed one or more other faculty members in the same program.
Here is the structure I suggest my clients use when emailing potential advisors:
Subject line: Ph.D. applicant -Or- Your Research on XYZ
Dear Dr. So-and-so,
Paragraph 1: Briefly introduce yourself and your research experience.
I am beginning my senior year at the University of [Somewhere]. During my time as an undergraduate, I have become involved with research on [XYZ] under the direction of Dr. [Someone]. I am in the process of conducting my own study examining the effects of [A] on [B] and expect to find [hypothesis].
Paragraph 2: Connect your research to that of the potential advisor.
I have read your research about [XYZ] and find it interesting. I am especially interested in how X from your studies relates to Y from my study. This is one area I could see myself exploring in research as a graduate student.
Paragraph 2: Alternatively, instead of connecting your two areas of research, make an intelligent observation or ask a great question about the reader’s research.
I have read your research about [XYZ] and find it interesting. I was wondering how W would affect your finding about XYZ. Did your study or another one find that W is also related to XYZ? This is one area I could see myself exploring further in research as a graduate student.
Paragraph 3: Ask if he/she is accepting graduate students.
I will be applying to Ph.D. programs this fall and would very much like the opportunity to join your lab group. Will you be accepting applications for new graduate students for entry in [year]?
Thanks very much for your time. I hope we have the chance to speak about research in the future.
If your CV is in good shape, you could attach it to the email for the recipient’s perusal.
If you work closely with a current Ph.D. student or know one of your current or past professors in the field to which you are applying well, I recommend asking this person to read over your email before sending it. Ask for feedback and it is always good to have a second set of eyes check for typos. I am also available to review these emails as a consultant.
What should I expect in a reply?
First off, you should not necessarily expect a timely reply or any reply at all. Professors are inundated daily with emails from their current students, other faculty and administrators at the university, collaborators all over the world, journalists, and others. With all of this inbox traffic, your email may not very well be on the top of his/her reply-to list.
Let’s start by discussing the worst-case scenario: you receive a reply that indicates the professor will not be considering applications this year. At this point, it is safe to either remove the program from the list of those you will be applying to and replace it with another program or make contact with another professor in the first program whose research interests you. Do not email more than two people per program though.
In the best-case scenario, you receive a reply that indicates he/she will be considering applications. By all means, keep this program on the list of those to which you will be applying. The faculty member who you corresponded with will likely recognize your name when it comes time to review applications and this could work to your advantage. Refrain from reading too much into a warm or overly positive reply though. It does not mean much about your chances for admission. Admission will largely depend on the quality of the other applicants and on performance during an interview – both of which faculty members cannot assess based on your email exchange.
Finally, if you do not receive a reply at all, you can still apply to the program and name the faculty member as the person who you would like to be your advisor, but consider it a more “risky” program on your list with a lower chance of admission.