One of the best pieces of advice someone told me before I started to submit applications for grad school was to reach out to faculty members for whom I wanted to work with. This is very useful since it gives you the opportunity to investigate more about the professors in a certain program rather than other programs, and the professors would have the chance to know more about you beyond your application documents. But what is the best way to approach them? Faculty members are extremely busy with their everyday responsibilities. However, they would certainly want to chat with potential grad students. Thus, here are some tips on how to draft a clear and professional email to address a potential advisor as a grad school applicant.
Indicate who you are and the purpose of your email
Something that most people do not give that much importance to is the subject line of the email, even though this is the most important part! The subject line of the email needs to catch the attention of the faculty member almost immediately and should make it stand out among the other dozens of emails they should read. Therefore, the subject sentence should be clear and concise. Something as “PhD Applicant – [Program/Department] – [Starting Semester] should be enough to express the purpose of the email. After the greeting, the first sentence of your email should serve to identify yourself. A good rule of thumb is to say your name and which graduate program you intend to apply to. It is also relevant to indicate your most recent degree and which university you attended.
Do you have any scholarships or funding for grad school? State it!
Funding is what keeps the research moving in grad school and faculty members are in constant need of it, especially young principal investigators. Stating right at the start of the email that you have been awarded with a fellowship or scholarship to pursue your graduate studies can give you a better chance to prove that you are an excellent candidate for grad school. Any award or scholarship, whether it be US-government funded, from your home country’s government (in case of international students), industry-funded or from a NGO, it shows that you are a skilled individual that has already been recognized by other people, and it means more funding for the research team. This is a win-win!
Address the professor’s research and link it to your research interests
It is extremely important that you state in your email why are you interested in working with the professor. A good way to do this is by mentioning some of their publications that you have read or their current research projects stated in their website and associate them with your own research interests and overall goal for grad school. You could also show how you would be a good fit for their research team by indicating related background work, publications, or conferences you have presented in. However, it is not recommended to elaborate too much into this because this will be on your attached CV (more on this coming). Remember to be concise! This section should not be more than 2-3 sentences.
Make yourself available to their schedule
On the closing section of the email, ask to let them know if they would be available for a phone or video call. Additionally, you should mention that you would make yourself available to their schedule (and be prepared to do so) and thank them for their time and attention. Do not forget to attach your CV since this will give them more information about any publications, conferences, awards, GPA, and other points that you are not able to communicate in this brief email. If your first email reached them and they reply, congratulations! Now be polite during the phone call and wear something professional for a videocall as well. If you do not receive an immediate reply, it is totally acceptable to send a follow up email two weeks later, since professors have some days were there are unavoidable deadlines and will not probably check all emails during those days. In the follow up email, state that you wrote an initial email two weeks prior and that you were hoping to connect with them to discuss research interests. Again, be polite and acknowledge that you would make yourself available to their schedule. Most of the times the professors will reply after that follow up email. However, if that is not the case, it is not recommended to send a third email. Instead, it is advisable to contact other potential faculty member and repeat the same process.
Finding an advisor for grad school is one of the most important keys to have a successful PhD experience and graduating. This would be the first interaction that you would have with them and you only have one chance to make a good impression! Professors are always in the lookout for motivated and proactive students, so starting the conversation on research interests, even before being accepted into a certain program, can give you a head start to get noticed by faculty members and improve your application into grad school.
About the author: Rosa Selenia Guerra Reséndez is a GCURS alum, a Fulbright-García Robles Doctoral Scholar and active member of the Latin American Graduate Student Association at Rice University. She is a third-year graduate student in the Systems, Synthetic and Physical Biology program, advised by Dr. Isaac Hilton, and in 2017 earned her B.S. in Genomic Biotechnology from Universidad Autónoma de Nuevo León. Read more about Rosa here.