International Focus: Ten Tips on connecting with potential advisers

By Sathvik Iyengar. How do you go about contacting a professor who could potentially be your adviser?

A cup of coffee on an orange saucer sits on a wooden desk. A laptop is seen in the upper corner of the screen.

As a graduate student, finding a potential adviser who shares your research interests and goals is crucial to your academic success. But how do you go about contacting a professor who could potentially be your adviser? In this article, we'll explore some tips for reaching out to professors who are potential advisers or have graduate students in their labs.

  1. Do Your Research

The first step in contacting a potential adviser is to do your research. You should know the professor's research interests, publications, and recent projects. This information can help you tailor your communication to the professor's specific interests and expertise.

  1. Reach Out via Email

Email is the most common and convenient way to contact a professor. When writing an email to a potential adviser or current graduate students in that professor's lab, you should include:

  • A brief introduction of yourself and your academic background
  • Your research interests and goals
  • Why you are interested in the professor's research
  • Any relevant experience you have
  • A polite request for a meeting or phone call to discuss potential opportunities

Remember to be concise and professional in your email. Professors receive many emails, so make sure yours is easy to read and stands out. Your subject title should also be short and to the point; consider adding “Incoming Ph.D. Student: …” if you have already been admitted as some professors are more receptive to emails from students who have already gone through the gauntlet of department-level admissions.

  1. Be Patient

Professors are busy, so they may need some time to respond to your email. If you are still waiting to hear back from a professor within a week, send a polite follow-up email. But don't be too pushy or demanding, as this could make a negative impression. One aspect you may even need to come to terms with is that you may not receive a response—and that is okay! It is often not a reflection of something you did wrong but just the circumstance. This is why it is essential to reach out to as many people as possible and cast out a wider net.

  1. Attend Events (Departmental, Conferences, etc.)

Attending department events, such as seminars or conferences, is a great way to meet professors in person. These events allow you to network and connect with professors and other graduate students in your field. Politely exchange emails and contact information—professors often like students keen to keep in touch beyond just one meeting!

  1. Be Prepared for the Meeting

If a professor agrees to meet with you, ensure you are prepared. Research their work and recent projects and come up with some questions to ask about their research and potential opportunities in their lab. Bringing a copy of your resume and other relevant materials is also a good idea.

  1. Reach out to current group members

This is one of the most important steps, sometimes more important than contacting the professor themselves. Knowing what kind of lab environment you are potentially considering is paramount. Scout information about mentorship styles (hands-on or hands-off), meet frequency (group meetings, sub-group meetings, 1-1 meetings), lab hierarchy (does the lab have research professors and research scientists in addition to postdocs, grad students, undergrads, and high school students?)

Tips for International Students Communicating by Email

If you are an international student who can only communicate by email, there are some additional tips to keep in mind:

  1. Be Mindful of Time Zones

Remember that professors may be in a different time zone than you, so schedule any meetings or calls at a time that works for both of you. You can also “schedule send” emails on Gmail or using plugins like “Boomerang.”

  1. Proofread, proofread, proofread!

Make sure to use proper (watch your grammar!) English and proofread your email before sending it. This will help ensure that your email is clear and professional. If you are not a native English speaker, feel free to contact a friend, a mentor, or even some of our Rice Graduate Ambassadors to get some help!

  1. Be Polite and Respectful

Be polite and respectful in your email and use appropriate titles and honorifics. In some cultures, it is customary to address professors by their first name, but in the United States, it is more common to address them as "Professor" or "Dr." with their last name. This is a safe way to write a salutation, especially in cases where you cannot guess the gender pronouns the person uses, and in your home country or custom you often use “Dear Sir” or “Dear Madam”.

  1. Be Specific and Concise

Be specific and concise in your email and avoid overly formal language (borderline superfluous). Professors receive many emails, so make sure yours is easy to read and gets to the point quickly. A quick exercise is to look at your email draft, pretend you are an extremely busy professor (with “more important” things to be doing besides reading your email), and cut out anything that is not central to your core message. Remember, only write what they have time to read.

In conclusion, contacting a potential adviser or current graduate students in a professor's lab can be daunting. Still, with the right approach, it can be a valuable opportunity to make connections and advance your academic career. Doing your research, contacting out via email, being patient, attending department events, and being prepared for meetings can increase your chances of finding the right adviser. And for international students communicating by email, remember to be mindful of time zones, use proper English, be polite and respectful, and be specific and concise in your email. Good luck!

Read More:

Finding a Ph.D. Advisor

Requesting a Recommendation Letter

Coming to Rice as an international student