Thursday, 6 October 2011

Writing to me (reprise)

In 2007, I wrote about the different types of e-mail messages that I receive from prospective graduate students. I've received a heap of these e-mails in recent weeks, so I was thinking about this general topic and looked back at what I wrote 4 years ago. Below I sort-of reprint that post, but I have edited it, in places extensively, based on my current thoughts about these missives.


In my field, at this time of year, potential grad students send e-mail messages to potential graduate advisors.

Note: In my department, students need to have an identified advisor from the very beginning, although it is certainly possible for a student to switch advisors once admitted to the graduate program; hence, these e-mails.

I answer all such e-mails from prospective graduate students, but the content and length of my response varies with the tone/content of the e-mail from the student.

These e-mails come in several varieties:

Type 1: Form letters: Some students send these e-mails to many professors and don’t bother to tailor each e-mail to each potential advisor. Some are clearly not even appropriate for the particular research field of the recipient. This does not make a good impression.

My response: Cursory, particularly if the e-mail starts "Dear Sir". (The correct form of address is "Professor", which avoids the hazard of not being able to guess gender from a name, particularly one in an unfamiliar culture, although a Dear Sir letter to me is a sure sign that my correspondent did not look at my faculty webpage because, despite being a flaming feminist, I am quite recognizably female from my photographs, I think.) My response typically consists of something like this: "Dear S, If you are interested in applying to the graduate program in X-Science at MyUniversity, you can find information about application procedures at [link]. Sincerely, FSP."

Type 2A: More specialized letter, but unfocused, poorly written, or otherwise demonstrating cluelessness. I got one of these recently and it really made me wonder if this student, who is apparently a native English speaker and who may well be very smart and hard-working, can or will get past this severe disadvantage when applying to graduate programs. Example:
Dear Prof FS,

Hello my name is X. I am interested in graduate school for next year because I really love Science! I am especially interested in [garbled name of my research subfield]. Can you tell me more about it?
My response: No.

My real response: polite but not detailed. I point the student to my webpages, which have information about several ongoing research projects.

Type 2B: More serious than 2A, and not as clueless, but still asking in an unspecific way for me to describe my research. When a student requests more information about my research and that's all they say about it, I don't know what -- if anything -- the student has done on their own to learn about my research. I am not expecting a prospective student to write "I have read your last 18 papers and they are all fabulous", but a less vague question will get a less vague answer.

My response: Similar to above, but a notch more detailed; I provide a link to my research webpages.

Type 3: Excellent letter: focused, well-written, demonstrates that the student has thought about why they might want to apply to my university and possibly work with me.

Dear FSP,

I am a senior at X University, and am interested in obtaining a PhD/MS in Your Field or A Closely Related Field. I became interested in Your Field (briefly mention class and/or research experience). I saw on your webpages that you [mention something of interest as a possible research opportunity]. (Alternative: I read your recent paper in Journal and was interested in [specify]). 

.... (see below for examples of how to end such a letter)...

My response: I respond to any specific questions, providing details about research opportunities.

So, how do prospective applicants end these letters? This is the awkward part for some.

It is OK to ask a potential advisor if they are taking on new students in the coming academic year. You can end the letter with this; it is easy enough to answer with yes, no, or maybe. Whether someone is even interested in taking on new advisees is critical information for potential applicants. Someone might well be doing the most fascinating research in the world (to you), but if they already have 17 students and are not taking new students, maybe you don't want to apply there (unless there is someone else you want to work with). 

It is OK to end the letter with an expression of interest in the graduate program and something like "I plan to apply for the graduate program, and hope that your department will seriously consider my application." It's a meaningless sentence, but it shows intent and is a possible way to end the letter without making an open-ended request for information. Most professors (in fields in which these letters are common) will know why you are writing -- to get your name out there, to show seriousness of intent -- so you don't have to work too hard to explain why you are writing.

If you are going to be at an upcoming conference, you could end the letter by letting the potential advisor know if/when you are giving a presentation, in case they are interested. Speaking only for myself, I don't like getting requests for extensive meetings/discussions with potential applicants about whom I know nothing other than what is in their e-mail.

I am, however, happy to chat with prospective students at poster sessions or professional/social events or during breaks. Instead of making an appointment (which requires the professor to look through the conference schedule in detail in advance and make a plan), just try to track down people of interest in likely spots at conferences, or, better, have one of your professors introduce you. [But that's just my preference. If you like making appointments with prospective students, leave a comment so that it will be clear there is a difference of opinion on this issue.]



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