contacting professors about research?

astro_ice
Posts: 15
Joined: Thu Jul 06, 2017 8:56 pm

contacting professors about research?

Postby astro_ice » Thu Jul 06, 2017 9:46 pm

Hi all,

This is a post about contacting professors/grad students about research, any replies (esp. from grad students) would much appreciated, thank you.
When emailing a professor about research, is it a good idea to attach the CV/transcript with the email right away, or is it better to politely express interest and if the professor replies back, send all the relevant documents?
Some websites also mention that before contacting a professor to see if there space in his/her lab, it is better to talk to their graduate students first, but how does an undergrad go about doing this if we don't know any grad students personally?
Thanks so much in advance for any help!

space orca
Posts: 5
Joined: Mon May 15, 2017 7:10 pm

Re: contacting professors about research?

Postby space orca » Sat Jul 08, 2017 1:28 am

I'm curious to know more your inquiries as well, so this is a less useful "bump" to the post.

I've been looking at this link https://www.cs.virginia.edu/~evans/advice/prospective.html. It was created by a computer science professor and seems somewhat applicable for physics students. I would like to get some personal insight, however.

astro_ice
Posts: 15
Joined: Thu Jul 06, 2017 8:56 pm

Re: contacting professors about research?

Postby astro_ice » Sat Jul 08, 2017 4:30 pm

Yeah, personal insight would be really helpful - I've actually read that article too a while back lol
The interesting thing is that according to that professor (Dr. David Evans), GPA and GRE scores don't matter at all to most profs (he even reiterated this when I asked about it in the comments section) but tbh, that seems kind of unrealistic
Thanks for the reply tho, maybe we'll get some insight here soon

TakeruK
Posts: 894
Joined: Mon Jan 02, 2012 3:05 pm

Re: contacting professors about research?

Postby TakeruK » Sun Jul 09, 2017 12:23 am

My opinion is very similar to the linked blog post. I followed this strategy in 2012 and it worked well for me. The one big thing I would disagree with Dr. Evans is that if someone doesn't reply, that doesn't mean they should not be your advisor. I think some profs can still be good, communicative advisors even if they ignore these type of emails. Of course, when you are later deciding if you want to work for them, consider whether they replied and how they replied as ways of determining their style (and whether you would enjoy working for them). But I wouldn't rule out any school or advisor just because of a non-response.

Another point where I have heard other advice is whether or not to attach your CV and transcripts in the first email. I learned to not do that and I didn't do that. But after becoming a grad student and talking to some professors, they said they wish more students would do this so that all the information they need is right there. They said that while it would be great to discuss research possibilities with everyone, realistically, they are looking for strong students with good experience to join their group and they would much prefer to be able to look at your CV and transcript and decide whether or not they might be interested in your application before spending a lot of time discussing science with you. So, take that advice as you will.

In case it is of interest, I sent emails to 2-4 profs per school, 8 schools total. My responses were about 1/3 long, detailed replies specific to me (some of which had follow-up Skype chats), 1/3 short/canned responses like "Thank you for your message. Yes, I am taking students, but students will be admitted to the department rather than a specific advisor. I would be happy to chat with you further after admission decisions are made." And 1/3 professors did not reply to me at all.

And the person that became my eventual PhD advisor was not even someone I had contacted ahead of time!

astro_ice
Posts: 15
Joined: Thu Jul 06, 2017 8:56 pm

Re: contacting professors about research?

Postby astro_ice » Wed Jul 12, 2017 12:01 am

TakeruK wrote:My opinion is very similar to the linked blog post. I followed this strategy in 2012 and it worked well for me. The one big thing I would disagree with Dr. Evans is that if someone doesn't reply, that doesn't mean they should not be your advisor. I think some profs can still be good, communicative advisors even if they ignore these type of emails. Of course, when you are later deciding if you want to work for them, consider whether they replied and how they replied as ways of determining their style (and whether you would enjoy working for them). But I wouldn't rule out any school or advisor just because of a non-response.

Another point where I have heard other advice is whether or not to attach your CV and transcripts in the first email. I learned to not do that and I didn't do that. But after becoming a grad student and talking to some professors, they said they wish more students would do this so that all the information they need is right there. They said that while it would be great to discuss research possibilities with everyone, realistically, they are looking for strong students with good experience to join their group and they would much prefer to be able to look at your CV and transcript and decide whether or not they might be interested in your application before spending a lot of time discussing science with you. So, take that advice as you will.

In case it is of interest, I sent emails to 2-4 profs per school, 8 schools total. My responses were about 1/3 long, detailed replies specific to me (some of which had follow-up Skype chats), 1/3 short/canned responses like "Thank you for your message. Yes, I am taking students, but students will be admitted to the department rather than a specific advisor. I would be happy to chat with you further after admission decisions are made." And 1/3 professors did not reply to me at all.

And the person that became my eventual PhD advisor was not even someone I had contacted ahead of time!



Wow, thank you so much for all your informative advice TakeruK! It's really helpful to get a graduate student's perspective on this. Can I ask how you emailed the profs you contacted before applying to the grad schools?
I saw on another thread (about "suck mails") yours and many other students' approach/opinions to contacting professors; someone mentioned their emails were like a mini SOP, but I think that may be a bit much for professors to read before even knowing us. Also, like you, I am from a Canadian university as well, but in contrast, a professor from my university specifically states on her webpage do not email her about graduate admissions before the student is admitted and to not do this in general, so tbh I am a bit confused about this entire practice.
Thanks again for your reply tho!

astroprof
Posts: 102
Joined: Fri Feb 15, 2008 4:47 pm

Re: contacting professors about research?

Postby astroprof » Wed Jul 12, 2017 12:44 pm

In response to the original question, whether to include CV/transcripts in emails to prospective advisors, it depends on the purpose of the email. If you want to know if the professor is still taking students/has space in his/her lab (a reasonable question as the professoriate ages), then there is no need to include CV/transcripts. If you want to know if you will be accepted to work with this professor, then the additional academic information is helpful. However, I would caution against sending this information, particularly transcripts which may contain personally identifying information that you would prefer not to have circulating in the internet "ether" for anyone/everyone to read. First, even if your documents indicate that you are the world's most-accomplished-undergraduate-physics-student-ever, admissions decisions are also based on letters of recommendation and other factors that you cannot append to your email. For example, in my department, we have rejected applicants who have had nearly-perfect scores, grades, and previous research experience because the letters of recommendation indicated that these individuals were very difficult to work with and did not respond well to advice/critiques. Second, for physics and astronomy departments in most US universities, admissions decisions are made by a committee, so no single professor can tell you now, before the committee has met, whether you will be admitted or not. Thus, if you receive a response, it is likely to be a welcoming response recommending that you apply to the program, regardless of your actual merit. [Note that the process is very different in other countries, where you may be applying to work with a specific professor on a specific project.] Because of this, I do not recommend contacting professors (in the US) in advance of the admissions process unless you have very specific concerns for which you think such an interaction will help you decide whether or not to apply to their program. Also note that blanket e-mails to the entire department will be noted, and will not be considered in your favor.

astro_ice
Posts: 15
Joined: Thu Jul 06, 2017 8:56 pm

Re: contacting professors about research?

Postby astro_ice » Fri Jul 14, 2017 1:12 pm

astroprof wrote:In response to the original question, whether to include CV/transcripts in emails to prospective advisors, it depends on the purpose of the email. If you want to know if the professor is still taking students/has space in his/her lab (a reasonable question as the professoriate ages), then there is no need to include CV/transcripts. If you want to know if you will be accepted to work with this professor, then the additional academic information is helpful. However, I would caution against sending this information, particularly transcripts which may contain personally identifying information that you would prefer not to have circulating in the internet "ether" for anyone/everyone to read. First, even if your documents indicate that you are the world's most-accomplished-undergraduate-physics-student-ever, admissions decisions are also based on letters of recommendation and other factors that you cannot append to your email. For example, in my department, we have rejected applicants who have had nearly-perfect scores, grades, and previous research experience because the letters of recommendation indicated that these individuals were very difficult to work with and did not respond well to advice/critiques. Second, for physics and astronomy departments in most US universities, admissions decisions are made by a committee, so no single professor can tell you now, before the committee has met, whether you will be admitted or not. Thus, if you receive a response, it is likely to be a welcoming response recommending that you apply to the program, regardless of your actual merit. [Note that the process is very different in other countries, where you may be applying to work with a specific professor on a specific project.] Because of this, I do not recommend contacting professors (in the US) in advance of the admissions process unless you have very specific concerns for which you think such an interaction will help you decide whether or not to apply to their program. Also note that blanket e-mails to the entire department will be noted, and will not be considered in your favor.


Thank you astroprof for all your advice! It's really helpful to hear a professor's opinion on this.

TakeruK
Posts: 894
Joined: Mon Jan 02, 2012 3:05 pm

Re: contacting professors about research?

Postby TakeruK » Sun Jul 16, 2017 2:57 am

astro_ice wrote:Wow, thank you so much for all your informative advice TakeruK! It's really helpful to get a graduate student's perspective on this. Can I ask how you emailed the profs you contacted before applying to the grad schools?
I saw on another thread (about "suck mails") yours and many other students' approach/opinions to contacting professors; someone mentioned their emails were like a mini SOP, but I think that may be a bit much for professors to read before even knowing us. Also, like you, I am from a Canadian university as well, but in contrast, a professor from my university specifically states on her webpage do not email her about graduate admissions before the student is admitted and to not do this in general, so tbh I am a bit confused about this entire practice.
Thanks again for your reply tho!


As you've seen, there's no universal answer!

All of my emails were of the first type that astroprof mentioned (ensuring they have funding, time and space for me in their group). I found this helpful because one prof was honest with me and said that he had no funding for the type of work I wanted to do, so until I was successful in helping him write a grant, I would be TAing 20 hours per week every semester. For the second type of question, I haven't done this myself, but the profs that told me that they wish their emailers included their GPAs etc. aren't looking for info to say that "yes, you will be admitted", but instead, to look for flags that might mean the student is unlikely to be admitted. The profs are not from my school or even my subfield, but in a different system in the US where you do get admitted directly into someone's lab. Therefore, they want to know if the student even has a chance of getting into their department, because if the department generally only admits students with GPA > 3.4, and an applicant has a 2.8 GPA, then it might be a waste of time for both student and professor to continue the conversation since the prof might not think the dept will allow them to accept such a student. Also, it might unfairly and incorrectly gets the students hopes/expectations up.

I also think your own peace of mind is important. For me, coming from Canada to the US, I was used to having to email profs before applying. So, some of those short replies I mentioned were just letting me know about the US system. After finishing my PhD in the US, I now know better and would probably have been more comfortable just emailing my top choice prof at each school to ensure they have a space for me (and if not, moving down the list). I wouldn't have worried about my 2nd and 3rd choice profs (wouldn't want to only have one viable collaboration) until I was accepted. However, back then, I didn't know this so I felt much more confident and comfortable after emailing 2-3 profs at each place. I think this peace of mind helped me write a good SOP, have good conversations with my first choice profs and be calm and confident when writing the GRE exams.

So I think you should do what you feel is right, after hearing the different thoughts here and elsewhere! Just check the profs websites first to see if they have a message like your own professor's. In that case, don't send them an email. But I know many professors in the US and Canada that want to hear from prospective students, so I wouldn't take what anyone says as a universal truth! Each person can only speak for their own preferences.

(Edited to add: Oops, I missed the first question about how I emailed the profs. That was back in 2011 so to be honest, I don't really remember exactly how. But I think it was a two paragraph email like:

Dear Prof. X,

My name is XYZ and I am finishing my Masters degree at ABC with Prof. D working on E. Before that, I worked with Prof. F at University GHI on topic J. I am interested in applying to (their University's name) department for Fall 2012.

If I were to be admitted, I would be very interested in working with you on topics KLM. (maybe a sentence here about their recent work). I would be happy to provide transcripts and CVs if you would like to see them. Would you be accepting students in your group for Fall 2012?

Thank you,

XYZ




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