How to Email Professors (and What to Say in Interviews)

How to Email Professors Applicant Interviewing

Most PhD applicants know they need to contact professors long before they submit their applications. It’s not exactly a bad idea for master’s applicants either – at least those applying to research- or thesis-based master’s programs with structured lab rotations. In either case, it’s anxiety-inducing. How to email professors if we’re just lowly undergrads? What to say? What are the rules of etiquette? Will they actually respond?

Hey, relax. This is easier than you think.

If you’ve been busting your rump for two years as a research assistant, and piling up shimmering academic credentials, then professors are going to love to hear from you. They’re choosing who they want to work with for the next 2-5 years. Who do you think they’d rather choose? Someone whom they’ve never spoken to? Or someone who sent a polite email, a great CV, and who then asked them brilliant questions on the phone?

That’s exactly what I want you to do, and this is exactly how I want you to do it.

How to Email Professors

Step 1: Write 2 sentences listing your best credentials in the absolute most concise terms possible. Seriously. Keep it brief. You’re not trying to tell your life story – just let them know you’re a valid candidate so you can get them on the phone and tell them more. If you need help, this exercise will give you some insight. But it should look something like this:

I currently work under Dr. Lucius Fox at Gotham University studying 3D photo-realistic simulators for autonomous robots. Also I have worked as a research assistant in Dr. Lex Luthor’s lab, where we studied visual perception for underwater drones.

Or…

Currently, I work in Dr. Otto Octavius’s lab at Stark University, primarily researching programmed cell death in carcinoma cells. In the last two years I have also assisted projects on intracellular-calcium signaling and its pathophysiological implications.

Or, if you’re a humanities student…

At Gotham University, I recently won the Outstanding Honor’s Thesis award for my independent study under Dr. Ra’s al Ghul. It examines socio-linguistic functions of magical realism in both Mark Twain and Gabriel García Márquez, and will be presented at the Stark University Comparative Literature Research Symposium in May.

Step 2: Scour the website to find out whether your target professor is accepting graduate students this year or not. If you can’t find the information, send the following email template:

Subject: Potential PhD Student

Dear Dr. Fries,

My name is Bruce Wayne and I’m interested in applying to the Computer Science PhD program for the 2021-2022 cycle.

I currently work under Dr. Lucius Fox at Gotham University studying 3D photo-realistic simulators for autonomous robots. I have also worked as a research assistant in Dr. Lex Luthor’s lab, where we studied visual perception for underwater drones. You can find my CV attached with more details.

Are you accepting graduate students for 2021?

Thank you for time, Dr. Fries. I look forward to hearing from you.

Best regards,

Bruce Wayne

Step 3: If the website DOES indicate that they’re accepting students this year, send this email template:

Subject: Potential PhD Student

Dear Dr. Fries,

My name is Bruce Wayne and I saw on the CS department website that you’re accepting grad students for the 2021-22 cycle. I’m interested in applying to the Computer Science PhD program and would like to introduce myself.

I currently work under Dr. Lucius Fox at Gotham University studying 3D photo-realistic simulators for autonomous robots. I have also worked as a research assistant in Dr. Lex Luthor’s lab, where we studied visual perception for underwater drones. You can find my CV attached with more details.

Would you have time to talk about the direction of your research?

Thank you for time, Dr. Fries. I look forward to hearing from you.

Best regards,

Bruce Wayne

*Rule: No more than 7 sentences in the whole email!

And keep them short! Honestly, just copy this template. Don’t go stuffing in extra information. An email is not the place to do that, and you’ll attach your CV anyway.

Now, Get Them On the Phone

If you’ve scripted your background/introduction correctly, and your CV looks great, the professor will likely offer to schedule a phone or Zoom call. This is where the real work begins, but again, it’s easier than you think. Professors are pretty cool people after all, and you’re both the exact same type of nerd. Nothing is more fun than two nerds bro-ing down over the research questions that excite them.

Preliminary Research

Now it’s time to look through the department website. Visit the faculty or research staff/grad students pages. If possible, find the independent page for your target professor’s lab. You want to learn the following information:

  1. How many grad students do they work with?
  2. How big is the lab? Do they have post-docs?
  3. Which of the professor’s recent papers look most interesting to you?
  4. What methodologies, techniques, and approaches do they use?

Note that some departments have abysmal websites, and you may not be able to find answers to No. 4 without scanning the professor’s recent work on something like Google Scholar. Others have amazing sites that present everything you need to know in a nice tidy package. The Biocomplexity Institute at the University of Virginia is a great example.

Prepare to Answer Questions

Not every professor will pepper you with questions. Some may sit back and wait to see what you ask them (intelligent questions, hopefully). Either way, you need to have your elevator pitch prepared.

  1. Why do you want to go to grad school?
  2. What is your research goal?
  3. What makes you qualified? What are your credentials?
  4. What are your career goals?

Ideally, you want to be able to answer each of these questions in 2-4 quick sentences. If you’ve already read the PhD SOP Starter Kit and outlined your SOP, this is easy. If not, I suggest you do so…or read these previous articles:

The One Thing You Should Do Right Now to Improve Your SOP

Sell Yourself: What Grad Applicants Should Learn from Silicon Valley Startups

Prepare to ASK Questions

Break out your trusty notebook, friend. For each phone call, you’re going to need a list of questions and room to take notes. The answers you generate with these questions are going to go directly in your SOP’s “Why This Program” section.

The Two Most Important Questions

  1. What are you currently working on?
  2. What do you plan to work on in the next few years?

Really, this should be the heart of your conversation. This is why you’re talking to Professor X, and why Professor X is talking to you. You’re seeking a research affinity.

In your SOP’s “Why This Program” section, you’re going to give specific reasons why you want to work under this professor. Thus, it would be quite useful to include a passage like:

“I am quite interested in the work of Dr. Selina Kyle, particularly her use of optical methods to identify residual stresses in seismically vibrated molds. Dr. Kyle and I have already discussed potential projects using Moire and holographic interferometry, and I believe my experience with SICK vision cameras will make me an ideal contributor to this research.”

Secondary but Still Important Questions

For these questions, make sure you can’t find the answers on the department website already. If the info is already publicly available, you look awfully lazy. We don’t want that.

  1. What methods do you usually use?
  2. What’s the set up of your lab usually like?
  3. What is your mentoring style?
  4. What expectations do you have for new grad students? Would I start on a project immediately? Will I conduct secondary analysis on existing projects?
  5. What have recent students gone on to do after graduation? Post-docs? Tenure-track jobs? Industry? (Be CERTAIN to search for this on the website first.)
  6. What is the department like? Are there opportunities for collaboration?
  7. Do your students often have opportunities to publish and go to conferences?
  8. What is the admissions process timeline?

Send a Thank You Email

24-48 hours after concluding your interview, send a detailed thank you email. Most applicants ignore this, but it’s crucial. By reminding the professor who you are and how you’ll fit in their lab, you’ll show them that you’re mature, professional, and a breeze to work with. You’ll also fix yourself on their radar when your application finally comes up in the pile.

Your email will consist of the following points:

  1. Polite thank you
  2. Reminder of the research topic you discussed
  3. (If possible) Emphasize some advice they gave you and, importantly, how you’re acting on it
  4. Repeat polite thank you

Example:

Dear Dr. Zod,

I wanted to reach out and thank you for taking the time to interview me for the Computer Science Program at Metropolis University. I appreciate that you were able to discuss your upcoming research on visual perception for atmospheric satellites. The opportunity to work on wide-field and rapid cadence surveillance from geosynchronous orbit is my primary attraction to MU.

Your advice on taking additional coursework in analysis of linear systems motivated me greatly. This spring, I’ll be taking Fourier Methods for Imaging under Dr. Lex Luthor at Gotham Univ., and I’m excited to further develop these skills in preparation for doctoral work.

Once again, thank you for the opportunity to interview with you, Dr. Zod. I look forward to hearing from you once final decisions are made.

Sincerely,

Bruce Wayne

Conclusion on How to Email Professors

Reaching out to the people who’ll pass judgment on your applications – yeah, this can be a little nerve-racking. But…now you’ve got the playbook. Follow these steps, and your target PIs will see you as a mature, thoughtful, motivated young scholar who’ll fit quite nicely in their lab.

In fact, having a great phone interview can be the difference between acceptance and rejection. Reddit is littered with stories of applicants who received a departmental rejection, then a few weeks later, got a personal email from the professor saying: “Wait, I’ve pulled you off the pile…are you still interested?”

In every case, this happened because the applicant had a fantastic interview.

Now go get yours. Make it happen. Follow these templates and show them how brilliant you are.

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