Advice: Your grad school inquiry email better relate directly to the person you’re emailing

Photo of three people looking at a long table full of marine specimens
Approaching prospective faculty advisers can feel daunting (and random). But it doesn’t have to. (Image ©2018, BGMerkle)

I field a fair number of grad student inquiry emails, especially considering I do not maintain a lab/students. My appointment in our department is a capacity-building one which does not involve direct supervision of graduate students pursuing degrees.

What that means is that I say no to every inquiry email I receive. For most of these prospective students, I wouldn’t be the right adviser anyway: they write me with interest in animal behavior, reproductive physiology, and wildlife biology to name a few. These emails are fairly straightforward to reply to. I don’t do that kind of science.

The trickier ones are the emails from people who clearly took time to read my bio/webpage on our department website. These folks tend to be interested in intersections of the same things I am.

Their inquiries are harder to decline, in part because I know there aren’t that many grad school opportunities at these intersections. And, in part because it would be so fun (and yes, hard work!) to jam out with a lab full of people working together on these topics.

In every case, though, I say no.

But, I try not to just say no.*

Why do I take this time? I tend to get a lot of inquiries from students who aren’t totally sure how the application process works for graduate school. And, I’m a first-generation college student myself. I’m still feeling my way through the academic labyrinth, and I didn’t know an academic career was even an option until 2015 (nearly 10 years after my undergrad). So, I err on the side of lots of information when I respond to prospective students, in the hopes of demystifying some aspects of the hidden curriculum.

In case it’s useful to you**, here’s what I generally tell folks to consider about emailing other faculty.


ADVICE ABOUT GRAD SCHOOL INQUIRY EMAILS

Variation in how application process works

  • There are a lot of nuances, but you should be able to get paid while pursuing a grad degree in most fields I work adjacent to.
  • Universities, and even departments within them, vary with how they admit students. 
  • In some, students apply to a department and then are placed with mentors after being interviewed, accepted, etc. In our department (University of Wyoming Zoology & Physiology), students apply to individual faculty, who then sponsor their application to the department. In other cases, you apply to a cohort or program, then look for an adviser after admission. It is important to know the difference, as it can influence how you approach prospective faculty advisors.

Basic things you want to “signal” you know

  • Be sure you are clear on whether you are applying for a PhD or a master’s (or if you are exploring both). There is a real difference between them, in terms of what you might get from them, and also, what you might need to commit to them. Having clarity on that will be helpful all around.
  • It is critical that you indicate, in your email, that you are familiar with the online information about how to apply for entry into a particular department. (Or be candid that you need advice.) For example, emphasizing your GRE scores*** when emailing faculty in my department suggests that you haven’t yet looked at the admissions requirements for our department. We don’t require/ask for them any more.
  • As much as possible, avoid appearing as though you haven’t done your homework. These “unforced errors” can make the difference between a faculty member replying or not.

Only email faculty relevant to your interests

Avoid emailing faculty whose research interests do not align with yours.

Faculty are astonishingly busy and receive avalanches of email. Part of your goal with an inquiry letter**** must be to make a direct connection between your interests and theirs, so that they slow down and actually read your email. You don’t want them confused about why you are contacting them. Due to time limitations and volume of email, mismatched inquiries are often just deleted by faculty.

  • If you are actively seeking a graduate position, take time to familiarize yourself with the faculty most closely aligned to either your current expertise and/or your future career goals. 
  • You will also want to write emails that make it clear to faculty exactly why you are interested in working with them specifically, individually. They are more likely to respond (and respond positively) if you make clear your interest in working with them, not just in doing a graduate degree in general research areas that interest you. 
  • It can also be a good idea to clarify why you are interested in enrolling at a specific university and/or in a specific department. This is particularly important if you aren’t sure which individual faculty you want to work with, but you do have professional reasons for wanting to be in a specific department or university.

Do your homework ahead of time

  • It’s a good idea to do your background work first, so that you are efficient with your time regarding who you contact.
  • If possible, speak with current students, and more importantly graduated students, from a faculty member before approaching them. Students are an essential source of information about how a faculty member is as an advisor. High-profile or impactful research does not automatically mean you and the faculty member will work well together.
  • Related – be sure to do some reading online about how to identify a good advisor. Different students need different things from a supervisor, but there are still core aspects of an advisor/student relationship that are common and important for a productive, healthy grad school experience.

Anticipate doing a lot of data analysis/coding + go out of your way to get cross-training

  • Increasingly, data analysis and coding are an essential (and major) part of most grad projects in our department and in ecology and related research fields .If you’re excited about that, look for faculty doing that work. If not, you might consider other faculty or even other degree programs. 
  • Whatever you do, try hard to make sure your graduate training includes cross-training. Many science degree programs are built on the historic traditions of academia, which means you’ll mostly be trained to become an academic (whether that’s your goal or not). Be alert to that possibility as you explore advisers and programs. If it seems like the program you’re going into is squarely focused on research, you’ll probably want to see if it’s possible to also take courses in Political Science, Technical Writing, Conflict Mediation, Graphic Design, or whatever else you might need to (a) effectively use your degree after grad school and (b) be competitive when applying for jobs (especially beyond academia).

*Granted, I don’t get the waves of inquiries that some colleagues get. For some folks, personalized responses aren’t always possible.

**While your mileage may vary, this context can be valuable if you’re coaching prospective students to email faculty. It can also be valuable if you are on your own and trying to reach out to prospective advisers. And, if you have your own take on this, please consider sharing in the comments or on Twitter!

***Many departments and/or universities have waived the GRE requirement. Doing so indicates the faculty and/or administration recognize that the GRE disadvantages certain demographics of students. Knowing that a department has moved away from requiring the GRE is valuable perspective regarding that departments’ expectations. Sometimes, it even provides evidence of the department’s capacity to support students.

****Note: I’ve published advice about writing cover letters which is generally applicable for inquiry letters too.

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