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So, you want to go to grad school? Nail the inquiry email

Maybe you’ve always know you’ve wanted to be a research professor in wildlife ecology. Perhaps you’ve just taken a course on fungi and stumbled into a whole new world of career possibilities. Either way, getting past the first step– your undergraduate degree– and onto the academic path isn’t easy.

Academic culture isn’t always intuitive. Many undergraduates aren’t getting the mentoring they need to successfully pursue their career goals (and this is true at every career stage, really), once you’ve discovered what those might be. If you’re an undergraduate with some sense that you might need higher education to pursue your dream job– or at least decide what that is– the idea of graduate school can be intimidating. As I work through my second round of graduate applicants, I’ve found that many students are poorly prepared for the process of finding a mentor and and reaching out with that first, inquiry email. It’s unfortunate, because that is the very first step in the process; you could be shutting yourself down without even having a real chance at your dreams.

Are you not sure where to start? Are you applying to schools without ever having contacted a mentor? Do you know the difference between a resume and a CV? Are you bombarding list-servs with emails about your passion for the natural world and what a hard worker you are (pro-tip: don’t do this)? This guide is for you.

grad school

Applying to graduate school should not be a random process! Do your homework first. Image courtesy of PhDComics.

THINGS TO DO LONG BEFORE YOU WRITE AN INQUIRY EMAIL

Get field and lab experience while you’re still in college. Before you even think about applying to graduate school, you should be looking for opportunities to work in labs. It’s okay if you’re not interested in Drosophila research (as an example); working in a Drosophila lab will teach you a lot about the process of science itself, and give you a huge edge when you apply. You’ll also get a sense of what you like and dislike, and where your strengths and weaknesses are. Check your university for positions, and keep an eye on society listings for job postings for summer research assistants. The ESA Student Section has a nice collection of resources here.

Cultivate relationships with potential letter writers. As part of your graduate school application, you’ll need letters of recommendation from around three references. These should ideally be from researchers you have worked with, an advisor, and/or faculty you have taken multiple courses with. Do not ask a professor who taught the 300-student lecture you took three years ago for a letter– you’ll want these to be people who can really comment on your work ethic, ability to work independently and with others, your sense of drive and creative thinking skills, or other attributs. Ideally, letters can help bolster applications with holes, e.g, “Tom had a rough start academically but really came into his own when he discovered ecology, and I’m confident that he’s found his groove and will be a great asset to any lab.” Note: you will not generally ever see the contents of these letters, so make sure they’re from people who know you and are in a position to write good things about you.

Read papers. The best advice I got from my undergraduate advisor when it came to preparing for graduate school was to read, read, read, and read some more. I knew I wanted to do paleoecology, but didn’t have a good sense of what was out there, so I dove into the literature and came up with a dream list of researchers who were doing interesting work.

THINGS TO DO WHEN YOU’RE READY TO CONTACT POTENTIAL ADVISORS

Organize your CV. A Curriculum Vitae, or CV, is like an academic version of the resume, but it is not a resume. I repeat: A CV is not a resume. CV’s may be more than a page long, and should include everything about you that’s relevant– your educational background, work experience, publications, presentations, awards and honors, etc. I strongly recommend reading several CVs before you build your own, especially from researchers from different stages. As an undergraduate, you may not have a lot for most of the sections you see on examples, but you can also add other elements (e.g., relevant coursework) that you’d later take off as you progress. Don’t put anything on your CV that you started before college– no high school grades– and avoid part-time jobs that aren’t directly related to the work you want to do (wilderness first responder is ok, bakery cashier is not). I strongly recommend starting a CV as early as possible in your career, and adding honors, research experiences, and other achievements as they happen (trust me, you’ll forget). If you’re unclear about the difference between a CV and a resume, start here.

Write a concise, tailored, informative, and mature inquiry email. You’ve got a dream list of prospective advisors, or perhaps have come across an advertisement for a funding opportunity you’re really interested in. If you don’t, go back to the literature, talk to your undergraduate advisor, and figure out who you’d like to work with. In the sciences, at least, you are very unlikely to be accepted to a graduate program if you don’t have a faculty advisor willing to work with you.

When you’re ready to contact people, take some time to craft a brief, informative email that is individually tailored. For example*:

Dear Dr. Rosalind Darwin,

I recently read your paper, Snails are way cooler than slugs, and am very interested in your work on the importance of shells in determining awesomeness in invertebrates. I am a senior a the University of Science, where I am working with Dr. Advisor on a senior thesis about how beetles are also very cool, using tools our lab has developed linking wing shininess to coolness. I’ll be graduating this fall with a BS in Biology, and I was wondering if you have any graduate opportunities available in your lab? Until recently, my background was in plants, and I was wondering if you’ve considered testing whether the plant the snail is on affects how awesome it is? In graduate school, I’d like to apply my research to conservation, particularly in relation to climate change and other threats. My goal is to be a research professor working at the interface of conservation biology and landscape coolness, with a strong policy relevance.

I have attached a copy of my CV for your consideration, and would be very interested in discussing possibilities with your lab.

Respectfully,

Undergraduate Student

typing-in-water

Find a comfortable setting, free of distractions, to compose your inquiry email. Don’t blow it!

Note how this letter uses the appropriate salutation (not “hey prof,” or “Hi Mrs. Darwin” or “Yo,” or “Hi Chaz.”). Seriously: I have not responded to emails that addressed me as “Mrs.” — or worse, “Mr.” Gill” (It’s Dr. Gill, Professor Gill, or, at the very least, Jacquelyn Gill. Spell the name correctly. By tailoring the inquiry, as I’ve done in my example, you show that you’re not on a fishing expedition by directly connecting your interests with the researcher’s, and shows that you’ve done your homework. The example also gives Dr. Darwin a better sense of what your interests and goals are.

Don’t lie, but don’t be your own worst enemy. Tell the truth about your research interests and goals, even if you’re not completely sure what those are. Obviously, doing some hard thinking about what those goals actually might be is an important part of this process. Some advisors won’t be interested in working with you unless your goals are to obtain a PhD and work at a major research university, and so don’t be afraid to aim high and sound confident. Having said that, don’t say you absolutely want to get a PhD to study exactly what your prospective advisor studies, and to work at a top research university if it’s not true. If you want to use graduate school as the opportunity to decide whether academia is for you, that’s okay; just be up front about that, without sounding wishy-washy. Don’t use the inquiry letter as a therapy session; minimize personal details, and emphasize the positive. Don’t trash talk your previous advisors or institutions. Don’t copy text from your prospective advisor’s website and past after the words “I would really like to research_____.” Don’t lie about whether you’re applying to other programs (remember that even if you end up not studying with a particular person, they may end up reviewing your grant applications or papers). Don’t sound too tailored, in other words, and be honest, straightforward, enthusiastic, but not pandering. Keep your language professional, but don’t be afraid to sound enthusiastic– but keep your feet on the ground (no poetry or hyperbole). If this all sounds like a tough balance to strike, that’s because it is– but remember that if you’re disingenuous or trying to hard, it will show. It’s always a good idea to show other people (including your undergraduate advisor!) a draft of your email before you send it!

Don’t treat graduate school inquiries as though you’re applying for a position in a marketing firm. Career Services centers are often very poorly equipped to advise students when it comes to applying for academic positions (see the resume versus CV discussion above). For your inquiry letter, avoid what I call “business school language.” Notice how in the example above, I didn’t include anything like “I am a highly motivated student, committed to academic excellence.” That’s what I want to see in your letters of recommendation, not in your inquiry email. In other words, show, don’t tell. Your first sell, to me, is your brain– I’m interested in whether you’d be a good fit for the lab, and demonstrate an ability to think originally and well. Your CV should tell me if you’re a high achiever, whether you’ve done a lot of fieldwork in adverse conditions, and whether you’ve published. Saying “I have experience in conceiving, executing, and bringing to fruition an original research project” is pointless if your undergraduate thesis is listed on your CV, and just serves to make you come across as stiff or grasping.

Make sure you provide everything that is asked for, in the appropriate format. It may be that you end up responding to an advertisement instead of cold-emailing a professor. If that’s the case, follow the instructions to the letter: provide a CV (not a resume, and not a resume disguised as a CV), a cover letter only if asked, and any other relevant information. Don’t attach your transcripts, GRE scores, etc. unless explicitly asked for them. This sounds like a no-brainer, but a large proportion of the emails I receive don’t follow directions.

Applying to graduate school is a stressful process, but you can save yourself a lot of time, effort, and headache if you do a little background work and make sure you send targeted, well-crafted emails to the professors you’re interested in working with. They may not respond anyway (professors are notoriously busy and are often poor email communicators), but they’ll much more likely to respond than if you take the shot-gun approach.  You may get a polite response with an apology that the researcher lacks funding, in which case it’s always a good idea to research graduate funding opportunities, both broadly (like the NSF GRFP) and at your institution of choice. Almost always nowadays, graduate school starts with the first email; it’s the modern-day foot in the door. Your prospective advisor will not only guide you through the application process and advocate for you, they’ll also be the one you spend the next two to eight years with, mentoring you in your development as to an academic adult. You’re going to be a huge investment of their time, resources, and energy, and your letter really needs to show them that you have the independence, intellectual maturity, and professionalism to succeed as a student. Don’t blow it!

Good luck!

*As John Anderson–my undergraduate advisor!– notes in comments, you should not actually use the terms “awesome” or “coolness” in your letter, as I did in my tongue-in-cheek example. In a real-life example, those should be replaced with appropriate scientific terms. I also have to credit John with a lot of the advice I’m sharing about writing a well-tailored letter. It got me into graduate school, after all.

Edited to add: Check out this great post over at Dynamic Ecology on applying to grad school.

Categories: Academia Education Grad School Tips & Tricks

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Jacquelyn Gill

150 replies

  1. Dear Dr. Gill,

    Thank you for the article, I am wondering about the optimal number, if any, PhD programmes one may want to focus on and apply for. I am asking this because every PhD application requires time and resources from the planning stage to the actual final application submission. I did make a list of the top 5 universities which best suits to my knowledge, skills and interests, however it may seem to be too much.

    All the best,
    Roland

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    1. This is a really good question. The answer is tricky, and is really something like “the optimal number of programs to apply to is the number that get you into grad school.” I know that’s not helpful! But it really comes down to how much time you’re putting into cultivating those relationships with prospective advisors, if that is the norm for your field. As a general rule, I counsel people to focus on a smaller number of applications and putting more time and effort into those, rather than sending out lots and lots of weaker applications. This is because, not only will you do better if you put more time into your applications, but as you point out, they are costly in terms of time and money. I generally see people who are successful who start off with a long list of candidates, say around 8 to 12, and then winnow down based on their research and responses they get to initial emails. In an ideal situation, you will have at least 2 to 3 offers to consider and compare. In my case, I had a firm commitment of funding from my top choice, so I only submitted one application in the end, though I pursued several labs in the beginning.

      Good luck!

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      1. Dear Dr. Gill,

        I am wondering what should I do in those situations when I approached a potential PhD supervisor and I received a positive response by email (more than 10 cases so far), but the approached expert does not want to discuss my PhD topic and proposal any further until the final board decision has been made regarding my formal application to a PhD program? In what way can I know that I will be able to work with my supervisor in the next 3+ years and he/she will support me during my journey towards academia (e.g. publishing papers, participating in workshops and conferences) if they do not give the chance to exchange thoughts before I accept the offer for a PhD program?

        Best regards,
        Roland

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  2. Thank you for the informative post!

    Would you happen to have any advice on how to address a non-traditional career/school path in a letter to a potential mentor? My undergraduate degree is in biology, but my career took a bit of a detour into academic librarianship for a number of years. I’d like to return to biology, but I’m finding myself at a loss as to how to address my strange career path.

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    1. I usually give at least two weeks before I send a follow up, especially in summer. Many academics aren’t paid in summer, or are at conferences or in the field, so may be away from email. A follow-up would generally be something like, “Dear Dr. X, I wanted to send a quick follow up, in case you’ve been away from your desk or missed my earlier message. I’m still excited to discuss opportunities with your lab. Best wishes, X.”

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  3. Dr. Gill,
    Thank you for taking your time to share this extremely helpful advice. I am about a year and a half out of undergrad (graduated May 2016), so I am a bit rusty when it comes to writing professors emails. I would like to ask you a few questions.

    ~Do professors look more at undergrad research than post-grad job experience in the field you’re looking to research? I never worked in a lab while I was an undergrad or wrote a senior thesis, I did however intern with the Forest Service and have been working for the US Fish and Wildlife as a Fisheries Technician ever since graduation, but I am afraid not having any lab experience will hurt my chances of pursuing a masters degree.
    Do you have any suggestions on how to “market” my experience to make it more relevant to research?

    ~I am a bit confused at the process of pursuing a masters. Is the order to email an inquiry before applying to a graduate degree? Or should you apply first and then inquire about a graduate advisor?

    Thank you!
    Geena

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    1. Great questions! I think professors will look at the whole package, and more recent experience is weighted more heavily. So, the fact that you worked for the Forest Service is and USFW is great (if you’re interested in doing something related to field ecology and not, say, physics). Lab experience is not as big an issue in that case. If you’d been working in a retail job and didn’t have any lab experience, that might be tough. If you’ve worked in the field but not in a lab setting, but wanted to go into molecular work, you might say something about how your field internships helped you realized that what you really wanted to understand was how organisms operate at the cellular level. Try to tie in what you’ve done with what you’d like to do — show the progression of your ideas. Always spin things in a positive way when you can!

      As far as when to email, I suggest (for ecology programs) that you make contacts with prospective labs first. Applying without a contact won’t always work if you don’t have someone you’ve made contact with. Here at my department at UMaine, students who apply to the general pool rarely get accepted. Usually, we’re working with students during the application process, and if nobody is interested in working with a student, we don’t accept them. Plus, applying costs money and time, so you want to minimize the number of applications you submit if they’re not going to be successful.

      This practice varies by field, though! For example, it’s common in some chemistry or molecular biology departments to apply to a program, then do a rotation among labs and then pick an advisor. So talk to people in your field to find out what’s customary. And when in doubt, talk to the graduate coordinator for the program you’re considering and ask what their culture is. Good luck!

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      1. Dr. Gill,

        I appreciate your response so much! It is extremely helpful to have some guidance in this process that is quite foreign to me. Thank you again!

        Geena

        Like

  4. Thank you for sharing this helpful information. I would like to know whether it is inadvisable to mail more than one professor from the same department if I am interested in both their research interests.

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  5. Thank you so much for this post, it has been so helpful in formulating my e-mails to potential advisors! I do have a question related to choosing writing samples. A few professors on their websites ask for samples, and I am having trouble deciding what to send. As an undergrad I worked in a lab studying the evolution of poison dart frogs, and I am now applying to forest ecology/forest hydrology labs. My honors thesis (on the frogs) is probably my most polished piece of work, having gone through many edits and having been seen by many different eyes, but it is not at all related to the research in these labs I am interested in. Should I go with less polished, but more relevant, samples, or the thesis? Thanks again!

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    1. Generally, faculty who ask for writing samples are looking to gauge your writing skills more than your expertise. So, send them your best work, and then feel free to mention you’ve got other work you could also send upon request, if they want something more topical.

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  6. Hi Dr. Jacquelyn Gill,

    Thank for your article it really helped me a lot to make my cover letter I am graduate from india who want to pursue master’s in canada but while sending to to one of the professor I committed a mistake i.e I sent wrong curriculum vitae to send it was not acamedic CV so should I send another email apologiezing with updated or let the error go as it is.

    Thank you.

    Like

    1. I’m a little unclear — did you send a resume instead of a CV? Or a CV formatted for a different type of position? If so, just a quick “apologies, please look at this instead” is totally okay. But if both provide the same relevant information, don’t worry about it.

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  7. Thanks for the informative article. I was wondering if I could have some advice. I am currently looking to attend graduate school for fish and wildlife biology. My undergraduate experience is in political science though. I am currently working on research on a fish population but other than that, my work is biology is limited. How can I present that information to a potential advisor?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think you do it just as you did it here, for me. You outline your background, why you’re interested in shifting to a new field, and the experiences you’re gaining to help you do that. You may end up being asked to take some math or science classes to help you prepare, but for your inquiry email, keep it brief and make the personal connection with fish and wildlife biology.

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  8. Hello! Thank you so much for this! It is so hard to find content like this. As someone who has very few biologists waiting around for me to ask them questions, this is so appreciated. I was wondering, how early should one send their inquiry email? I am planning on applying this coming fall to grad school (for the fall of 2018). I have no idea when is the right time. Any thoughts?

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  9. Thank you! Your post was a good way for me to start writing emails. I emailed about 40 profs all over canada a couple of months back asking for an internship towards my final year undergrad project. None of them had openings for an international student.
    Now, I have to apply for masters soon and I have to secure a supervisor for that. I will be emailing the same professors again. Is it fine if I contact more than one prof from the same department with a similar email template? I really need to get through this time.

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    1. Be careful coming across as using a spam-like approach. I’d email them and say “you may recall that I inquired about an internship opportunity in your lab. I am still excited about the research in your lab, and am now looking into graduate opportunities…”

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  10. Thank you for this post! I’m using it as a model to inquire into graduate opportunities at a university in australia i previously studied abroad at.

    Do you think this is acceptable? [redacted for privacy] (the faculty member im emailing researches dolphin abundance/distribution)

    —–My name is [name], I am a senior undergraduate student at the [school]. I was looking into several of your recent publications listed on the [school] research portfolio, in particular
    [publication name]. Personally, I thought it was a brilliant way to utilise local resources while obtaining valuable data, and I am very interested in your work. I am currently working on an Honours Thesis through my university researching the efficiency of chemical cleaning and catalyst-based acidification for stable isotope analysis of oyster shells. Although not directly linked by this project, I do have lab training and experience in capture/recapture and other distribution and abundance surveying techniques. My long term goal is to teach about and research marine mammals and larger vertebrates. As such, I was wondering if you will be looking for a graduate student next year? I complete a B.S. in [degree] this December, and would be ideally starting a Masters in Study Period 1 of 2018. I am attaching my CV for your perusal.

    Thank you for your time, and I hope to hear from you soon!—–

    I don’t want to be over the top but I am dying to get in with her.

    Cheers, Kelley

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  11. Thanks you so much for this post, it’s what i was looking for . I am extremely interested in pursuing my PhD degree overseas, I would greatly appreciate it if you kindly give me some feedback on the following inquiry email:

    Dear Dr XXX,
    I am a master graduate in mechanical and process engineering with a strong background in applied mechanics and finite element modeling. I am highly interested to join the PhD programme at XXX university for Fall 2017. In this regard, I wonder if you could supervise me for the PhD degree in the research area of machinability of advanced materials. My experience and skills are certainly within your research interests and activities of your research group. Please find attached, my CV and my conference paper. Thanks in advance for the help. I look forward to hearing from you.

    Kind regards,
    younes

    Thanks, Dr. Jacquelyn Gill.

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    1. So, if you look at your message, you do a few things that I suggest you to avoid, First, don’t ask if someone can supervise you. The inquiry email should be worded less strongly (“I was wondering if you’d be available to discuss opportunities in your lab?”). Secondly, I didn’t learn anything specific about your research interests — what questions do you want to pursue? Do you have a particular project in mind? This email reads like it could be a form letter sent to dozens of people — that’s what you want to avoid. Try to tailor it to the specific advisor, and get them excited by referring to a specific idea or project that’s in line with their work.

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    2. Dr. Gill,

      Thank you for the article, I took your advice and landed an interview with my program of choice! However, I have been waiting to hear back for about 6 weeks and would like your advice on how/when I should initiate a follow up with the professor. I would like to ask if she has made a decision, but I obviously don’t want to be pushy. Should I continue waiting or engage? She was waiting on a grant proposal for the position I was applying, so I thought I could word it in a way that merely asks if she has heard back about the grant. I am being told by students at the school that the deadline for hiring grad students for the fall semester is mid-April. Any advice would be appreciated! Thank you.

      Ryan

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      1. Congrats on the interview! I would definitely follow up and say something like, “I wanted to thank you again for the opportunity to discuss possibilities with your lab. I was wondering if you had heard back on the grant yet, or if you had a timeline for making a decision? I’m also happy to consider teaching assistantships or to apply for other available funding.”

        I think the mid-April deadline you’re referring to is the April 15th deadline. That’s a commitment by most schools not to pressure students to make a decision until then– that way people who have multiple offers who might be waiting to hear about funding decisions have a chance to consider all offers. In other words, most places won’t ask you for an acceptance until then.

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  12. This post is exactly what I was looking for! you absolutely answer all of our questions. I have been facing an issue that most professors whom I emailed have told me their labs are full for the year (almost feels that the department has no open position). How to deal with that? I am also tailoring an email to this amazing professor (who is also a surgeon) , his work is exactly what I want to do as a future scientist. I am really scared that he either rejects me due to space restriction or because of my low GPA ( I have ADHD which affected my capacity to stay focused during studying sessions sadly). But your post gave me some more insights on writing a brief/positive inquiry !

    Like

    1. The best way around this is to try to contact people as early as possible — ideally in the summer before you applications are due (I’ve even had some people contact me a year in advance). Summer can be tough, so don’t be afraid to follow up. Early fall is the latest you really want to be reaching out.

      GPA is only a small part of what they look for. I overlook a lackluster GPA if the student has good letters of recommendation (so cultivate those!), research experience, and shows enthusiasm and intellectual maturity.

      Good luck!

      Like

  13. Thank you so much for writing this article! It is exactly what I was looking for. Unfortunately for me, I read it a few hours too late. I just wrote to a two professors for my dream graduate program. Most of the programs I have applied to are in the biological sciences, which have rotations in the first year and do not require applicants to contact faculty. Now I am applying to an ecology program and it’s really different! I didn’t realize that the inquiry emails were so important! I’m so nervous… I really, really want to get into this program. I feel like it’s perfect for me. I now realize that my emails were way too long (about three paragraphs) and included a little bits of my life story. I thought I was doing a good thing by including additional information about myself! I attended a small undergraduate institution, and I guess I didn’t realize how busy PhD advisors are. I also didn’t know that proposing new research ideas was appropriate. I thought you just had to find a professor who is doing what you want to do and work on a project they have for you. I did read some of their papers, but I neglected to mention that because I thought it was such an obvious thing that anyone would do before applying, so it wasn’t worth mentioning. Wow, I feel like an idiot! At least I have a few more professors to email so I can learn from my mistakes! One of the Profs actually just replied and wants to talk with me so that’s exciting! I’ll take her graciousness as a good sign 🙂 Dr. Gill, would you be able to give me some advice on how to prepare for talking to this professor? I’ll be sure to think of ideas for new research projects and familiarize myself with recent publications. What is a prospective mentor looking for when they Skype an applicant? Will it be her interviewing me? What do they want to know?
    I have to say, you are doing an amazing thing my sharing your insight and expertise with all of us. I admire your dedication to the readers here. Thanks for replying to our comments, even though you have no obligation to do so. It is clear that many people’s graduate careers were made possible your timely advice!

    Like

    1. I’m glad you’re getting responses! I want to clarify — there’s no one single best way to go about this (though there are lots of wrong ways!), but there are ways that will maximize the likelihood of getting a response. It sounds like you’re doing something right if people are responding, so just be yourself and don’t stress too much about this processes. Focus on keeping your interactions courteous and professional — that goes a long way.

      As far as a Skype meeting, this is both an informal interview, but it’s also an opportunity to get to know the professor and lab a bit more. This will be an important relationship, so conversations can reveal if you’re a good fit for each other (this goes both ways!). Make sure that you have a list of questions — how is the lab run? What is the professor’s mentoring style? What is the funding like? Are there possibilities to develop your own project? These are important questions for you, too. Your professor will be getting a sense of your intellectual maturity, your strengths and weaknesses, and whether you’ll be a good personality fit (I cannot stress this enough — your relationship with your advisor can make or break graduate school, so pay attention to your gut!). This will likely involve questions about your interests, long-term goals, research experience, even strengths and weaknesses. Think of it as half interview, half conversation. To use a terrible metaphor, it’s a bit like a date. Do you have compatible interests? Can you work well together?

      Good luck! And thank you for the kind words about my blog!

      Like

  14. Thanks for the great advice. I do have a quick question. I reached out to a potential advisor and she did get back to me explaining how she is planning on taking on a graduate student and requested my transcripts and CV. I sent them about a week ago. Should I send her a follow up email?

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    1. Without seeing the full email exchange it’s difficult to say, but if she didn’t give you any response (“Thanks, got it, will be in touch”) at this stage it’s okay to ask if it would be possible to schedule a phone call or Skype to talk about opportunities.

      Like

  15. Wow, I came to this article hoping to find some solution to the problems I’m currently facing and I find that I’ve done literally nearly everything in this article. Maybe I’m going about it the wrong way but here’s my issue.

    I’m a biology student applying to programs in ecology and evolution. And my biggest issues are I can’t get anyone to call or email me back!! And I’m running out of time for deadlines! I work full-time and have little time on weekends and late afternoons to tackle emails, background research, GRE studying, meeting setups with potential contacts, etc. I have my GRe scores ready but want to take it again. I’m also working on 3 different personal statements tailored to three distinct programs, one in ecology/evolution, one in agricultural biology, and one in microbiology.

    I’ve formed multiple connections through internships and my undergraduate faculty and they’ve given me names of Admissions directors and faculty to contact. I’ve also done my HW on several professors at 6 different schools and have tailored each email almost eerily similar to how your example was set up. The only people that have e-mailed me back are department advisors who simply give me the names of faculty who I may be interested in working with who don’t email or call back. At this point I’m ready to ask these advisors to simply contact those professors & people for me!!
    I’m going to end up applying to these programs and not getting in because nobody would try to form a relationship with me. I’m even a little upset at those who do have an intimate relationship with me don’t go out of their way to contact somebody for me.

    I feel I’m literally doing this on my own and all of my network contacts are just handing me more names and contacts that lead to dead ends.

    Like

    1. I’m sorry this has been a frustrating process. Having not seen your contact emails, it’s hard to assess what’s going wrong here, but from your comment there are a couple of possibilities.

      First, your interests sound like they’re all over the place. Is this coming through in your inquiry email? Do you have the background that would make you a good fit for the people you’re reaching out to?

      It’s not typical to contact admissions directors in our field until you’ve made connections with faculty and are in the process of applying, so you should really be focusing on finding a potential advisor first. Don’t ask departmental advisors to contact faculty for you — that’s not appropriate. It’s also not anyone’s job to necessarily be making these connections for you at this stage — your mentors should write you letters of recommendation and be a reference, but it’s important that this come from you.

      I’d have to see your inquiry email to assess what’s going wrong. But if you’re reaching out to a lot of people and not hearing anything back, my guess is you’re reaching out to the wrong people (poor fit; I usually don’t respond to emails that look like they’ve been sent to 100 other faculty), or there’s something wrong with your approach that you may not be aware of. Have any of your mentors looked over your email draft first?

      Like

      1. Hi, I know this is almost a year late. But i wanted to thank you for responding to my comment last November. little tips go a long way. I definitely was tailoring each inquiry to the mutual interests of my potential advisors and myself despite me having several interests. So it must have just been a string of bad luck that NOBODY was getting back to me. I just wanted to share my experience of finally getting in somewhere.

        I got into Southern Illinois University’s Zoology and Wildlife department where I will be studying physiological ecology of endothermic mammals, I just started my first semester. The ONE advisor that was interested in having me emailed me back asking me to come up with a list of projects i could do in his lab (perhaps as a test?) cause he wasn’t actively looking for a grad student nor did he have any on going projects but would take one in if he or she was creative enough. Talk about on the spot pressure! I miraculously must’ve impressed him enough to get accepted! Currently I have no project set up so I’m working hard to learn his lab and put together a thesis project. My interests are still very broad, well, not that broad, i love ecology, conservation, and dealing with anthropogenic stressors but I think (I hope) grad school can help me to centralize a passion. Do you think this can happen or should I already have figured out what I wanted to do?

        Anyway, thank you for your advice!

        Like

  16. Oh man, I’m grateful for seeing this. Grad school applications for my program of interest are due February 1, 2016 and I only decided I wanted to do a Masters 2 weeks! I am just right now looking at potential supervisors and jfelt completely confused and behind, but reading this was a bit of a relief.

    Like

  17. Hello! This was a great article and I used it to help craft e-mails I sent to potential advisors earlier this fall. I got multiple responses and skyped with three professors. The talks went well and it was understood that I would be applying. I’m now working on the applications and was wondering if that was enough contact or if I should be e-mailing them throughout the process or once I’ve completed the applications? Thank you!

    Like

    1. Generally, if you get a supportive response you continue the conversation throughout the process, and it’s also good to give them updates. But once everything is sent in, you’ll generally wait until you hear something — it’s outside the hands of the advisor at that point, but it’s a good idea to let them know where you are in the process.

      Like

  18. Hello Dr Gill. Thanks for this instructive post. I stumbled upon it while googling for how to go about sending the inquiry email. I incorporated most of your advice in the email but I didn’t get a response initially. So, I sent a follow-up email two weeks after, to which the Professor replied. He told me to please resend the email to him after November 15. Am curious, does his response give any indication about my chance?

    Like

  19. Hi! I recently emailed a professor at a dream graduate school (I followed your tips, thank you!) and got a quick response back. He said that he can talk to me about the graduate program over Skype- does this mean that I can ask him if I can do research under him? I’m assuming this isn’t an interview because we’ll just be talking about the program that I’m interested in, but how can I make myself memorable? Thank you so much for your help!

    Like

  20. Greetings,
    Thank you for the detailed article on writing an inquiry mail. I’m an aspirant for MS in Canada. Recently, I started networking with potential supervisors. Few reverted back with stating no position available but many yet to reply and it’s been a week. Should I follow-up with them again? I was mailing them with a body content of 634 words wherein mentioning my work experience, projects and training underwent and awards. Do all these data are necessary? or Should I need to make my mail crisp enough? Your discerning comments will help me in getting my admission.
    Thank you.

    Like

    1. Professors are busy, so brevity is ALWAYS good. Attach a CV rather than an extensive narrative. Your email sounds short enough not to be a negative, though. This is a very busy time, so don’t give up. Give it two weeks and then check in with a polite follow-up. Good luck!

      Like

  21. Thank you Dr. Gill for writing this, as someone at this stage in the process it’s extremely informative and helpful. I am wondering, my research lab provided is with a guide in which those who have already been accepted into grad school provide some helpful information on applying. At their advice, I sent an inquiry email to a professor, but it did not include my personal research plans, only which aspects of her research I am interested in. She responded warmly and quickly, but now I am a little worried I may have missed my opportunity to include that extra information. I do not want to appear too overbearing, would it be too much to send a follow up email explaining my research goals, or cut my losses and hope my email displayed enough interest. Thank you, any advice is very appreciated!

    Like

    1. I think you’re okay at this point — the follow-up discussions can be a good time to express your own aspirations, and there are always opportunities to have those discussions once you’re in the lab. I’d try to organize a visit if you can, or have a follow-up conversation where you talk explicitly about research ideas.

      Like

  22. Hi Dr. Gill,
    Your post was really helpful! In fact, I contacted a potential PhD supervisor and now she wants to have a Skype session. As I have the international student status, I don’t know what to expect from this conversation. Is that a good sign? Or does she want to know only if my research topics are relevant to the programme?
    Many thanks!

    Like

    1. Congrats on the Skype session! That’s a good sign — it’s basically an interview. She’ll likely want to feel out your personality (because fit is important), get a sense of your intellectual maturity, and discuss ideas. It’s also an opportunity for you to ask questions, so make sure you have some (about the program, etc.). Dress professionally, and treat it like an interview. Good luck!

      Like

    2. I love your blog so much! I know this page is older, so I hope I reach you. I have recently been going through the process of applying to grad school for my PhD. I have been in contact with a faculty member, and I am VERY interested in working with her. She recently emailed me this statement… “Your interests seem to align well with mine. But know that I am speaking with a number of prospective students now.” It followed a sentence about going ahead with my application. I am unsure of what to say/do. Should I ask around at other labs/with other faculty or just hope that I will have a spot in her lab?? Thank you!

      Like

      1. Thanks! I appreciate the kind words.

        You should always diversity your applications, especially without a strong commitment. It sounds like she’s being open and honest with you. Those other students may make other choices, or you may end up on a wait list, so it’s a good idea to have a backup plan or three. In the meantime, I’d keep the conversation going with her if you can — ask if you can set up a visit!

        Like

    1. This is not uncommon. In this case, first do some research into the availability of teaching assistantships and fellowships you can apply for, then ask if he’d be willing to work with you if you can secure your own funding (and cite specific examples of things you found in your research). I’d also avoid using phrases like “please reply asap” in your email to him. 😉

      Like

        1. You shouldn’t go to grad school without funding, period. Most professors won’t take you if you’re not funded one way or another — otherwise, you’d have to take out costly student loans, and would have no way to pay for your living expenses. Make sure you look for lots of options, including people posting advertisements for students on list-servs for the societies relevant to your field.

          Like

          1. Hi!!
            Actually I got an automatic reply from prof. that “he is away from lab and he will look forward to reply mail. if urgent you can resend it another day”.I sent mail to him.but even after five days i didn’t get any reply.should i take it no from her side?

            Like

      1. Thank you for this great mentoring. I contacted a potential supervisor and he replied with;
        “Thank you for your inquiry. We are always looking for well qualified graduate students, and I encourage you to apply.
        Please keep me informed of your application status, and I will make sure i review your file with your interests in mind.

        Please let me know if you have any questions or concerns as you complete the application process.

        Best regards,”

        Is this enough green light that he can take me?
        How do i reply to this and keep the relationship strong?
        Thanks for your time.
        Israel

        Like

        1. This is a green light that he’s interested, but not committing yet. There are likely other people that he’s also considering. Definitely do what you can to keep on the radar — if you have an idea for a project, or for funding, you can follow up with something like that. But don’t bombard him with emails. Do your best to make sure your application is strong. Feel free to email him if you come across an interesting paper, for example, and say “I read this and thought of a project,” or “I found this fellowship and would like to apply.” You could also ask if it would be possible to arrange a campus visit or a Skype session.

          Like

  23. The article and all the comments were really informative. However, I have a question. While looking forward for PhD, sometimes we don’t have a strong research or publications (just an independent work of dissertation on some topic is the most we have done, and that as a part of graduate coursework). It is more often because of the lack of proper funding or the well equipped laboratories especially in developing countries. There is a desire to study further and explore and delve more of the research areas, but because of lacking of practical exposure one can’t exactly make up his specific area of interest and can’t precisely generate the field where he would want to explore more (because you know there are wide areas that could be explored as biomedical science is itself interdisciplinary & multidisciplinary, and on top of that when you don’t have chance to explore more of the areas each and every areas of researches would be fascinating…be that genomic researches, proteomic analysis, works on cancer related researches, microorganism or animal models for genetic modifications, works on vaccine production or any other molecular level researches). So, in such a case when we look for potential advisors, most of the faculty’s work would fascinate us and they definitely have different topics to work on. Now my query is how would we find out specific potential advisors? And can we approach all the faculty of a department or all faculties of 2-3 different but interrelated departments of the same university? If yes, while approaching the faculties of the same department, should we approach the same way to all building up our interest on one particular topic…or can we approach individual mentors differently making up our interest as per their research areas??
    And how would each way of these approaches affect the way professor looks after us and our genuinty??
    This is actually a very important concern, at least for me, because most of the time we have a very strong desire to get an opportunity but are helpless due to different factors.

    P.S. I am sorry if I could not present the query effectively, but I hope you would atleast get what I mean to ask.

    Like

    1. I think most students who apply for PhD programs don’t have publications under their belt, and that’s okay! The best ways to find out who you’d like to work with is 1) read, read, read, and 2) talk to your mentors. Sign up for email alters for journal articles, or go to your library and browse recent publications, or do a Google Scholar search on the topics you’re interested in, and see who is doing work you find exciting. If you’re still having trouble, your professors and advisor should have some suggestions, too.

      I would urge you not to email everyone in a department, unless it’s a field with a culture where you don’t need to know your advisor to apply (e.g., common in chemistry). The last thing you want to do is come across as spamming — I ignore a lot of emails from students who have nothing in common with me and show no specific interest in my work, but are clearly sending hundreds of emails to faculty in the hopes someone will respond. Your absolute best bet is to do your homework, research faculty you’re interested in, and approach them individually and respectfully. If you’re contacting multiple people at the same department, as a courtesy, let each faculty member know that (e.g., “I am also reaching out to Profs. X and Y.”).

      Like

  24. Thank you, this is super-helpful, as I am trying to navigate this particular minefield…

    I was wondering if you have any advice on what the policy/good form/polite thing to do is if – having crafted an inquiry letter to the best of ones abilities, with relevant interests, academic rigour and all – there is no response? I’m looking at UK institutions, which specifically state that contacting potential supervisors in advance is crucial. So, if there’s no response, either after a first inquiry or after a request for a proposal/cv, is it ok to send a follow up email (after a week? A month?) Or contact someone else in the same program? Apply through the formal process anyway (as one would, I think, in the USA)?

    What I mean, I suppose, is if this semi-informal initial back-and-forth simply fails to take off or fizzles out, is the only thing to do just forget about applying to the entire department/institution?

    Like

    1. It’s sadly not uncommon to not give a response, and I’ve been guilty of this too. Sometimes email ends up in spam, sometimes we’re swamped and it falls off our radar, and sometimes it’s a passive aggressive way of ending the correspondence. It’s hard to know which!

      If you send an initial response and get no answer, feel free to send a follow-up in a couple of weeks (especially if you emailed over the summer or the beginning of the semester). If you’ve had a back-and-forth and there’s been a sudden radio silence on the other end, it’s also okay to follow up in a week or two (I generally give at least a week). But if someone seems very slow to respond in general and a bit flaky, consider that as a possible sign that they may not be a good advisor! If you do decide to follow up with someone else in that department after a conversation fizzles, a courtesy email to the first person is appropriate. You can also send a message saying “Thanks so much for your time. I just wanted to give you a quick update about my graduate applications — I’m also reaching out to X and Y, but I’m still very interested in pursuing opportunities with your lab.” Good luck!

      Liked by 1 person

  25. Thanks for this write up, Dr. Gill. I am applying to graduate school after working in a field I thought I would enjoy, but have discovered it is not for me. I did not do fantastic in undergraduate school, but a large reason was a major illness to a close family member. My CV will not be very strong in my academia or relevant lab experience – I worked in a Chemistry lab, but am applying to Biology graduate school (with similar interest to yours), but I am currently participating in an Ecology internship. My question is how to go about asking for advice without a super strong CV. I think what makes me such a qualified candidate for graduate school is the path I choose after undergraduate (spent 7 months hiking across country living with and observing wildlife, working on fishing vessel absorbing as much as possible about marine ecosystems, etc). Are those things acceptable to put on a CV, and would you send such things to a potential advisor? I was also wondering about timing – the fall semester is just getting started, and I was wanting to ask for advice on taking a few classes in the graduate college as a non-degree seeking student (because it doesn’t appear you can apply for a degree seeking position in the spring). Is that an acceptable questions to ask in the inquiry email – would he/she suggest classes to take in the Spring semester? Thank you for any help you can provide – doing poorly in undergraduate has kept me out of graduate school, but I know with a renewed focus and drive I can certainly prove myself as a strong graduate student.

    Like

    1. You can absolutely put any and all relevant work on your CV (even if not academic). I’d also not worry too much about switching fields — I know people who have gone from music to biology! Your cover letter can absolutely (briefly) get into your background and any gaps or issues with your GPA, etc. If you can take some community college classes in the meantime to show that you can do better under better circumstances, that’s also good. And any and all field or lab work you can do will also help, because letters can go a long way to improve your chances with a rough transcript.

      Some departments do accept people in the spring, so don’t rule that out! But you’ll probably be stronger if you take this year to apply, get some field experience (even volunteering), and taking some classes.

      Also, chemistry can be REALLy helpful to a graduate career in ecology. Stable isotope analysis, stoichiometry, physiology, and other disciplines all benefit from a chemistry background. If you’d rather leave that behind, that’s okay, too — just emphasize what you learned as a chemistry major (careful lab work, processes fundamental to life, etc.), spinning the transition as a positive (“during y studies, I realized that my real passion was in…” — and try to use a concrete example, like “while I was in my X class, I found myself wondering more about how global warming would affect the rates of X in Y, than the actual chemical reactions themselves.” You get the idea. It’s all about framing — take your personal narrative and spin it in a way that shows that grad school in ecology is the natural next step, and that the trials you’ve overcome will make you a stronger student and scientist.

      Like

  26. Awesome post. I have just started exploring options for my post-grad studies, after two years of working odd engineering jobs. While I definitely want to answer the big questions of how the snails use their shells (or in my case, how water causes erosion), I am not very enthusiastic about the idea of PhD. I have found a couple of courses that seem perfect for my needs, a Masters in applied sciences with significant research component.

    Does it help to be true to myself and tell my potential mentors what I am actually looking for, since the faculties clearly seem to suggest a PhD after the course? Also, it seems I missed the deadline for this season by a few days, which means I’ll be having so much time to prepare. Should I try and inquire early?

    Like

    1. Thanks!

      You can be honest about wanting a Masters. It’s good to aim high if you’re not sure, but as a PI, I also appreciate students who are open about their goals. And yes, it’s likely (though not necessarily) too late for this fall, but it’s a good time to get a jump on next year! Just be aware that some people don’t work in summer (if it’s a 9-month appointment) or may be in the field, etc.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Is it better for general inquiries to use a personal email or the university email for doctoral enquiries? I’m considering applying for a doctoral cycle in Gothenburg. And I’m at the université de Toulouse, and I am sending the email to inquire who I contact for thesis research.

        Like

        1. You can absolutely use your university email; it confers legitimacy. Using your personal email is okay, especially if you won’t be at your current institution long, but if your email address is “luvs2hugkittenz@mailchimp.com” then you might opt for a more professional email account.

          Like

  27. Hello,Jacquelyn
    I want to ask question about reaching out Email to school’s Admission Office, how should I write that email, thanks.

    Like

  28. Thanks for sharing this helpful post. Would you please let me know whether the inquiry email I have provided is well-crafted or not.

    Dear Professor XXX,
    I have finished a master degree in Electrical Engineering in the field of Semiconductor Device Technology at the XXX, Tehran, Iran. I am considering applying to XXXX University’s PhD program and would be interested joining your research group for Fall 2017.
    I am personally greatly interested in semiconductor optoelectronic devices. In my master program, I worked on Fabrication and Characterization of GaAs-based Photodiode for Ultraviolet Detection. I read your recent paper, “Design of broadband and high-output power uni-traveling-carrier photodiodes”, on your website (https://users.encs.concordia.ca/~xzhang/index_files/Page359.htm) and was fascinated by your results. In particular, how bandwidth performance of uni-traveling-carrier photodiode can be improved by using graded bandgap structure in its absorption layer.
    Please let me know if there is any funded open PhD position in your research group for me to join. I have attached my CV to this e-mail, but if there is additional information that I have not included that you would like, I would be happy to provide it for you. Thank you for your consideration.
    Looking forward to hearing from you.
    Sincerely,
    Farhood

    Like

    1. I’d say this is pretty good, but I’d cut the line “Please let me know if…” and replace it with “Would you be available to discuss PhD opportunities in your lab?” It’s less presumptuous.

      Good luck!

      Like

  29. Thank you for the interesting points given out. I actually followed the guide given here and sent several letters to professors and couple of them showed some interest. So how should I proceed next? I want to know about any financial assistance that can be offered, which I didn’t mention in my first mail. Is it okay to bring this out in the second mail? Any ideas on what should the second mail be based on?

    Like

    1. I’m glad it was helpful. In terms of following up, that’s going to be very context-dependent, based on the nature of the responses. I think it’s worth doing your homework first when you ask a question, because it shows you’re serious (“I see that there are university fellowships I can apply for, and it looks like teaching assistantships are available. How competitive are those?”. You can also suggest a Skype or phone call and ask questions about funding then — something like, “Is there funding available? What’s typical? I’m also happy to apply for fellowships or other opportunities if that’s a possibility.” Generally, though, I think a second email is a good place to ask if you can set up a call to discuss opportunities further, if you’ve gotten a positive response.

      Like

  30. What if you’re in your mid-40’s and don’t have a TIME MACHINE to go back to your undergrad and grad schools and “make” all those contacts NOW to get all those “recommendations” NOW – and you didn’t back then because things weren’t the way they are now and everything wasn’t requiring all that “back then.” What then? I don’t think I have time to pursue useless certificate programs that don’t require all those references and CV’s covering everything I’ve ever done since HIGH SCHOOL (now almost THIRTY YEARS AGO) and all that. But I’m at a dead-end in any and everything that I’ve ever majored in that I could feasibly call “my fields” as to getting so much as an entry level position in any of them with “just” my Master’s. I”m trying to eke out an existence freelance translating and even all of THAT is demanding a “CV.” Take “early retirement” in a country that has it, where if you haven’t paid into the system because you haven’t been able to scrape together enough work, that translates to “welfare”?? THAT’S what my Master’s degree from Yale is good for now – welfare?Just because it was exactly 20 years ago this year? Even foregoing going through to a PhD program, I’m looking at second Master’s programs and even THOSE are demanding way more accounting for all time since high school than I remember them doing back in 1994-1996!!

    Like

    1. A lot of my colleagues prefer working with people who have been outside of school for some time, and a number of folks I went to graduate school with had taken time off (including students who were in their forties or fifties when they started their graduate programs).

      Taking someone on as a student is a massive investment of our time and resources as faculty, and positions are competitive; letters of recommendation are helpful for us in figuring out whether you’ll be a good fit, or successful. If it’s been a long time since school, and you haven’t been working in your field of choice in the interim, your best bet is to take a few classes so that someone can speak to your skills.

      A CV isn’t an unreasonable expectation for a job or a graduate position. If you think it is, then perhaps further graduate studies may not be a good fit, as there are many more hoops to jump through! Most programs don’t want a day-by-day accounting of your time, just a thoughtful narrative about why you’ve been out of school and what you’d like to get out of going back.

      Like

  31. Hi there, I am a graduate in bioengineering as of May 2015. My original goal was to go to veterinary school, and I am going through the interview processes right now. However, I am not sure veterinary school is what I want to do any more for personal/professional/financial reasons. I have tons of veterinary clinical experience as that is what I did instead of doing undergraduate research. However I did dabble in water quality and environmental engineering with Engineers Without Borders, and I did my own water quality project in Kenya for 6 weeks about water quality of springs and community perceptions of water quality in the area I was volunteering in. I did received an undergraduate grant to complete the project. I decided that I needed to do more with vet stuff so I stopped doing anything related to engineering. Now that I am having these doubts about vet school, I am doing more research into graduate school for environmental engineering to investigate my other interests. I have some questions as I am not sure how to approach the graduate school. I have no lab experience other than that independent research project – what should I do about this? My undergraduate professors know who I am, but I never worked for any of them and I feel uncomfortable approaching them and asking for help regarding programs, letters, etc. I know I need to start by doing some research on what the professors are getting up to at the school I want to go to…. I guess I am feeling a little lost as what to do right now. Any advice you may have is welcome.

    Like

    1. If you don’t have an academic advisor, it’s reasonable to ask a professor for guidance if they’re in your field. We’re there as resources, too.

      My advice would be to find some mentors, start reaching out to professors you’re interested in and ask if you need to fill gaps in your background, and start looking for opportunities to get lab skills. You may need to spend a year or two working in a lab to get experience.

      It does sound like you have a reasonable narrative– changing fields based on a transformative experience, so play that up. You may not need to do anything else. I’d suggest looking into masters programs first. Good luck!

      Like

  32. What are your thoughts on Masters versus PhD in the biological sciences field? I vaguely remember you had some tweets on the subject last spring? I know there are alot of external factors that go into obtaining a desired job (connections, work ethic…etc) and some jobs absolutely need a PhD (directors, professors) but wanted to get your thoughts overall.

    Like

    1. There are opportunity costs to getting a PhD — delaying income, delaying saving for retirement, delaying life in many cases (buying a house, finding a partner, having kids), so it’s never a decision to be taken lightly. I know people who pursued PhDs because they thought they needed one, or they didn’t know what to do next: those are bad reasons.

      It really comes down to career goals, which you may not even know yet. If that’s the case, start with a MS. I’ve noticed lately that students are really eager to jump right into a PhD out of undergrad, and I think this a bad idea for most people. A masters gives you the chance to field test a PhD-length idea, to get experience in the lab and teaching, and to get a feel for how you handle academic life. For me, the MS defense was harder in many ways than then PhD, because it was so new. You’ll know by the end whether you need a break, whether you’re not interested in an academic position, ideally how you feel about teaching or fieldwork (some people discover they hate fieldwork!), etc. Nothing will stop you from launching off a MS into a PhD– you’re arguably in much better shape to keep up that momentum.

      As to whether you need one or both, it’s worth looking at people who hold jobs you can see yourself enjoying. And remember that you can always, always go back and get another degree if you need it — and sometimes, your employer will pay for that (e.g., the National Park Service might fund your PhD if you need one to advance). If you’ve looked at the possibilities and you’re still not sure, or you don’t know what you’d want to do yet, the MS is a good place to start.

      Like

  33. Hello! What a great article, thank-you. I do have a few questions for you and would love your advice. I’m currently working on my CV (was just going to send in a resume-oops!) and my brief email to my potential supervisor for September of 2016. My first question, am I too late? You mentioned to contact a potential supervisor by the latest in September. The application deadline is in two weeks. The second question is what if you didn’t have any close relationships with professors in your undergraduate degree? I adored some professors but am shy and reserved so I’m not sure if I will be memorable.

    Like

    1. It depends on a variety of things — your advisor’s funding, program deadlines, and whether they accept students after admissions deadlines. For example, my department has a soft deadline, but if the advisor has funding, we can accept students up until the week before the semester starts! So it’s never too late to try. They may tell you they don’t have funding and it’s too late this year, or they may have just gotten a grant and are looking — you’ll never know unless you ask!

      Like

  34. Great article. I am trying to send email to a professor (who knows me) regarding my admission status. I need some sample to make it more polite and right to the point, and also it shows my interests. I will appreciate if you can help me with it.

    Liked by 1 person

  35. This article helped a lot, I’m glad I read it before sending out inquiry emails! I am a geology major looks for grad schools, I have great credentials and references but this is definitely going to set me over the edge for prospective research assistantships. What is your overall impression on GRE scores? I recently took the test and feel like I could do better, but it is expensive…

    Like

    1. First, apologies for taking so long to approve your comment — it went into the spam folder! Handling GRE scores varies a lot by institution. In cases where a student is from a non-US system, or if your undergraduate institution didn’t have grades, they may contain some useful information. I personally don’t find them super helpful, or a good indicator of success per se, and I don’t necessarily think schools should have cut-offs for admission if other aspects of the application are strong. Strong GRE scores can help overcome weaknesses in the application, and weak ones don’t help, but they won’t usually make or break an application. Every department will be different, though, and especially in the sciences your quantitative GRE is looked at as an indicator of whether you’ll be able to handle the math and hard science requirements of your program. I recommend talking to your prospective advisor and getting a sense of the culture at your desired institution.

      Like

  36. Hi Jacquelyn,
    I’m curious why you recommend a CV over a resume to share with potential advisors. Professors I have talked to in the natural sciences indicate that they prefer the brevity of a resume and, in fact, this is the only resource I’ve found on the Internet that discourages resumes (or even mentions CVs altogether!) for initial advisor contact. With that said, I’ve already fired off emails with my resume attached…
    Thanks!

    Like

    1. A CV is the standard for academics– a resume is typically a document used in business or other non-academic professional settings. Resumes focus on job history, and CV’s focus on academic history. A resume doesn’t include publications, society memberships, research interests, or relevant coursework, for example. And while your summer job at the YMCA pool may go on a resume, it wouldn’t go on a CV.

      At the undergrad and grad level, CV’s are going to be short anyway, so I don’t see why brevity is an issue– plus, when I’m deciding on whether a student has the right background for my lab, more information is preferable (but that’s my preference). And most grad school and funding applications will explicitly ask for a CV, not a resume. If you’re applying to applied natural resource management-type programs, there may be a different culture, but I’m in ecology and I’ve never encountered a preference for a resume over a CV (to me, it would signal that a student hadn’t done their homework about grad school and may not be ready for prime time).

      I’m not sure where you searched online, but there are a number of resources on the resume/CV difference and grad school:

      http://www.powerscore.com/gre/help/gearingup_resume.cfm

      http://gradschool.cornell.edu/career-services/resumes-and-cvs

      https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/967/02/

      http://writingcenter.unc.edu/handouts/curricula-vitae-cvs-versus-resumes/

      Like

    2. Hi, I am currently in the process of applying for admission to graduate schools in Electrical Engineering department. Since the deadlines for fall session lie mostly in December and I am a little out of time so could you indicate precisely that what would be the best time to ask a professor. Also, can I email professors after application deadlines, would that help?

      Like

      1. Programs will differ — some fields, like chemistry, accept applicants broadly and they do rotations before choosing a lab. For other fields, like ecology or geology, you’ll want that advocate or you may not get accepted if there’s no one who can work with you (that’s how my department is– we often reject strong applicants because there’s not a clear connection to any one faculty member). You’ll want to ask professors as soon as you possibly can. For December and January deadlines, I generally recommend September or October at the latest.

        Like

  37. Greetings! I’m not sure if you’re still responding to comments/questions, but I need your help. I am applying to clinical psychology PhD programs. I have done tons of research on the professors I would love to work with upon acceptance; however, many of the professors are not accepting students for the upcoming year according to the university website. Is it rude to inquire anyway? I would really LOVE to work with these professors because my area of research is unique. If I eliminate my options based on not having a mentor with similar interests, that would leave me applying to two schools.

    Like

    1. I think it’s always okay to check (sometimes the web is out of date), as long as you acknowledge that you saw that they’re not taking students. You can always make a strong case and say “I understand you’re not currently taking students, but I’ve been following your work on X and think I would be a great fit for your lab. Will you be considering taking students in the future, or would you consider someone who brought in their own funding?” You can also ask if they can suggest anyone else out there, as there may be someone new in the field taking students you don’t know yet.

      Applying for two schools can be okay, as long as they’re the RIGHT two schools — the ones that you’ve developed a rapport with.

      Like

  38. Hi! I was curious in regards to asking for letters of reccommendation whether or not the letter should come from someone in the field we’re applying to. For example, I was a dual major in college (ecology and a language). Would it make sense to ask a professor from my language field for a letter of rec for an ecoloy program? Assuming I ask them to comment more on my work ethic and not on my research ability.

    Like

    1. It’s always better to get letters from people who can speak to your success in a graduate program in the field you’re interested in, so definitely prioritize Ecology if that’s what you’re applying to. If you can’t think of three solid letter writers from Ecology, someone in Language could be a good third letter. It’s generally better to have letters from people you’ve done research with, rather than just taken classes from. Letters can make or break an application!

      Like

  39. Hi! this is a great article. I am currently about to contact potential faculty advisers. I just have a couple of problems though: I feel like my CV is spread too thinly. I have done plenty of reading and reflecting but I don’t have enough practical, concrete experience to put on my resume. I don’t know how to bring the fact that I know I have the necessary skills required for my chosen area, in a positive manner. I’m also in a way shifting my focus from what I was doing during under-graduation to what I want to do now. I have taken a gap year and an 11-month long internship to bridge the shift in my interests but I am so unsure about how to make these things appear favorable. Also, I am applying to a whole different country, which adds to the issues. Any advice you could offer about the best way to proceed would be great, thanks!

    Like

    1. This is the case for many undergrads — your CV will feel quite underdeveloped compared with what, say, a PhD will have. For that reason, I recommend adding a couple sections to an undergraduate CV that you may not see on a PhD’s CV, like “Relevant Coursework” (where you might list classes, including short courses, that are related to your field) or “Skills,” which can include programming, field methods, lab analyses, computer programs, languages, or other things that may be important but not listed. You’ll definitely want to list your internship under “Professional Appointments.” For things like gaps, you can address all of that in your cover letter/inquiry letter. Remember that the CV is not the only thing they’ll see!

      Definitely check the conventions for the country you’re applying to. In Europe, it is common to put things like home and family information (e.g., marital status) on a CV, but in the USA this is NOT done.

      Good luck!

      Like

  40. Thank you for the excellent overview and the fact that you are still replying to queries is very encouraging as well. The question though which i had was what if someone has actual field experience in a professional industry and no research experience at all but now want’s to go into a research based masters. How should he include this experience into his CV?.
    I graduated in 2013 with major in mechanical engineering and have diversified experience in 2 very different fields (manufacturing & petrochemical ) so how would you advice about including this information in a CV?.

    Like

    1. Great question. You can definitely add professional experience to a CV– just like a postdoc position. It’s very common for people to take time between degrees, and if the work you did was related to your field, add it to a “Professional Experience” section. This should go right after the “Education” experience. Your personal statement or cover letter can go into details about what those were about.

      Like

  41. Hey Jacquelyn! Thanks for the awesome advice. I’m in the process of applications myself, so I’ll be taking your advice into consideration! Just a question, if you don’t mind giving comments or advice, about the CV. Do you recommend including information on previous research experience that’s completely different from the area that you plan to go into for graduate school? For me, I plan to pursue psychology, but earlier in my undergraduate studies I did quite a bit of research on cellular biology and received a grant award from it. Do you think it’ll look out of place if all my recent experience is much more relevant?

    Like

    1. Go for it! Many undergraduates will have research experience that is totally different from what they pursue in grad school. But knowing that you did it is useful, because it tells me about your work ethic, curiosity, and skill set (statistics, handling equipment, etc.). Professors know that students have a trajectory, too. For my undergrad, I did research with ground-burrowing sea birds, but my senior thesis was in paleoecology (which is what I went to grad school for).

      Like

    2. Great post, lots of useful advice! I am preparing to apply to grad school, but from the position of a PhD graduate with European degrees. The first time around I did Philology, concentration in Renaissance literature (2013), and now I’d like to continue with Medieval Studies. The institution I’ve had my eyes on for two years advises candidates interested in a PhD to take their MA there too (essentially for solid preparation in medieval Latin). I would be thrilled to do it, their MA is what sparked my interest in the first place. I have recently read online, however, that PhD graduates are not preferred PhD candidates. Can that be true? That would mean they are even less agreeable as MA candidates. I would give worlds to be able to discuss my background and situation with someone from the department, but I live thousands of miles away. I do not know whether I should write or call or go there. Who should I talk to first, truly the very first person to contact? Now I also fear that perhaps my foreign credentials might be a hindrance as well, since my letters of recommendation would be coming from people largely unknown to this other institution. Do you think I should go ahead and apply to the MA without previously contacting the department (no supervisor is needed for the MA, this is a no thesis program)? Or maybe contact the chair or a potential PhD supervisor straight away to discuss my intention to finalise at the PhD level? Oh dear, these are so many questions and such a load to bear: I have no undergraduate supervisor to consult with, I wish I did, and my former PhD supervisor, well, he does not know how things are being run here (no disparaging intended).

      Many, many thanks for any advice you might have,
      Laura, Canada

      Like

      1. It’s definitely not unheard of, especially for people changing careers. But given the job prospects in the humanities, consider very carefully what your goal will be.

        In this case, definitely contact the grad coordinator in the department, and talk to some prospective faculty. Even if you don’t need to, you’ll get done good advice, and having an advocate in the department never hurts.

        Good luck!

        Like

  42. Great article – I am in the throws of grad school application now. Contacting professors is my next big step, and I am drafting my inquiry emails. My biggest challenge, mentally, is wrapping my head around making my second choice schools sound as if they are all my first choice. At the same time, I don’t want to spread myself too thin and come across as uncommitted because I have too many options.

    Any advice you may have, I would really appreciate! Your article already has given me a lot of guidance.
    Thanks,
    Steph

    Like

    1. I’d hold off on the idea of first and second-choice schools for now. When you visit and interact with professors, your list will change a LOT. Treat each interaction separately, and don’t bring up where you’re applying unless asked. Applying costs money, too, so that may be a limiting factor. I’d recommend starting with a long list and winnowing down based on email responses. Ultimately, having two to five solid leads is the goal.

      Like

  43. Love your post! I’ve written a few potential inquiry emails but they all keep coming out to around 3 large paragraphs. Is this too long or do you have any suggestions on how long this email should be? Yours is super short, only a paragraph is that what I should be striving for? I want to make sure I include my current research and that takes up a lot of space but I think it’s pertinent for each Prof to know. Let me know and thanks!

    Like

    1. I’m glad it was helpful! Summer is tough because a lot of folks are in the field, at conferences, or on vacation. It’s always okay to follow up in a few weeks. Aim for about the length of my example, if possible. It’s always good practice to be able to get your research down to a sentence or two! Tough, but a good skill to cultivate. Good luck!

      Like

  44. I’m not a ecology student, but I am beginning the grad school application process and this post answered all the questions I was wondering about in terms of the letter of inquiry! Thanks for an awesome post!

    Like

  45. Thanks for the great advice! My question is: when should these inquiries be sent? I have my POI list, and am wondering if I should email now, or later this summer, or maybe right before or right after I send the application in?

    Like

    1. Great question! Summer is rough for a lot of professors, because folks are in the field or at conferences. So, you can get a jump on the communications now, but you may not get a response (conversely, for some people it can be a good time, because most of us aren’t teaching!). If you’re attending a conference, that’s a great time to introduce yourself to someone, and then follow up later.

      Definitely DO NOT WAIT until you send in an application! You’ll want to be communicating with a professor WELL before you apply (and generally, you shouldn’t apply unless and until you’ve got someone in mind to work with — success in grad school is so much more about good mentors than it is about individual schools or programs). In many cases, departments won’t even consider an application that isn’t being supported by a faculty member. At the very latest, start contacting people in September.

      Like

  46. Thank you for the advice! I have a question, though. This passage:

    Saying “I have experience in conceiving, executing, and bringing to fruition an original research project” is pointless if your undergraduate thesis is listed on your CV, and just serves to make you come across as stiff or grasping.

    Can you elaborate it further? What do you mean by ‘grasping’ here? Thanks.

    Like

    1. Grasping as in desperate, clingy, or trying too hard. Those aren’t signs of confidence. It’s always a good idea to let your record speak for itself — highlight what you’ve done, not who you are. Leave the interpretations up to your prospective mentor. 🙂

      Like

  47. Thank you for such a good post, I read it and its quite helping. I wanted to ask you that would it be good idea to go for a Ph.D after completing M.Sc. while you have a business mind more than an academic? I have completed BS in Electrical Engineering in 2013. Secondly i need to support my family after MSc so would i be able to support them while pursuing a PhD. In such conditions which things i should focus on while selecting a thesis or Project based Master. Waiting for your reply.

    Best Regards,
    Muhammad Tayyab Saeed

    Like

    1. Thank you! It really depends on your career goals. If a PhD will help, the go for it — and make sure you are in a program and with an advisor that appreciates the needs of someone who wants to go into industry. Most PhD programs are funded, and include health insurance and a stipend. It can be possible to support a family on this, but you’d most likely qualify for food stamps here in the US! Most people with families in grad school that I know have had a two-person income. Good luck!

      Like

  48. What is your opinion on “follow-ups?” I took your advice and wrote several professors, and the ones that did respond were positive, but concise, basically affirming the desire for me to apply, but not discussing the specific research issues addressed in the body. Is a thank you email warranted? Are these short responses expected, or is that a bad omen of their potential interest?

    Thanks,

    John

    Like

    1. Depending on the time of year you email someone, it’s definitely okay to follow up even if they didn’t respond the first time. If someone’s in the field, at a conference, at the end of the semester, etc., you may or may not have a response right away, and professors are notorious for not getting back to people. Short responses may be more of a reflection of business than interest. I’d respond with a succinct follow-up in that case asking for a phone call to discuss opportunities, as well as funding availability. If they weren’t interested, they’d either not respond at all or say they weren’t taking students/didn’t have funding.

      Like

  49. This is a great article. However, many of my fellow researchers (and admissions deans at some schools, such as NYU and Cornell) have pointed out to me that since a grad student usually has to complete rotations before joining a lab, it is not necessary to contact mentors before applying to the general Ph.D. program. What is your take on this?

    Like

    1. Great question! This is dependent on field, in my experience. I’ve heard of this being common in chemistry or microbiology, for example, but not, say, ecology. You can certainly get into lot of programs even without an advocate, but it definitely helps to have an in!

      Like

  50. This is a great article for those who are looking to apply to grad school. I think the most important part is to be able to establish communication with the professor you would like to work with. If you can do that, you are 50% on your way.

    Do you mind if I post this article link to my blog. Thank you in advance.

    Like

    1. You’re more than welcome to post the text, or link it– whichever you prefer. Everything on this site (unless otherwise stated) has a Creative Commons license for commercial-free use with attribution– so, please just credit me. Thanks!

      Like

  51. I stumbled upon this post through an initial predawn exploration of twitter – retweeted by Karen James.
    I think I’ll share your sage advice with some of my under undergraduates (otherwise known as high school students). I was pleasantly surprised to see John A.’s input (surprised by the connection, not the input; I am a COA grad).

    Like

  52. I was really nervous about this part of the grad school application process, so I asked friends of mine who’d already gotten in to grad school for advice and examples. It was _really_ helpful.

    Like

  53. Jackie, i am probably an old fogie, (no, definitely) but i would probably react negatively to the ‘awesomeness” and “coolness” in the otherwise fine letter. These words tend to be sloppy, hip, and sound insincere as well as suggesting that the applicant has a limited vocab based largely on cable TV. Otherwise some excellent advice.

    Like

    1. Oh, John, I definitely don’t mean those to be literal! I was trying to come up with a silly example. I’ll edit my post to reflect that this was not meant to be taken literally, lest some student get the wrong idea!

      Like

    2. A small point but a good one John. Some undergrads do make the mistake of overemphasizing their enthusiasm, and underemphasizing specifics (why do you want to work with me as opposed to someone else? how will grad school help you achieve your long-term goals? etc.) Being enthusiastic is great. But all prospective grad students are enthusiastic, so conveying enthusiasm doesn’t really make your introductory email stand out from the piles of such emails many supervisors get. Plus, enthusiasm is no substitute for the other elements that go into a good introductory email.

      Like

  54. As much as I dislike the “Dear Mrs. Duffy” emails, the “Dear Sir” ones are the ones that get the immediate delete from me.

    Like

  55. This is a fantastic post. I will be bookmarking it to share with my undergrads in the future. Thanks, Dr. Jacquelyn Gill.

    Like

  56. This is excellent. One additional suggestion: If you have undergraduate mentor/advisors, don’t just see them as letter generators. Talk to them about what programs they might recommend as a fit for you, and even ask them if they’d read a draft of your inquiry letter to places (especially where they might be personally acquainted with a potential advisor.) Not only does this help you improve your inquiry email, it gives the people writing letters on your behalf a better understanding of your interests and priorities in grad school, and might result in an even more insightful letter from them.

    Like

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