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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

95 replies

  1. 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!

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    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!

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    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.😉

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        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.

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          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?

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      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

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        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.

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  2. 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.

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    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.”).

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  3. 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?

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    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

  4. 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.

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    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.

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  5. 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?

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    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.

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      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.

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        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.

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

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  7. 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

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    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!

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  8. 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?

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    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.

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  9. 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!!

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    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.

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  10. 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.

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    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!

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  11. 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.

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    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

  12. 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

  13. 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

  14. 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

  15. 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

  16. 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

  17. 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

  18. 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

  19. 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

  20. 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

  21. 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

  22. 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

  23. 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

  24. 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

  25. 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

  26. 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

  27. 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

  28. 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

  29. 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

  30. 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

  31. 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

  32. 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

  33. 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

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

    Like

  35. 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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