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.
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.
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!
*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.