What to include in your email to a potential advisor

Dear (prospective) Graduate Student,

So, you’ve been successful in finding professors to serve as potential graduate advisors. Now comes the hard (and sometimes scary) part. What should you write in your email?

A good introductory email will include not only info on your metrics as a student, but it should also address all of the factors that influence whether a professor accepts a new student. It should be professionally polished to demonstrate respect, maturity, and responsibility.

Here are 6 tips for writing a good letter to a potential advisor:

  1. Demonstrate familiarity with the Professor’s body of research. It’s obvious when students send out mass emails that are impersonal and non-specific. Refer to a recent paper they’ve published or something you’ve read on their website that made you interested in joining their research group. This shows that you’re sincere and scientifically literate.
  2. Briefly state a little about your background, experience, and research interests. If you have some career goals in mind already, it’s good to share what paths you are considering. Make sure this aligns with statements about why you want to be part of their research group.
  3. Demonstrate your scientific thinking ability by suggesting a possible area of research to discuss. You may choose to share a specific hypothesis you wish to research, maybe a general topic of mutual interest, or even pose questions and future directions about the work they’re doing. Your suggestions don’t have to be groundbreaking, they just need to show a desire to develop a deeper understanding of the area of study.
  4. Openly address the funding problem. Many professors will simply decline (or fail to reply at all) if they don’t currently have a grant with a funded grad student position. If you are in fact willing to help with funding, by applying for fellowships or working as a teaching assistant or research technician, say that outright in your first email. This may give the professor pause to consider you as a protege without considering your expense first. See: How to get paid to go to grad school  
  5. Attach a single PDF file that contains all relevant information with your name as the file name. Usually this includes your GRE scores, transcripts and/or GPA, and resume/CV. Be sure to check each Professor’s website to see if they request specific items. Why is a single PDF with your name important? This is the professionally polished part! Most Professor’s have folders upon folders upon folders upon drives upon drives of files on their computer. They do not want to download multiple attachments from your email and then hunt for them later to review. When you make life easier for a Professor, they appreciate it.
  6. Propose a meeting, either in person or remotely, to discuss the scientific ideas you brought up and the possibility of working together. This creates a ‘call to action’ that warrants some kind of response from the Professor so your email will (hopefully) not get lost in the email abyss. Conversations like this are also really important to gauge whether you’re a good fit for one another. Use the opportunity to engage in a two-way interview.
  7. Keep it brief (3 paragraphs max), use a professional-looking email address, and include a link to a personal website or publication if you have one.

If you’ve done all of these things, rest assured you’ve done all that you can do! Don’t take it personally if Professor’s decline because the choice to take on new students is complex and it’s almost never a reflection of your value as a scientist. Be prepared for a lot of Professors to simply never reply unfortunately. Some are too busy and forget, others are just not interested and that’s how it goes.

Stay positive.

– R

Did I miss anything? Let me know in the comments below!