Fresh out of Ph.D., during the first week of my first post-doc, I noticed a strange email in my inbox. It was a request from an international student who wanted to do a Ph.D. in my lab. Trouble is, I’m a mathematical ecologist and the student had a background in chemistry. The email was generic and did not demonstrate they even knew who I was nor what I worked on. As years went by I started to get more and more of these emails. My first instinct was to ignore them. Why should I put any effort into replying, when they didn’t put any effort into looking me up. I felt about as much obligation to reply as to the requests from predatory journals asking me to submit a paper to their special issue.
But then I had a thought, what if these students have no idea how one is supposed to reach out to a potential advisor? What if I replied to one with some advice? What would happen?
So I did just that. I sent them the following reply
Thanks for reaching out. I’m sorry to say that this email is too generic for me to consider you as a future student working with me at this time. The email doesn’t demonstrate that you know what topics I work on. I’d recommend in the future sending only a few emails. Focus on 10 or fewer potential supervisors that really fit your specific research interest. Explain what specifically drew you to them as a supervisor. Explain what you want to work on with them. You should have read one of their papers, or at minimum, read a description of their research from their webpage. The type of email you wrote will get very few responses because we receive several such emails. I hope this doesn’t come off too harsh. I hope you might take this advice and improve the next time you send an email request for supervision – because I really do want you to succeed.
Here is an example of what I sent to my prospective Ph.D. advisor 10 years ago. I only emailed 6 professors, because I really wanted to spend a lot of time tailoring my email to their interests and convincing them I wanted to work on the things they worked on.
“My name is Matthew Holden and I am a senior majoring in Applied Mathematics at UC Davis. I am interested in working in your lab during graduate studies because of my broad interests in theoretical ecology.
Your website especially stood out because you state that you encourage independent research and teamwork. Currently, I am collaborating with six other students modelling plant population dynamics in fragmented landscapes. We defined our own research question, and although it was the toughest part of the project it was the most rewarding.
During this project, I first came across your early work on the population dynamics of plants with a dormant life stage – and further reading some of your newer papers in epidemiology, predator prey dynamics and evolution, I really like the diversity of the problems in your lab.
Specifically, I am interested in doing research in spatial ecology and understanding how populations spread. I think your work on integral projection models will be especially relevant to the spread models I want to study (integro-difference equations). I am in the beginning phase of drafting an NSF graduate research fellowship application on how to best choose the locations of pest control when a pest species spreads according to such equations, and think you’d be an ideal supervisor for the project.
I was wondering if you will have any openings for new graduate students in your lab this coming year? Any comments or feedback would be greatly appreciated.”
Note the parts about teamwork and independent research are specifically on this professor’s website where he talks about qualities he looks for in graduate students. I didn’t put this sentence in any of my emails to other professors (in fact all the sentences except for the first one are very different for each prospective advisor). For most professors, I wrote shorter emails that focussed on how their work related to mine. For example, sentences like the bolded one in the email above. Feel free to use the above email as a guide for any future emails you write. A general template might be to start with 1-2 sentences explaining who you are and what your background is, followed by 1-2 sentences explaining why your research interests align with the person you are contacting, and finally 1-2 sentences explaining what research topic you’d like to work on with the potential supervisor.
If it turns out you are in fact interested in some of the topics I am working on, please feel free to try again with a more specific email. If your background is in a completely unrelated topic, that’s ok! But, be sure to explain why you want to switch topics, and how you might possess transferable skills that will make transitioning into this new field possible.
You might be thinking, … what? That looks like you took a lot of time writing that reply. How could you possibly have the time to write something like that to every generic request. Turns out it is really easy in outlook or Gmail to semi-automate these replies.
If you use outlook:
- draft a generic reply like above
- save it as an alternative signature
- whenever you get a generic email, click reply, click insert signature, click on the one you saved.
- click send
If you use Gmail: see here
The process takes maybe 5 seconds max to reply, once you’ve set this all up.
So what is the benefit? Well, after sending that first reply, I received this back from the student
“Thank you so much. It’s really helpful for me. Actually, I was very confused about how to do it but you solved my problem by advising me. It means a lot to me. Thank You,”
I think many students, especially from countries with cultures completely different from our own, genuinely don’t know how to get in touch with potential supervisors. If you have a few seconds a day, replying to these types of emails might do quite a bit of good. Ever since I started doing this, nearly 50% of people who received this canned reply have written back letting me know how much they appreciated the advice. I wonder if everyone started using this strategy, maybe we’d all stop getting so many emails?
More advice on how to contact a supervisor can be found in the links below