PhD and Graduate Admissions: Emailing Potential Advisors

By Molly Theodora Oringer

emailing advisor professor

Choosing the right advisor to oversee your research is crucial to your success in graduate school. What’s more, slots in graduate programs are competitive, and reaching out to prospective supervisors before submitting your application offers the opportunity to introduce yourself and your research interests. 

Many graduate programs will expect you to identify a few potential advisors in your statement of purpose. In many cases, the faculty you reach out to will be the ones to read your application. The “cold” email can be a scary prospect—after all, it might feel like a test of your social skills and a judgment of your research interests all in one! At best, though, reaching out to faculty at programs to which you’re interested in applying can not only help you get a foot in the door: it can also connect to more senior scholars whose work overlaps with your own.

You might feel like skipping this step entirely, but don’t dismiss the power of the introductory email! Professors are most likely to respond to students whose research interests dovetail with their own, so don’t spam the boxes of every faculty member in the department, but if there are multiple people suited to your topic, feel free to reach out to them.

How to Email a Professor about Research

Keep it to the point

Professors receive many emails a day, and a concise email (with a to-the-point subject line) will help increase your odds of getting a response. First impressions count when the recipient has many things on their plate, so keep length and clarity in mind when you’re crafting your correspondence.

Introduce yourself

Briefly discuss your educational history and research interests. Where did you complete your undergraduate/any postgraduate degrees? Where do your research interests overlap with that of the professor you’re emailing? Mention any research you’ve conducted and briefly outline the topic you’re hoping to explore in graduate school. This section should be the bulk of your email, as it will show what you’re interested in exploring in your graduate studies.

Mention any connections, including overlap in research interests

If you have a connection to the professor—no matter how small it seems—make sure to mention it. Did you attend a lecture they gave a few years ago? Perhaps one of their current students mentioned an overlap in your research interests? If you’re emailing with little personal connection, read an article published recently by the professor so that you might mention it in your email and connect it to your own goals. Demonstrating the overlap between your research interests and their areas of expertise is important for both the success of your application and the likelihood of receiving a response. Dedicating a few sentences to showing this match will go a long way in helping you stand out amongst the many emails from candidates a professor might receive.

Clearly state what you’re hoping to get from emailing them

A clearly posed question like “are you taking on new PhD students this fall?” will help to ensure a response. That being said, many professors are eager to talk about their departments beyond this yes or no question, and posing the option of a phone or Zoom call can help start the conversation. Are there elements of the program that the professor might be able to grant insight into? Do they run a particular lab, working group, or research program? In most cases, you will not be expected to pick your PhD supervisor prior to acceptance, particularly if you won’t be working in a lab. Feel free to reach out to multiple people in a department.

Thank them

This is an easy step to forget when you’re anxious about writing the perfect email, but make sure to thank the faculty for their time!

Follow up

Don’t be nervous to follow up with professors if your first email doesn’t get a response. Professors are busy with their own research, teaching, and service duties, and even anticipated emails often fall by the wayside. If you haven’t received a response around the two-week mark, follow up. Write your follow-up email on the initial thread so that your initial attempt to reach out doesn’t get missed.

Final Things to Keep in Mind as You Email Advisors

  • Check the program website before emailing professors of interest to see whether it mentions if they are accepting new students for the coming year.
  • Visit each professor’s website if they have one. Some professors will provide information for prospective students or list contact information.
  • Make sure that you’ve got each professor’s name spelled correctly and address them as Doctor or Professor.
  • Attach your Resume or CV! This one’s important!

Good luck! Once you do this, it’s time to work on your applications. Emailing PhD advisors will do you no good unless you have a strong graduate resume and personal statements to get into your desired school.