How to make contact with a potential PhD/master’s supervisor: By: Dr. Louis Boamponsem

Prospective students will often make contact with academic staff to initiate conversations regarding candidacy. One of the most common points of confusion among prospective research students is how to write an email to contact a professor to serve as a potential PhD (or Masters) or graduate school advisor.  This can be a minefield.  Yet the email inquiry to a potential advisor is one of the most important steps in your entire graduate school process, in that it is your chance to make a first impression on the person who will dictate many elements of your life for the next five to ten years.

Once you have identified an academic/expert/supervisor, you need to persuade them that you are a suitable candidate. It’s probably fair to say that most university-based academics regularly receive requests from people around the world wishing to be considered as prospective postgraduate students (mostly PhD). At this stage, it is assumed that you are contacting someone with approximately the correct expertise in your area of interest. What attributes will make your email and your name stand out, and exponentially increase your chances of getting a timely, thorough, and friendly response, and potentially building the kind of relationship that leads to a strong mentoring relationship? Approaching a professor via e-mail  While  there  are  no  hard  and  fast  rules  as  to  how  to  write  a  successful  email,  here  are  some guidelines you may find useful when first making contact with a supervisor.

You should only contact professors with whom you have a genuine interest in working based on knowing something about them and what they do. You can find out about professors’ research by looking at their web.
Check their title – Dr., Prof.: Don’t call them professor if they are not. Avoid impersonal letters (“Dear Sir/Madam”). Research has shown that you are more likely  to receive a  reply  if your mail  is geared  towards a specific person.
·         Tell them about your research interest and how it matches with their own expertise. Most supervisors will simply ignore email from potential students that appears generic or unrelated to that supervisor’s particular field of study.

·         You should have looked closely at the person’s web-page, even read some of their published work, and should introduce yourself by explaining why this person’s work interests you sufficiently to apply to study with them for several years. Let the supervisor feel you have specifically targeted him/her for their expertise and track record. Take some time to peruse prospective supervisor CVs, and invest even a few sentences on how their interests align with your own. Most of the information you seek will be available online, so please, do a little research! After all, you will be doing research for a masters/PhD, so if you can’t even research your supervisor correctly, you have no hope of garnering a positive response. Doing research on the professors that you’ll be contacting not only ensures you’ll be approaching the appropriate people, it will increase your chances of attracting their interest, since it’s a very real demonstration of your initiative, curiosity and resourcefulness.

Avoid blanket general e-mails to several prospective supervisors. If you are copying and pasting from one email to another, check you have changed all the relevant information to match who you are writing to.
·         Keep it brief and to the point. Avoid erratic and overstatements, such as “it is my dream to do a PhD” or “my project is going to change the world.” Include in the main text of your message (not just in attachments) a short statement about your background (what you have studied so far, your degree result or grade average, any relevant experience) and research interests. It is said that in a world class university, many professors get several hundred emails a day and read only a few of them. Keep that in mind as you write your letter and make a concerted effort to be brief. Aim to get your message across in two paragraphs at the most. The goal is to spark the professor’s interest in order to initiate a dialog; you don’t need to tell them your whole life’s story in the first contact.

Don’t demand an immediate response or hassle the people you contacted too soon.
Very importantly, actually read their publications, don’t just say you have.
Don’t send fully fledged proposal at the initial contact stage
·         Ask if the supervisor is planning to at least consider applications for a new PhD (or Masters) student.

·         Contact only one faculty member per department. It will not appear that you are uniquely excited about joining them if he/she discovers that you have emailed one or more other faculty members in the same program. Note that supervisors talk to each other and they can notice when the same person sends the same application to more than one faculty/department member.

·         Put something meaningful in the subject line e.g;  “Prospective PhD student seeking to study atmospheric modeling with chemometrics”

·         If your CV is in good shape, you could attach it to the email for the recipient’s perusal.

·         If you have a big scholarship, or if you’re independently wealthy, you fall into the second category and it’s important to mention it right at the beginning of your letter. Letting a prospective supervisor know that you are not looking for money increases the likelihood that they will read the rest of your letter and, as a result, it improves your chances of getting admitted.

·         Make it clear that you have checked  academic requirements of the University and that you exceed them all. If you have done a Masters, be sure to mention the title of your thesis and the name of your thesis supervisor in your letter. This not only shows evidence of your research productivity, it gives the professor a better idea of your research background and some indication of your writing skills.

·         DO make contact sooner rather than later

·         Of course this doesn’t mean you can’t phone/email for an appointment. If you are emailing (which is absolutely fine) to discuss the possibility of doing a PhD, rather than visiting, why not copy in the postgraduate (research) person or international officer in the department or university? They may be able to give you additional information (and in some cases, nudge busy academics!).

·         Make  sure  your  e-mail  does  not  contain  any  grammatical  or  typing  mistakes.  This includes minor errors such as capital letters or punctuation. Keep in mind  that you want to convince the a professor that you are capable of producing academic work of the highest standard.

After making the first contact: The reality

Research faculty members are not likely to take new PhD (or Masters) students each and every year. This could be for a variety of reasons, including, for example, a professor might be going on sabbatical leave, taking on an administrative role, or phasing out for retirement. It is also possible that the faculty members in a program take turns admitting students each year due to funding constraints, a limited number of openings, or lack of office/laboratory space.

Not all academics will answer or will agree to meet up. This is not personal, it is just because they’re busy, they have too many students, they’re not sure your research topic is the right one, they’re about to retire, etc. However, if you have potential, sincere research ambitions and an interesting topic/project you want to research, this will help you greatly in your search for a supervisor.

You should not necessarily expect a timely reply or any reply at all. Professors are inundated daily with emails from their current students, other faculty and administrators at the university, collaborators all over the world, journalists, and others. With all of this inbox traffic, your email may not very well be on the top of his/her reply-to list.

In the view of one professor, the vast majority – maybe 90% — of students who contact them looking to embark on graduate studies make the same set of mistakes when they write and most of the applications end up discarded without a reply. If the professor doesn’t respond in a week or so, send a follow up email gently reminding them of your initial email, and asking again for their response.  If they ignore you again, best to probably give up.  But professors are busy and distracted, and it may take a little extra effort to get through.
Academics are generally very busy and responding to your email is not their top priority. It may be sensible, if you get no reply, to send a follow-up after a week or two, but do not bombard them with repeated emails. If a first message followed by a reminder doesn’t work, then you should start looking for an alternative person to approach. It may be that this supervisor is not currently taking on students. Since most professors get lots of email, there is some chance that even if you do everything right, your message will get lost in their inbox and you won’t get a reply. If you don’t get a reply after about a week, send a follow up email that politely asks if the message was received and includes the previous message. If you still don’t get a response, that’s a pretty good sign that the potential professor you are contacting either has an overly-agressive spam filter, or is not someone you want as your advisor.

If you are genuinely uncertain who to contact, then you can send an enquiry to the faculty or to the  Graduate School office. But don’t expect them to do your homework for you – you should read through all the available information about topics, faculties and supervisors first.

When contacting a supervisor is not a requirement for the admission application

You might be wondering, “Do I even need to write letters to potential supervisors? Can’t I just fill out university application forms?” The fact is – hundreds of people apply for each spot and if you just fill out the application form without actually contacting any of the professors at the university in question, then you’re not likely to get noticed. Furthermore, most graduate students (especially PhDs) are admitted because a particular professor has expressed an interest in recruiting them, so if you’ve not been in contact with a professor, chances are, nobody there is going to push to get you admitted.

Your chances of a successful application will be greatly increased if you do some research to determine who would be a good supervisor for the topics you are interested in, and contact that person to discuss your interests and suitability for the degree programme.  Finally, it is possible to apply without making contact with a supervisor, but as already mentioned, you will improve your chances of success if you already have a confirmation from a potential supervisor that he/she is interested in your application.

Common mistakes from students

1.      Lack of any detail: Sending one liner email (e.g; I wish to write you to seek for supervision towards PhD (or Masters) degree. If you not interested, assist me to get other supervisor)

2.      bad English. if you demonstrate straight away that you can’t write English well enough to save your life. If you aren’t the best writer of English, find someone who can help you write your introductory e-mail properly. . Ask for feedback and it is always good to have a second set of eyes to check for typos.

3.      Impoliteness

4.      casual and seemingly disinterested. Keep  in mind  that being  informal and using casual phrases are mostly not appreciated  in  first contacts.

Positive feedback from first contact

·         Once the online relationship and dialogue have been established, you can send your CV.

Summary

Note that supervisors absolutely depend on good students, as much as good students depend on them to guide them to academic independence. Just don’t blow your chances before you even get the opportunity to say ‘hello’. Getting into a good PhD (or Masters) program is extremely competitive and professors are strongly motivated to identify and attract the best possible research students to their group. At any department you would want to go to, the acceptance rate is usually in the single digit percentages. At the most competitive departments, only a few slots every year are awarded to students without recommendation letters from people the faculty know well.

Your goal is to start an interesting email conversation about research ideas. Following the advice above can increase your chances of getting accepted to a particular programme and having a successful working relationship with your advisor/supervisor. Success in graduate school requires passion, initiative, tenacity, curiosity, commitment, intelligence and perseverance.   You are not going to make it through the long haul if you are not passionate about the field you are studying and willing to do a lot of work, so expect to do a little at the beginning.  Show that you know what the professor’s lab does – or at least that you have tried to figure out what it does and tell them why this interests you.   Be SPECIFIC.  Demonstrate that you have some initiative and provide the professor with some demonstration that you’ve actually read their work and thought about why the two of you would be a good fit.  Do make the professor feel special by asking a specific question or about their work, based on what you’ve read in one of their publications or on their web-site. This shows them you are genuinely interested in the field and have the intelligence to come up with a good question.  Being able to come up with good questions, questions that you can design an experiment to answer is a key element of success in research.  Show them you can do this. Good luck with your supervisor hunt!