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So, you want to go to grad school? Nail the inquiry email

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.

grad school

Applying to graduate school should not be a random process! Do your homework first. Image courtesy of PhDComics.

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.

Respectfully,

Undergraduate Student

typing-in-water

Find a comfortable setting, free of distractions, to compose your inquiry email. Don’t blow it!

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!

Good luck!

*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.

Categories: Academia Education Grad School Tips & Tricks

Tagged as:

Jacquelyn Gill

26 replies

  1. I’m not a ecology student, but I am beginning the grad school application process and this post answered all the questions I was wondering about in terms of the letter of inquiry! Thanks for an awesome post!

  2. Thanks for the great advice! My question is: when should these inquiries be sent? I have my POI list, and am wondering if I should email now, or later this summer, or maybe right before or right after I send the application in?

    1. Great question! Summer is rough for a lot of professors, because folks are in the field or at conferences. So, you can get a jump on the communications now, but you may not get a response (conversely, for some people it can be a good time, because most of us aren’t teaching!). If you’re attending a conference, that’s a great time to introduce yourself to someone, and then follow up later.

      Definitely DO NOT WAIT until you send in an application! You’ll want to be communicating with a professor WELL before you apply (and generally, you shouldn’t apply unless and until you’ve got someone in mind to work with — success in grad school is so much more about good mentors than it is about individual schools or programs). In many cases, departments won’t even consider an application that isn’t being supported by a faculty member. At the very latest, start contacting people in September.

  3. Thank you for the advice! I have a question, though. This passage:

    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.

    Can you elaborate it further? What do you mean by ‘grasping’ here? Thanks.

    1. Grasping as in desperate, clingy, or trying too hard. Those aren’t signs of confidence. It’s always a good idea to let your record speak for itself — highlight what you’ve done, not who you are. Leave the interpretations up to your prospective mentor. :)

  4. Thank you for such a good post, I read it and its quite helping. I wanted to ask you that would it be good idea to go for a Ph.D after completing M.Sc. while you have a business mind more than an academic? I have completed BS in Electrical Engineering in 2013. Secondly i need to support my family after MSc so would i be able to support them while pursuing a PhD. In such conditions which things i should focus on while selecting a thesis or Project based Master. Waiting for your reply.

    Best Regards,
    Muhammad Tayyab Saeed

    1. Thank you! It really depends on your career goals. If a PhD will help, the go for it — and make sure you are in a program and with an advisor that appreciates the needs of someone who wants to go into industry. Most PhD programs are funded, and include health insurance and a stipend. It can be possible to support a family on this, but you’d most likely qualify for food stamps here in the US! Most people with families in grad school that I know have had a two-person income. Good luck!

  5. What is your opinion on “follow-ups?” I took your advice and wrote several professors, and the ones that did respond were positive, but concise, basically affirming the desire for me to apply, but not discussing the specific research issues addressed in the body. Is a thank you email warranted? Are these short responses expected, or is that a bad omen of their potential interest?

    Thanks,

    John

    1. Depending on the time of year you email someone, it’s definitely okay to follow up even if they didn’t respond the first time. If someone’s in the field, at a conference, at the end of the semester, etc., you may or may not have a response right away, and professors are notorious for not getting back to people. Short responses may be more of a reflection of business than interest. I’d respond with a succinct follow-up in that case asking for a phone call to discuss opportunities, as well as funding availability. If they weren’t interested, they’d either not respond at all or say they weren’t taking students/didn’t have funding.

  6. This is a great article. However, many of my fellow researchers (and admissions deans at some schools, such as NYU and Cornell) have pointed out to me that since a grad student usually has to complete rotations before joining a lab, it is not necessary to contact mentors before applying to the general Ph.D. program. What is your take on this?

    1. Great question! This is dependent on field, in my experience. I’ve heard of this being common in chemistry or microbiology, for example, but not, say, ecology. You can certainly get into lot of programs even without an advocate, but it definitely helps to have an in!

  7. This is a great article for those who are looking to apply to grad school. I think the most important part is to be able to establish communication with the professor you would like to work with. If you can do that, you are 50% on your way.

    Do you mind if I post this article link to my blog. Thank you in advance.

    1. You’re more than welcome to post the text, or link it– whichever you prefer. Everything on this site (unless otherwise stated) has a Creative Commons license for commercial-free use with attribution– so, please just credit me. Thanks!

  8. I stumbled upon this post through an initial predawn exploration of twitter – retweeted by Karen James.
    I think I’ll share your sage advice with some of my under undergraduates (otherwise known as high school students). I was pleasantly surprised to see John A.’s input (surprised by the connection, not the input; I am a COA grad).

  9. I was really nervous about this part of the grad school application process, so I asked friends of mine who’d already gotten in to grad school for advice and examples. It was _really_ helpful.

  10. Jackie, i am probably an old fogie, (no, definitely) but i would probably react negatively to the ‘awesomeness” and “coolness” in the otherwise fine letter. These words tend to be sloppy, hip, and sound insincere as well as suggesting that the applicant has a limited vocab based largely on cable TV. Otherwise some excellent advice.

    1. Oh, John, I definitely don’t mean those to be literal! I was trying to come up with a silly example. I’ll edit my post to reflect that this was not meant to be taken literally, lest some student get the wrong idea!

    2. A small point but a good one John. Some undergrads do make the mistake of overemphasizing their enthusiasm, and underemphasizing specifics (why do you want to work with me as opposed to someone else? how will grad school help you achieve your long-term goals? etc.) Being enthusiastic is great. But all prospective grad students are enthusiastic, so conveying enthusiasm doesn’t really make your introductory email stand out from the piles of such emails many supervisors get. Plus, enthusiasm is no substitute for the other elements that go into a good introductory email.

  11. As much as I dislike the “Dear Mrs. Duffy” emails, the “Dear Sir” ones are the ones that get the immediate delete from me.

  12. This is a fantastic post. I will be bookmarking it to share with my undergrads in the future. Thanks, Dr. Jacquelyn Gill.

  13. This is excellent. One additional suggestion: If you have undergraduate mentor/advisors, don’t just see them as letter generators. Talk to them about what programs they might recommend as a fit for you, and even ask them if they’d read a draft of your inquiry letter to places (especially where they might be personally acquainted with a potential advisor.) Not only does this help you improve your inquiry email, it gives the people writing letters on your behalf a better understanding of your interests and priorities in grad school, and might result in an even more insightful letter from them.

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