Earlier this year, I talked with college seniors who were in the process of deciding where to apply to graduate school in the sciences. I was curious to learn how they went about the search.
The students had all received good advice from their professors, so they knew to send email messages to potential advisers (a common practice in my field) inquiring about their graduate programs. The seniors had all done that, but had a few complaints about the results. Here I present their complaints and my professor's-eye view of the situation.
Complaint No. 1: Some professors don't respond. The students had been warned about that, but somehow didn't believe it would happen to them. Surely if they crafted their emails perfectly, a professor they wrote to would respond, right?
Most professors responded, according to the students, but some did not. The students I spoke with wondered, Should they even bother applying to a nonresponder's graduate program?
I told them yes. If they were really interested in a particular department and in that potential adviser, they should give the nonresponder one more polite try via email. If there was still no answer and they still wanted to apply, they should do so. If the department then issues an invitation to visit the campus (as part of the admissions process), the student may be able to find out if the lack of a response was an accurate reflection of how a potential adviser interacts with students.
Students can also ask an undergraduate professor to read a draft of the email, since they may not know what a faculty member wants to see (and not see) in an email message from a prospective student.
I recently got an email from an undergraduate who did not provide any information about himself, sent the email from his Gmail account (perhaps he was no longer a student?), did not say whether he was interested in a master's or a Ph.D. program, and asked me questions that he could easily answer by looking at my web page (see Complaint No. 2). He also had various requests: He wanted me to suggest articles for him to read and he wanted "more information." The focus of his email was on what I could do for him, and the tone was unprofessional. I replied, but briefly. Some professors may not reply to such emails.
Complaint No. 2: Some professors respond with information that can be found on their web pages. I was surprised by that complaint, and explained to the students that I get quite a few email messages from students who have clearly not looked at the information on my web page. In some cases I can't tell from the content of the email if a student has read my web page. And in other cases a student writes, "I looked at your web page," but then asks a question that can be answered from the web page (maybe they looked at a different web page?). If a student mentions something specific about the information on my web page and asks a focused question, I try to reply to that. Most typically, however, my reply is very brief and mentions the web page.
Complaint No. 3: Some professors give only a brief reply. That's true. But it's because many of us get a great many of these emails. And we are busy. Students should not be discontented with a brief, encouraging reply to the first contact.
Complaint 4: Even when asked, some professors don't send requested reprints of recent papers. And they don't even send suggestions of which of their papers would be good to read, the students complained.
Again, I told the seniors that they shouldn't expect a busy professor to invest too much time at this point in helping them determine whether to apply to graduate school. Also, maybe the professor assumes that prospective graduate students should be able to find reprints themselves, through a campus library system, and wants them to decide for themselves which of the professor's papers to read (or not).
Consider also the wording of these requests: Do not ask whether a professor has any interesting papers that he or she could send. The students that I talked with felt they were showing a high level of interest and were surprised to find that professors may interpret such a request as indicating a possibly high-maintenance student who doesn't take initiative. They might also be a bit offended at a question about whether any of their work is interesting.
Complaint 5: Some professors don't answer specific questions. If a student has asked a short and essential question, such as "Will you be taking on any new advisees in the next academic year?," then I can see being disappointed if the professor fails to answer that. But if the question was an open-ended request—"Please tell me more about your research" or "Please send me more information"—then I understand why a professor would decline to send a detailed (or any) response.
I asked the students: Did they really expect a lengthy, detailed, personalized, and prompt response from every professor? One senior replied, "Well, when you put it like that. ..."
To be fair, I was digging for complaints. I encouraged the students to tell me what they thought about this stage of their graduate-program search. I especially wanted to know what they thought about the experience of writing to potential advisers. Overall, most said they found it somewhat stressful, but sometimes it helped, such as when a professor's reply was encouraging.
The larger question: Are these emails useful for either students or professors?
I have always assumed they are because a student might be able to find out whether a potential adviser is looking for new students for the next year. And for me, as the potential adviser, I get a first glimpse of whether a student is serious and focused, although the undergraduate's application to our graduate program is, of course, the main source of information about that.
It might seem like there are many pitfalls in contacting potential advisers, especially because there is no way to know each professor's preferences on the nature, length, and tone of emails. It is nevertheless better, based on my experience in my own field, to send an imperfect email that demonstrates interest than no email at all.
Ideally, a short, professional message is the way to go: "Dear Professor X," followed by your name, undergraduate institution, date of graduation, interest in a master's or Ph.D., brief statement explaining why you are writing, a question about whether the professor is looking for new graduate students for the following academic year or not, "Sincerely," and your name. If you send your CV (optional, in my opinion), make sure the file name has your name on it. Sending "CV.pdf" screams "I can't imagine any other CV exists in the universe except my own."
For most graduate programs, there are always many more talented and qualified applicants for admission than can be admitted. Correct me (with a comment below) if I am wrong, but I don't think these introductory emails are likely to play a major role in admissions decisions for most graduate programs.
Nevertheless, consider a semi-hypothetical case of the receipt of several applications of effectively equal "merit," all suitable for admission of the applicants. Only one can be admitted. If all other factors are equal, would it be more likely that the admission offer would go to someone who has had no contact with any potential advisers (assuming contact is the custom in that discipline) or to someone who indicated a specific interest in the graduate program and e-mailed potential advisers before applying?