Every year around this time, I get e-mails from prospective graduate students who want to know if I will be taking on new students in the next academic year. The content of their messages varies a surprising amount, as does, I suspect, the responses we give as professors.
Undergraduates who send those exploratory e-mails have typically been advised to do so. I am in a physical-sciences field in which graduate students often apply to work with, and be advised by, a specific professor or professors. It's the departments—usually a committee in consultation with the chair—that decide whom to admit, but advisers have a major role in those decisions. That's why undergraduate advisers recommend that their students write to prospective graduate advisers.
It is useful to send an exploratory e-mail because some professors may not be interested in advising a new student—depending on how many advisees they already have, and on what grant money is available to pay research assistantships.
Graduate-student support can be supplemented, to some extent, by departmental teaching assistantships and fellowships, but faculty members may be asked to make a financial commitment for at least the first year or two of a student's graduate career, especially for international students who might not arrive with sufficient language skills to be teaching assistants.
Although departments try to admit as many of the "top" applicants as possible, there are typically more qualified applicants than openings. The decision about whether to admit particular students, therefore, involves not only their qualifications but also whether a student would be a good match with a particular adviser. E-mail messages from prospective graduate students are a way for them to determine whether there is even any point in applying to work with a particular professor.
What do students write in those introductory e-mails? What should they write? The former is easy to answer, if we can assume that the messages I receive are representative of the genre. The answer to the second question will vary from professor to professor, but I can explain what I like (and don't like) to see in an e-mail from a prospective graduate student.
Most of the messages include some or all of the following: the name of the student's undergraduate institution, major and minor fields, graduation date, relevant research experience, and field of interest for graduate study. Most e-mails ask some version of this question: Is there any point in applying? And then they make a vague request for "more information."
Some students ask about money (tuition, benefits, salary attached to a research assistantship). Others mention details of their personal circumstances (spouses and significant others).
All of those issues, however, are better left for another time: Money is important, but you as a student can probably find out the numbers some other way (via our Web site or an e-mail to a staff administrator). And personal situations are, well, personal. Your first e-mail to a potential graduate adviser should be professional and short.
Something you probably should mention in the e-mail, but most students don't, is whether you are interested in pursuing a master of science, a master's and then maybe a Ph.D., or definitely a Ph.D. That information is critical to my answer about whether I will be looking for new graduate students in the next academic year. For example, I might be looking for a new Ph.D. student, but not a new M.S. student, or vice versa.
I like a succinct e-mail. Your message is not a pre-application, so I don't want to see your full CV or research statement. I will look at those later, if you actually follow through and apply to the graduate program and you have a good enough application for the admissions committee to pass it along. To cover yourself, just in case the potential adviser you are approaching does want to see such detailed information at this early stage, you could provide a link to a Web site where that information is posted. Professors can follow the link, or not.
Some students ask if they can visit, or mention that they will be at a particular conference and would like to talk with me in person there. I always have mixed feelings about those requests. On the one hand, requesting a visit or a face-to-face conversation demonstrates serious intent. Meeting a potential adviser can help applicants with their decision about whether to apply. The encounters can also be useful for me as the potential adviser because I can form an impression that helps me make an admissions decision later in the process.
On the other hand, it's hard to find time for many of those informal meetings, including at conferences. Fortunately, not every potential applicant wants to arrange a meeting before he or she even applies. I can, however, meet a few.
If a potential applicant and a potential adviser are going to be at the same conference in the near future, it's fine to ask if it would be possible to meet. I do not, however, like e-mails in which students inform me that we are going to meet. I have had students write and tell me that they will meet me directly after my talk at a specific conference (without checking with me as to whether that is a good time). I've had others tell me that Monday would be a good day for us to have lunch together, and I've had students ask me for my cellphone number so they can find me at the conference. One potential applicant—in what I hope is not a trend—sent me a friend request through Facebook. I am actually not that friendly, although I do try to chat with prospective students at conferences.
If you do want to meet a potential adviser in person, my advice would be to keep your request general at first, to see if the professor is interested. Or, if you don't want to request a meeting, just try to track down the professor at a conference, such as at a poster session.
E-mail messages from potential applicants typically end with a request for more information. I can appreciate that it's difficult to know how to finish such a message to an unknown professor, but "more information" is too vague.
My department Web pages describe my continuing research and my published work is accessible, so there's quite a lot of information already available about likely research opportunities. I typically respond with a few sentences about research opportunities, but I don't provide much "more" information.
Of course, the questions that students really want answered aren't appropriate to ask, at least not to me directly: Am I a mean adviser or a nice adviser? Do I expect my students to work nights and weekends? Am I a control freak, or do I have a sink-or-swim advising philosophy? Will I scream at them if they don't run a spell checker before handing me a document, or will I merely sigh?
To find out that kind of information, you will have to write to my current and recent graduate students—something I encourage potential applicants to do.
And what about my response to you? Do I even bother? Yes, I always write back, except for the cases that are obviously mass-mailed form letters that start "Dear Sir" and mention a research field that is completely unrelated to mine.
Barring those, why do I answer every legitimate message? I write back because maybe one day the student will be my student.