by Jeremy Young | 11/10/2008 08:40:00 AM
I'm applying to Ph.D. programs this fall and many advise making contacts with a member of the department you hope to work under. How do you specifically go about doing this? It seems awkward to send an unsolicited email -- but perhaps this is how the game is played? I've generally tried to meet professors at conferences with some success -- but it only goes so far -- particularly with the limited time span of grad school apps.

Wannabe A Grad Student

It's how the game is played, WAGS.

Imagine you're a professor at a conference, and a potential grad student comes up to you and wants to ask you all sorts of questions about studying with you. How are you going to feel? Probably, awkward and put on the spot. You probably won't be at your best talking to the student, and you probably won't remember his/her name. Now, imagine yourself sitting in your office, kicking back with a nice cup of coffee and the latest sports headlines on your computer (profs aren't always the hardest workers!), when suddenly an e-mail from a prospective student flashes across your screen. You're dreadfully busy (with those sports headlines), and don't feel like answering right now -- but that's okay, because you can save the e-mail and answer it when you feel at your best. Also, you'll be staring repeatedly at the student's name, so you're much more likely to remember that name than if the student simply mentions it in passing at a conference.

E-mailing a potential professor isn't just an acceptable way of making contact with him/her, it's easily the best way. At least, that's my take on the matter -- but I wanted to make sure I was giving you the very best advice possible, WAGS, so I contacted an actual prof to get his view.

"I find e-mail a much better way to communicate than meeting at a conference," says Edward J. Blum, an assistant professor at San Diego State University and author of W. E. B. Du Bois: American Prophet (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007). "Oftentimes during conferences, professors are inundated with people who want to talk to them. There are mutual friends and colleagues; there are other junior scholars who seek them out; and then there are graduate students. It's very hard to remember names or what an individual studied." Like me, Ed's preferred method of contact is via electronic pulses on a screen: "E-mail, conversely, is less personal, but it is also more private."

Ed went on to offer you some specific advice about what to write in your introduction e-mails. "The best way, I think, to approach someone is to honestly and unselfishly tell the individual why you are contacting them. This does NOT mean merely introducing yourself, saying you want to work with her or him, and then launching into your own research agenda. Rather, I recommend explaining to the scholar why you find her or his scholarship interesting. Mention that a book or article inspired you (but be honest here; false flattery will sound fabricated and self-serving). Explain how that individual's work has led you to pursue the problems you are interested in. Basically make plain to the recipient why it is that you would be a good fit for the program (because it would benefit both the professor and the graduate student)." I don't necessarily disagree with Ed here, but I'd argue that your e-mail should be focused around specific questions about the program for the professor to answer, so he/she knows what to write you back about, and so you get some idea of whether you actually want to apply to this school. Selling yourself is something best accomplished in the personal statement and writing sample, not in an e-mail; the e-mails are most useful for you as the student to weed out unfriendly potential advisors (I had one of these) or to find out whether the school is actually strong in your area of interest (I had several that weren't).

Ed also mentioned some pitfalls you should avoid: "1) long emails; keep it short and to the point. 2) attachments. Don't bother sending an article or vita until correspondence has begun and the scholar requests it or it just naturally fits. 3) phone calls. Unless the scholar asks you to call, don't interrupt her or him. 4) showing up unannounced -- that's just weird for everyone (I think I did that). 5) thinking that a personal connection will guarantee admittance. There are so many factors that can get you in or keep you out; it's best not to overworry about that end of it."

I'd stress Ed's last point strongly, WAGS, but I'd also offer a final bit of advice: treat these e-mails as a part of your application, and take them seriously. Their main purpose is to help you decide what schools you want to apply to, but they're also the first impression of you that these profs see, and first impressions are always important. Don't do what I did, and e-mail a prof at Indiana asking for information about Rice! Double- and triple-check your e-mails, and you can't go wrong.

Want to ask a question of your own? E-mail it to Grad School Confidential.

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Blogger Ahistoricality on 11/10/2008 12:00 PM:

Don't do this, or this, or this.... She's got lots of 'em.