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How to contact a faculty member

Before applying to graduate programs, many departments require you to have contacted a PI as a potential advisor. However, contacting professors when you are looking at graduate programs can be intimidating. So many questions can flow through your mind like: What do I say? What if they don’t respond? What if I don’t make a good impression? It may seem scary, but this step of applying to graduate school can be vital to your success of getting into a program.

Although this step in the admissions process is important, it may not seem clear how to go about emailing a professor, or more importantly when to. The time to reach out varies among countries and universities, but at Cornell it is best to email professors you are interested in working with during the summer or early fall before you apply to graduate school. This may seem far in advance, but it allows for sufficient time to set up a meeting with a potential advisor and to evaluate if they are someone you would potentially like to work with. Below we have compiled a list of tips and a general overview of what that initial email should look like. 

General tips for reaching out to professors

  • Be formal
  • Be concise
  • Show enthusiasm
  • Look through the professor’s website beforehand
  • Use an informative subject line (ex: Prospective Graduate Student)
  • Make sure your reasons for contacting them are clear (how your interests overlap with the PI’s)
  • Be as specific about the professor’s research as possible
  • Attach a CV 

Example email

Dear Dr. [name],

  • State your full name and relevant information (ex: education, current position, what kind of degree you are interested in)
  • Ask if the professor is interested in taking new graduate students (it is important to know that sometimes professors don’t have the resources or the space to take new students)
  • Briefly highlight your own experiences, especially as they pertain to research (e.g. share your major, lab work or senior thesis research)
  • State the reason for your interest in their lab
  • Mention a recent paper of theirs that you read and ask a question about that study or say what you found interesting about the paper (optional but helps)
  • Include goals or reasons for attending graduate school
  • Ask to speak with them
  • Thank them for their time 

Respectfully,

[name]

*Sections do not necessarily need to be in this order — fit it to your own style of writing! Also, sections should not be bulleted in email.

Now that you have put together your email, we would recommend sending it to a current graduate student or mentor before. It is important to keep an open mind during the process, because you never know which professors have openings or are interested in taking you as a student. If you have emailed a professor and they have not responded within 2 weeks, go ahead and send the email again as it may have gotten lost in their inbox. Remember- do not feel defeated if you are ignored by professors! If they are not responsive, they probably would not be a great advisor for you. It is also important to keep in mind that a professor may simply reply by saying that they are not accepting students or that they don’t think you would be a good fit for their lab. This is okay and it saves you the trouble of applying for that program. In general, it is useful to think of your interactions with prospective advisors as an interview for both parties. This means you should consider whether the way they communicate with you (e.g., timeliness of response, communication style, etc) will work for you. 

Hopefully this guide is helpful to you and we wish you the best of luck in the graduate admissions process! 

Additional sources