Dear Dr Neufeld

Are you an undergraduate student interested in graduate school? If so, then you should be looking not just at particular schools or departments but also at specific labs. Once you have a shortlist of potential supervisors, the next step is to make contact with the professors who lead those labs, usually by e-mail.

Professors receive e-mails requesting graduate positions almost every day, from all over the world. Most of these letters are very poorly prepared. Many of them are terrible. A poorly written e-mail can, regrettably, prevent an otherwise capable student from being considered seriously for a graduate school position.

Above all, professors want a student to enter graduate school for the love of science. However, professors know that career progression is critically important.

After years of receiving countless poorly written student e-mails, I decided to do something about it: I wrote a good one. Then I went back and added comments about the strategy behind it. My hope is that this template will help provide strong and deserving students with a better understanding of how to contact a professor, make a better first impression, get a foot in the door, and ideally reach the interview stage.

I’ll start with the letter—complete—and then I’ll break it down:

Now once again, with commentary:

Dear Dr. Neufeld,

Oftentimes, the professor’s name on these e-mails has obviously been copied and pasted from a university website. A different font is a dead giveaway. So make sure the font of the name matches the rest of the e-mail.

My name is Jennifer Chuhan and I am an undergraduate student at the University of Nanaimo. I am nearing the end of my honors biology degree in the Department of Biology, …

This provides key background info often lacking for initial e-mail contacts: Who are you, and what overall university education have you received? Have you specialized with a particular major or minor? This example description indicates a broad disciplinary base.

… and I have begun to consider possible research labs …

Mentioning research labs in the plural is a good strategy. Professors realize that strong students will find a position quickly. Indicating that you are contacting several labs, assuming this is true, sends the message that a rapid response will be important to avoid missing out on the opportunity to attract you as a new student.

… for continuing my studies as a graduate student.

It’s nice to acknowledge that you realize graduate school is part of your educational progression and not just a job.

The attached CV …

Many e-mails arrive with no supporting documents. Professors then need to decide whether it is worth the effort to ask for these documents. Save professors this extra effort by providing a CV and a transcript with the first e-mail introduction. Notice that the transcript is mentioned later in the e-mail, adding a pleasant surprise toward the end. If you mention the CV and transcript too early, a professor might stop reading, look at the attachment(s), become distracted, and miss the rest of the e-mail. Note that a CV, and not a resume, is most appropriate for academic and research positions.

… shows how my co-op program has provided me …

Notice that “my co-op program has provided me” was used here instead of “I gained X through my co-op program.” Avoid beginning too many sentences with “I” because it can make you seem self-absorbed. Try to move the emphasis away from yourself, and instead emphasize how something else has influenced you and your professional development.

… with hands-on microbiology work experience in government and academic research groups.

Previous research experience is extremely important preparation for graduate work and should be highlighted in your e-mail. (Equally important is the promise that these experiences will translate into reference letters from former supervisors.) Don’t forget volunteer work because it too can demonstrate experience, skill, and commitment. The best evidence of future success is past performance.

Do you have publications from your undergraduate research or any awards or accolades related to your research experiences? If so, mention them here.

Coupled with these work placements, several lab courses …

Lab courses are really important for grad school and job applications. Do you still have time? Take as many relevant lab courses as you can.

… have equipped me with expertise in cultivation-based and molecular techniques.

Don’t list all of the techniques you know. You might do this in a CV but not in the e-mail.

I have …

Avoid contractions (e.g., I’ve) when making first contact with a professor. They are not used in scientific writing and can seem too informal.

… developed an interest in microbial ecology through these experiences …

Specifying “microbial ecology” is important because it captures the general focus of my lab well. Being too detailed about your research interest (e.g., rare biosphere analysis) risks making it seem as if you are too committed to a specific topic—and the lab may not have funding available. So, at this stage, don’t be too specific.

… and my Biol 426 professor, Dr. Barbara Bassler, suggested that I approach you …

Why are you contacting this particular professor for a graduate position? Explain the link. The worst thing to say—and many say it—is that you found the professor’s website while searching the Internet. It may be true, but it is the weakest possible justification.

A student who is considering an advanced degree should be discussing this possibility with faculty mentors and seeking advice about recommended labs. Graduate school is not for everyone. In some ways, very little prepares you for graduate work, other than (possibly) research-based work placements or honors project courses. Discussions and deliberations with faculty members can help you avoid choosing a graduate program for the wrong reasons, resulting in an unhappy experience for both student and supervisor.

… about the possibility of a graduate position in your group.

Seeking a “graduate” position, instead of mentioning a master’s degree or Ph.D. specifically, indicates that your options are open. Because some countries and disciplines emphasize Ph.D. degrees and others master’s degrees, and because of some complexities about funding, the best approach is to avoid specifying a preference for a particular degree until the interview stage.

Please let me know if there is a possible opening …

Professors rarely have open and advertised positions. Ultimately, funding limitations may mean that the answer will simply be “no.” That said, a professor might have some financial wiggle room to act, or not, on a student who is likely to have a strong positive impact on the research program. There are times when taking an unplanned risk on a strong student, leading to outstanding research progress, may pay off in future lab funding at grant renewal time. Will this student be a star? Will this student be eligible for scholarship support? Those are the types of questions a professor is asking while reading your e-mail.

… for a graduate student in the upcoming fall or winter terms.

Although a start date as little as a month away can sometimes be arranged, it is better not to rush things. Contact a professor well ahead of your intended start date, even a year (or more) in advance. Early contact indicates careful planning and suggests that this is not a last-minute decision or rash fallback plan (“I didn’t get into professional school—Ack!”). A flexible start date is a nice touch.

As shown in the attached transcript, …

This second attachment is important. Will this student be eligible for scholarships? Has this student taken important courses relevant to the graduate position they are requesting? Has this student taken seemingly random first- and second- year introductory elective courses in their third and fourth years to try and boost their average? In contrast, has this student taken relevant and challenging upper year courses, including advanced lab courses, with an obvious eye on a research career?

If your transcript is weak, I would not recommend discussing this in your e-mail. Explaining away your poor marks is unlikely to work at this stage. If your marks are very weak overall, talk to your academic adviser about this and possibly rethink your plans to go to graduate school.

… my grades are strong, especially in the last 2 years.

Although an outstanding transcript is a valuable asset for an applicant, potential supervisors see enormous promise in a student who has lower marks in the first year, and maybe even the second year, with a strong upward trajectory through the second, third, and fourth years. Students with an upward trajectory often become the strongest graduate students.

I will be looking into the possibility of applying for external scholarship support from one of the major funding agencies.

Music. To. Our. Ears. Students are an enormous financial investment from a professor’s meager research budget. Scholarship potential is a huge plus. However, don’t say this unless your grades are very good, or your comments may be seen as a bait and switch, reflecting poor judgment.

You are welcome to contact my undergraduate research adviser and my work placement references, listed in the attached CV.

If you are applying for graduate school, you likely have prior research experience or at least academic references through lab courses or close contact with advisers. If you don’t have work placements or relevant research experience, you’ll be at a disadvantage. In that case, you can offer letters from lab instructors or professors who have agreed to serve as references. But the principal investigator you are contacting will be wondering why you don’t have research experience.

I prefer to contact references from promising candidates informally, sometimes even before writing back to a student. Because so few students are eligible for serious graduate school consideration, a background assessment before a face-to-face meeting helps enable an efficient rejection before I invest time in a premature meeting. It also provides content for the first interview. This may sound harsh, but keep in mind that professors receive graduate school e-mails every day. We can’t meet with most students who write to us. Instead, if we’re interested, we’re likely to contact your references—so it’s important to have strong professional references.

Yes, I’m commenting on the semicolon. The ability to use a semicolon appropriately is rare among students. Using one (and only one) correctly in your e-mail won’t hurt you and might even be noticed by a grammatically astute professor. Remember: The potential supervisor is aware that she or he will be expected to revise your thesis one day. Sending your best writing in this e-mail will create a positive first impression. So ensure that your e-mail is flawless—no spelling or grammar mistakes!

… they are aware that I am applying for graduate positions …

This is a gentle reminder that you are a good catch and that a timely response would be wise.

… as a step toward a career in microbiology.

Above all, professors want a student to enter graduate school for the love of science. However, professors know that career progression is critically important. The question will come up: How does graduate research fit with a student’s career interests? Mentioning “career” in your e-mail shows that you have a strategic plan, provides a topic for discussion in an interview, and opens the door to the Ph.D. question, but it does not make you seem too focused on a career.

I am available to discuss this possibility further …

Many such e-mails ask for a meeting too (e.g., “Can we meet this week?” or “I can come by later today”). Meetings are the bane of a professor’s existence, and faculty members bristle at their mention. Indicating that you are available is a low-pressure way to bring up the possibility of a meeting.

… and I look forward to hearing from you.

A nice way to say, “Write me back!”

Sincerely, Jennifer

If you use your full name at the end (i.e., Jennifer Chuhan), then the professor must decide whether to use “Ms. Chuhan” in responding, which can feel a little awkward. Ending with “Jennifer” invites a first-name-basis response.

Finally, be sure to use the same font throughout your e-mail. A mix of fonts implies that you are sending out many such messages—in other words, spam. Although you may indeed be sending out similar e-mails to several shortlisted professors—and that’s OK—ensure that each one is customized and carefully prepared. In this case, mentioning “microbiology” and “microbial ecology” helps tie this e-mail to my lab’s overall focus, and describing a suggestion from Dr. Bassler offers another important element of customization.

Good luck in your search for a graduate lab.

FOR the good of science

Elsewhere in Science, 08 May 2015