It’s that time of year! Time to send out your emails to potential graduate school advisors. If you are applying to graduate school and haven’t sent out your emails, check out this post! I sent my emails out yesterday and am SO relieved to be done with this step.

Applying to graduate school is scary. What is even more nerve-wracking and exciting? Emailing professors for the first time. Luckily for me, I had a great blog post to follow, written by one of my advisors during undergrad, Dr. Brian Romans. Please check out his post as it is much more extensive and has all this information from the viewpoint of a professor.

Disclaimer: As said in Dr. Roman’s post, there really isn’t a one-size fits all approach to reaching out to potential advisors. Everything that I write about is what worked for me, which will not necessarily work for you. Also, I am applying to pursue a Ph.D. in Geosciences, so this approach may be different from other approaches in other fields.

(1) Start Early
Again, as in Dr. Roman’s blog, I want to stress the importance of starting this process early. Even start it earlier than necessary. I started to work on my list of graduate schools and professors a little under a year ago. I have been working on my list for a little under a year. While still in Blacksburg following graduation, I met with what I call my “professor pod” – a group of four professors, all advisors at one point or another, that have expertise relevant to the project I want to pursue in graduate school. During this meeting, I went through every professor and school on my list and in return the pod gave me feedback on each individual. This included their approval, any flags that came up, as well as recommendations for schools and people I had not included. At the end, the four of them agreed on three schools they were the most excited about for me. Their biggest selling point? All three of these programs are incredibly diverse with a lot of collaboration between scientists. This is particularly important for me as it is my goal to work on very interdisciplinary geoscience. All of this to say that by the time I got to sending out my emails, I already had massive amounts of information and advice on my list.

(2) The Excel Sheet
This is how I organized everything and is how I will break down the type of research I did in order to be confident in my selections. It holds all the information I think is important when applying to, and ultimately deciding on, a graduate school. Some people will put in less work than I did and be totally fine. Others might put in more. All that matters is that you do what works for you.

Luckily for anyone reading this, I’m not just going to tell you about it. At the bottom of this section I have attached a photo of the entire workbook! However, you can’t actually read what anything says. SO… I decided to also upload the actual excel template but blank so you can write all of your information in it. BAM! I just saved you hours of irritating formatting (for those, like myself, that are a bit technologically challenged). I also changed the color coding to something a little more neutral and “cool”. This beautifully color-coded spreadsheet was the result of some massive avoidance of writing my thesis. Okay – so what information is actually stored in this masterpiece?? There are 12 columns that I think house important information in this process. Not pictured is one last column with GRE codes for each of the schools. Those columns are:

  1. Graduate School
  2. Location (for me, this is really important, as I wanted to stay out west)
  3. Professor(s)
  4. Email
  5. Research
    • This column simply held the research bio of each professor copy/pasted from their website. It was a reminder for me what their research interests are.
  6. Field Area(s)
  7. How many graduate students?
  8. Are the projects masters, PhD, or a mix?
    • This is important to note as some professors only take PhD students, or perhaps they only have masters students. Some graduate schools, like Western Washington University (a school I was originally interested in) has a masters only graduate program. When I decided to get a PhD this school was removed from my list.
  9. Journals they publish in
    • It is also important to note the types of journals a professor and their graduate students publish in. This can give you a better idea the type of research they do.
  10. Are they seeking a graduate student
  11. Guaranteed assistantships?
  12. Website

10/11: The two columns “are they seeking a graduate student” and “guaranteed assistantships” are left blank. These questions will be answered during your correspondence with potential advisors. The first is fairly self explanatory. The second question is something else that further research into the graduate program or University’s graduate school may answer. A guaranteed assistantship means that for either X amount of years, or for the entire duration you are a graduate student, you will be guaranteed either a TA (teaching assistantship) or an RA (research assistantship). Virginia Tech has this but not every University does. It is something worth looking in to but not something you ask the professor you are corresponding with.

As far as funding goes…just wait. When you email professors, and likely even when you apply to a graduate school, they will often not know if they have funding for a student at that time. These initial emails are to inquire as to whether or not they are seeking a student and to also see if you would be a good fit. Questions about funding come later and answers may come even after you have applied. Still apply! It could be your dream program and funding or assistantships may come up after you get in. It is worth applying anyways.

My excel sheet was never completely filled in. There are still professors on the list I don’t intend to contact but didn’t remove. Again, this was my template and what I did/do may not work for someone else reading this post. This is all simply what I found to be successful for me.

Grad school excel

Graduate School Template

(3) The Email
Okay so you have done extensive research and have collected all the information in your new beautiful excel document. Now…how do you actually compose the email? I followed Dr. Roman’s advice on this to a T. I also asked him if he would be willing to review my email draft once I had composed it. I’ll break the email down into four parts – the introduction, the question, background, and a closing statement.

Paragraph 1:
In the introduction, in one sentence introduce yourself by name, your degree and the institution you obtained or will obtain it from, as well as the date you obtained it or the expected date. For example, “My name is Summer Caton and I am a recent graduate from Virginia Tech with a Bachelor’s of Science in Geosciences.” I could have also said a ‘May 2017 graduate’, but ‘recent’ implies that. Next, you need to indicate if you are pursuing a Ph.D. or a masters degree, in what field, and end the sentence with a specific statement about their research. This is your “what I want” sentence. For example, “I would like to pursue a Ph.D. in geosciences and your research with [insert specifics] aligns well with my current research interests!” Yeah, I’m a big fan of exclamation points. I think they are okay to include. You want to be professional but this is also your future! Hopefully you are excited about it! It also breathes a little bit of life into your email, makes it more “human”. In the last sentence or two of your introduction, write about your long term goals following graduation with the degree you with to pursue. Do you want to be a professor? Go into industry? Work in government? After this sentence, it is time for the big question. “Will you be accepting new graduate students to start in the [term] of 20__?” 

DONE. First paragraph.

Paragraph 2:
This paragraph is there for you to talk briefly about what you have done or are doing. This can include research experience, positions held or involvement in relevant groups or societies, teaching experience, academically-related service, etc. This paragraph needs to be concise. It is a perfect opportunity to talk about any undergraduate research projects you have done or have been involved in. For me, I separated this paragraph into two small paragraphs, each briefly summarizing my two research projects. In each paragraph I included the general topic of the project, who it was advised by, and a very general conclusion about what we found as a result of the research. These two paragraphs were two to three sentences long. At the end of this paragraph refer the reader to your resume/CV for further information and attach the document at the end of the email.

Closing statement:
I also included a final closing statement that was a sentence long and was mainly an overview of the type of research I would like to participate in.

Finish your email by saying thank you, regards, best, sincerely…something professional.

(4) Sending the email
First, write out the email in a word document so you can edit and/or send to others to edit. I sent or read my email to 3-4 people. Reading aloud is helpful to make sure it flows well. A second pair of eyes will often find errors, both spelling and grammatical, that your brain might skip over because you’ve read over the email so many times. Copy and paste into an actual email, attach your CV, write your subject header, and THEN put in the professor’s email address. Maybe this sounds too cautious but I was so nervous I would send a half completed email, which seems fairly unprofessional to me.

I sent my emails out on Monday around mid-day. Does this even matter? I thought so. If you send your email too late in the week, your professor might have so much going on that it could get lost in other last minute meetings or emails. Many professors don’t, and certainly shouldn’t have to, check their email over the weekend so don’t send it then either. I went with Monday late morning-midday, around lunch time. Professors are busy! They may not respond for weeks, they may be out of country or in the field. I also plan on sending follow-up emails about a week or two into the semester when they are checking their emails more regularly.

I know there is a lot that wasn’t discussed here. Please feel free to add your thoughts or experiences in the comments below! Also, please feel free to contact me with any questions you might have about this process or with other academically-related questions!