Academic Speed Dating: The Do’s and Don’ts of Approaching Potential Graduate Research Supervisors

Small Pond Science has a great post up right now on how to “cold call” other scientists in order to set up collaborations. Making a cold call means that you don’t directly know the person that you are contacting, which means that it is often awkward and uncomfortable to do. Experienced researchers find this challenging, so it’s no wonder that undergraduate students looking for potential research supervisors would find it mysterious and terrifying!

As someone who operates a research lab I receive a lot of inquiries that are cold contacts from undergraduate students, graduate students, and post-docs about working in my lab. I’ve seen this approach done really well, but I’ve also seen it done poorly. Below are some tips for making effective first contact with a potential research supervisor.

 1) Please read my previous blog post about narrowing down the potential locations and supervisors for graduate school. Do your homework and investigate the institution, department, programs offered, and the faculty members who supervise graduate students. Identify several potential professors that do research that you think is interesting. Come up with a list of reasons why you would like to work in a particular lab or area of research. Define what it is that you can offer the lab in terms of skills, educational background, experience, work ethic, etc.

2) Draft a short, professional email that clearly explains who you are and what you are currently studying. Explain why you are interested in working with this particular professor. Explain what skills you can bring to the table. Indicate that you are exploring options for graduate programs that have a particular start date (e.g. September 2015) and ask whether the professor has space and funding available to support a graduate student at that time. I usually recommend that students do not attach any additional documents to this first email. The goal of this email is to determine whether the professor is i) able to take on a student, ii) interested in further exploring your candidacy for that opportunity. It would be very helpful if you have multiple people read your draft to catch obvious spelling errors and to ensure that you’ve captured the right tone in your email. Use a professional salutation (e.g. Dear Dr. X) and close (e.g. Sincerely). I am a female professor, so if you start your letter using “Dear Sir” I delete it since it tells me that you can’t be bothered to read my webpage and learn some basic things about me and my lab. You should craft an individualized email for each lab that you are approaching. We can spot a generic letter from miles away and they get deleted. If it is clearly a cut and paste job it goes straight into the trash bin.

3) Make sure that you send the email to the correct email address.

4) If you have done the first 3 steps well, you should get a response from the professor within a few days. That being said, keep in mind that professors are busy people and do take vacations, so don’t panic if you don’t hear back within minutes of sending your email. If you haven’t heard anything back in a few weeks, feel free to send a second email reiterating your interest in joining the lab. If you don’t hear back, move on in your search and don’t take it personally.

When done well this cold call approach can serve to open a conversation between you and a potential supervisor. At this point you are both attempting to collect information in order to determine if a future scholarly relationship will be a good fit and of benefit to both of you.


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