How to write an email to a Professor?

The first essential step of applying for a PhD position, a postdoc or even for a short summer project is to write an email to the Professor with whom you are interested to work with. In order to create a good first impression, it is crucial to write a clear and a concise mail because the Professor will read the content of your mail even before opening your CV or the motivation letter.

How to write an email to a Professor so that your application is completely read? Here I present a template mail asking for a PhD position, using which you can formulate your own letter. This may not be the best but this letter helped me to get a PhD as well as postdoctoral positions in esteemed research institutes/Universities across Europe. The idea is to list all the salient points one should address to make an impressive application.

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Dear Professor XYZ,

My name is Abcd Efgh. I have completed my Masters degree with specialization in Fluid mechanics at the Indian Institute of Technology Madras. I am writing you to apply for a PhD position in your research group.

For my masters thesis, I have developed a computational fluid dynamics code to solve incompressible fluid flow past moving bodies of arbitrary shape. Using the solver we have simulated two-dimensional flow over insects’ wings and studied the unsteady aerodynamics of insect flight. At present I am working as a “position” in “Company”. As a part of my work, I am developing a Navier-Stokes solver using least-squares based meshless methods.

I have learnt about your research from your books and papers. Your research on higher order methods in moving domains (for example, “Paper title”, “Journal name” “year”) and their application to insect aerodynamics interest me in particular. I have strong interests in working on such topics, and to extend my knowledge on computational fluid dynamics. I believe that I have sufficient educational qualifications and experience, as given in the CV, to work in your group. Could you please write me about the possible PhD openings in your group?

Thank you very much for your time and consideration, and looking forward to your positive reply

Sincerely,

Abcd Efgh

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Let us dissect this template mail.

Well-known Professors receive hundreds (even thousands) of applications every month, and the most simple criterion they use to decline applications is the answer to the following question: To whom the applicant has addressed the mail? Most of the students write an email starting with “Dear sir/madam”. This creates an impression that the applicant has a single generic mail that he is “mass-forwarding” to hundreds of positions. The right practice is to address the mail to the specific Professor you are writing for! Otherwise, that may be the first and last line to be read in your mail.

In the first paragraph, you can introduce yourself briefly, and indicate the reason for contacting the Professor. I made it clear here itself that my Masters specialisation is “Fluid mechanics” because I was applying for positions only in this field. If you want to pursue PhD in a different field, it would be better not to mention about specialisation at this point explicitly.

It is no surprise that Professors prefer to hire students who have some experience in the scientific topic of interest and are academically sound. The focus of the second paragraph is to explain how well qualified you are to work in the research group you are applying for. You can present a couple of points from the following: theses, projects, term papers, publications, presentations, related work experience, or courses undertaken. Mention only the key points here! It is advisable not to be too elaborate because the mail is not meant to repeat everything what you have in your CV. For example, in the template mail, I have described my experience in two fields: computational fluid dynamics and aerodynamics. This is because I was looking for positions involving these two areas alone.

The third paragraph, in my opinion, is the most important part of your mail. It addresses the following question: Why are you applying for this particular research group? What you write here needs to reflect that you are a serious applicant and has done sufficient research to understand what the group is actually working on. In the template mail, I mentioned one of the research interests of the Professor and indicated one of his papers. These sentences make the application tailored for this research group and increases the chances of getting a position. It is also mandatory that the applicant’s qualifications listed in the second paragraph and the research interests of the group mentioned in the third paragraph should be closely connected, which implies that the applicant is a suitable candidate for this group. (If you are not from mechanical or related fields, it may be difficult to see the connection in the template mail.)

Finally, the letter closes with a formal thanks.

Here are few more thoughts on writing the application.

  1. Quality writing does not mean using the most complicated words from the English dictionary.
  2. It is obvious that you can’t use the same mail for all the research groups. To write a quality application, at least the third paragraph should be modified appropriately.
  3. It is advisable to send emails from your institute mail id (rather than from yahoo or google) to reduce the possibility of your mail landing in trash folder.
  4. Applying for an advertised position is much easier. The core content of your mail, in such a case, should be to answer the one and only question: How are you a suitable candidate for this position?
  5. Most research groups have a webpage for “Open positions”. Read it carefully before finalising your mail.
  6. Make sure to attach the required files before pressing the send button.

I hope these points will be helpful in crafting your application.

Happy hunting!

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