Tips for Approaching a Prospective Academic Grad Advisor

Dos and don’ts

Moshe Sipper, Ph.D.
The Modern Scientist
4 min readNov 26, 2023

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Congratulations! You’ve finished your undergraduate degree and are now looking to apply to graduate school. One of the major differences between an undergraduate degree and a graduate degree is research. While your undergrad degree was mostly about coursework, with maybe a project here and there, a grad degree is about research — for which you’ll need (and want…) and advisor.

Hopefully, you’ve spent some quality time online, narrowed down the list of schools you’ll apply to, and mostly importantly — you’ve got a lineup of potential advisors. Time to start emailing them.

As a longtime professor I thought I’d share my experience by providing some tips about what to write — and what not to write — in that all-important initial contact.

DON’T send a boilerplate email

I’ve gotten my fair share of “Dear Professor, I’ve looked at your website and I’m interested in your research area”.

Nothing personal in there — neither my name, my area of research, nada. This is an email that has obviously been copy-pasted multiple times. If you haven’t even taken a couple of minutes to personalize your email — why should I spend any time studying your case?

DO show you are interested in the professor’s research area

Following the previous tip — do write a personal email that demonstrates you have spent time exploring the professor’s area of research. I mean, you are going to spend a few years in this area, don’t you want to make sure you’re approaching the right person?

And for crying out loud, at least add their name at the top of the email: “Dear Professor Dumbledore” rather than “Dear Professor”! I can’t stress enough how annoying it is to receive an impersonal (clearly copy-pasted) email.

Ugh.

AI-generated image (craiyon)

DO describe your academic and possibly industrial experience

You want to describe who you are professionally. It’s also OK to add a short personal note (“In my spare time I like to juggle bananas, invent new banana cocktails, and watch Minion movies”).

But, please —

DON’T be overly lengthy

Professors tend to get tons of emails. The shorter that preliminary email is the more likely it will be less “painful” to dive into— and thus dealt with posthaste.

I recommend two paragraphs:

  1. the first explaining why you chose the professor, and
  2. the second describing who you are.

Basically, the previous two DOs.

DO be polite

I hope this tip is superfluous but I’m putting it down just to be on the safe side…

DO or DON’T attach a short CV

I don’t have a firm opinion on this. I think it’s not necessary to attach a CV in the initial email — if the professor is interested you will be asked to send it. But it’s OK to do so.

If you decide to attach your CV, aim for a 1- or 2-page document— no more.

DON’T attach anything else

Multiple attachments can be tedious, provoke the spam filter or the university’s security system, and end up not being read. Remember, this is an initial appeal. If there’s interest, you’ll be asked to provide further material.

DO check out research interests

I’ve stated this above, and I’m restating it again… Do your research by studying the potential advisor’s research. Usually, the starting point is the professor’s homepage. From there it’s papers, Google Scholar, GitHub, blog site, Medium perhaps, and possibly more.

DO proofread before you send out

Either yourself or by using any of the automatic tools available nowadays. After all, you don’t wanna make a bad first impression by having all kinds of typos…

If there’s interest

on the professor’s side they’ll get back to you, and one or more of several things will happen:

  • You’ll be asked to send more material (CV, grade transcripts, etc.).
  • You’ll be invited to a meeting, either virtual or in-person.
  • You’ll be advised to first contact this or that administrative office.
  • You’ll be… Honestly, there are various options here, depending on the university, the department, and the professor.

Here’s a sample email:

Dear Professor Dumbledore,

My name is Larry Hotter and I am writing to express an interest in studying for a Ph.D. under your advisorship. I have explored your research areas through your webpage and publications and am very keen on pursuing studies on the development of magical potions using deep learning techniques. I found two of your papers to be of particular interest to me: “Using Large Language Models to Develop Invisibility Potions” and “Identifying Fake Potions through Deep Learning”.

A little about myself: I have just graduated from Bogwarts College with a major in magic and a minor in computer science. As part of my degree I took courses on magical potions as well as deep learning. I also did a software project implementing clustering techniques in the study of potions. In my spare time I like to tap-dance and ride dragons.

I thank you for your time and consideration.

With kind regards,

Larry Hotter

One final word (well, maybe two):

Good luck!

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PS. If you want to know what it’s like being a professor, read my Medium article:

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Moshe Sipper, Ph.D.
The Modern Scientist

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