Contacting a Prospective Graduate Adviser

A how-to written by: Sam Smidt, University of Florida

Contacting a prospective graduate adviser without prior communication can feel unsolicited, but it is a necessary first step to procuring a graduate position. Rest assured, advisers receive inquiry messages from interested students each year, and a well-developed message can increase the likelihood of receiving an offer during the application period. 

In short, the goal of a contact message is to initiate further conversation. The best way to encourage further communication is to demonstrate both your qualifications and genuine interest in your desired research field. A well-developed message can further demonstrate attention to detail and a high standard for quality work; both are sought after qualities in a graduate student. 

As a guide, the contact message should capture four things: (1) your introduction, (2) your interest in the adviser’s work, (3) your qualifications, and (4) a request for further conversation. Most advisers will want to know your GRE scores (or when you are scheduled to take the GRE), and a writing sample can also be helpful in showcasing the quality of your work.

You can envision an adviser reading between the lines to answer two questions: (1) Will this student be successful in my research group, and (2) how much time will I need to dedicate to this student for development? In other words, does this student have potential, and how steep is the learning curve? This makes a secondary goal of the contact email to demonstrate that you do have potential and that you can successfully transition to graduate studies.

The template below facilitates the process of writing an initial contact message. Each message should be unique and tailored to the faculty adviser, but the general approach remains the same. Also included are examples of successful students who have used this template as a model. 

Composing the letter in an e-mail message is standard and expected. The template and examples below are written at the undergraduate level but can be mirrored to reflect current graduate students.

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Initial Contact Message - TEMPLATE
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Dear Dr. [prospective adviser last name],
 
I am a senior [fill in your discipline] major at [institution name], and I am highly interested in pursuing a graduate degree starting in the [fall or spring semester] of [starting year] focusing on [brief description of your research interest]. I am interested in your work regarding [adviser research that is connected to your research interest], and I am inquiring to see if you will be taking any [MS or PhD] students starting next [fall or spring].
 
My undergraduate research includes [brief description of your research topic], where I explored [a brief description of your main research question]. From this work, I am excited to further pursue [an interesting development or hypotheses spanning from your work, or an interesting concept that can connect both your work and the work of the adviser] as part of my graduate studies. My undergraduate coursework includes [list relevant coursework], in addition to the general science and math requirements. I am scheduled to take the GRE [date of GRE] (or, my GRE results are [list your scores]).
 
I am drawn to your recent research [describe a research topic or hypothesis], and I would be interested in learning more about how you [investigate that topic or apply a methodology to investigate that topic]. Attached please find my CV and a writing sample for your reference. I am happy to answer any further questions or supply any additional information that may be useful. If you have availability, I would greatly appreciate a few moments to speak with you directly about your work and possible graduate opportunities. [If you are attending an upcoming conference, make known your availability there]. 
 
Sincerely,
 
[Your name]

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Successful Student Example #1
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Dear Dr. [redacted],

I am a senior geology major at [redacted], and I am interested in pursuing a graduate degree starting in the fall of 2018 focusing on volcanology or igneous petrology. I am highly interested in your work exploring plume dynamics using olivine-spinel thermometry. Specifically, I am intrigued by your recent paper, The hottest lavas of the Phanerozoic and the survival of deep Archaean reservoirs, and its exploration of evidence for high-temperature, deep mantle reservoirs. Are you considering M.S. or PhD candidates for the fall 2018 term?
 
I have spent the last two summers conducting research at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab, where I explored the role of effusive volcanism as a contributing factor to the compositional variance of material on Mercury’s surface, and the resulting implications for that planet’s shallow stratigraphy and early crustal formation. From this work, I am excited to further pursue exploration of igneous processes as part of my graduate studies. My undergraduate coursework includes extensive geology classes and upper level math, in addition to the general science and math requirements. My GRE scores are [redacted], [redacted], and [redacted] percentile for the verbal, quantitative, and writing portions, respectively.
 
I am drawn to your recent research in both igneous petrology and mantle dynamics, and I would be interested in learning more about how you are currently pursuing this or a related field. Attached please find my CV for your reference and a recent [redacted] long-form abstract as a sample of my writing. I am happy to answer any further questions or supply any additional information that may be useful. If you have availability, I would greatly appreciate a few moments to speak with you directly about your work and possible graduate opportunities.

Sincerely,
 
[redacted] 

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Successful Student Example #2
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Dear Dr. [redacted]
 
My name is [redacted], and I am a senior Geology major at [redacted]. I plan to graduate this December, and I am interested in pursuing a graduate degree studying source-sink processes and big picture tectonic-sedimentary relationships. Specifically, I have been exploring the SPODDS research program, and I am inquiring to see if you will be taking any MS students starting next fall.

As a student, I have been involved in two undergraduate research projects. This past summer I was the lead student researcher on a geophysical and surficial mapping project that provided bedrock telemetry to supplement an ongoing archaeological dig in Israel. I also worked to develop a predictive numerical model in Matlab to estimate the enhancement of irrigated vs. dryland yields across the country. My coursework includes classes in stratigraphy, structure, and geophysics, in addition to the standard math and sciences. My major GPA is [redacted], and my cumulative GPA is [redacted]. My GRE scores are [redacted], [redacted], and [redacted] on the verbal, quantitative, and writing sections, respectively.

I find your integration of outcrop and seismic analysis very appealing, and I would be excited to learn more about your ongoing research via phone or email. Attached please find my CV for your reference. I am happy to answer any further questions or supply any additional information that may be useful. I will also be presenting my research at GSA this October, and I would be interested in meeting you there if you are attending and have availability.
 
I appreciate your time and consideration.
 
Sincerely,
[redacted]

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Successful Student Example #3
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Dear Dr. [redacted], 

My name is [redacted], and I am an environmental science major at [redacted] planning to graduate in May. I am interested in your research in surface water-groundwater interactions, especially your work involving river hyporheic zones. My desire is to attend graduate school to pursue an MS degree in hydrology, and I would like to inquire if you are currently accepting master’s students for the fall of 2018.

My undergraduate research has focused primarily on hyporheic assessment and equipment design, in addition to ecology and GIS. Primarily, I have worked on a stream study using a mass-balance model to quantify downstream hyporheic zones. I have also worked on a project for a local township, evaluating old forest health to create a spatial model of future tree cover.  Additionally, I developed a pump design for tracer studies in extreme field conditions. My coursework includes hydrogeology, quantitative methods, pollution and toxicology, and GIS practicum, in addition to various core sciences. I am scheduled to take the GRE this semester.

I would love to talk further about your research and possible graduate opportunities, if you have any availability to chat by phone or email. I have attached my CV and can provide any additional information you might like. Also, I will be attending and presenting at GSA in Seattle and would be interested in meeting you there, if you are attending and have availability. 

Thank you for your consideration, and I look forward to hearing back from you. 

All the best, 

[redacted]