how to write emails, and to whom

Here is some advice on how to reach out to current faculty members and current grad students.

Email etiquette is a big part of being part of a contemporary professional workplace. And grad school and its attendant application process can involve a lot of email writing. The joke in the academy is that you’ll spend hours or days writing the perfect email to a professor only to receive a one sentence, misspelled response.

Worse still, writing emails can be supremely anxiety producing. After all, your whole future and life are depending on this. Or that’s how it can feel. And it’s that anxiety that will lead you to spend hours on unanswered emails, not least because you’ll completely overthink and overwrite. You shouldn’t be sending out unsolicited memoirs to strange professors and Directors of Graduate Studies. As you’re learning to send out emails, focus on writing less and spending less time writing. The old adage, ‘work smarter, not harder,’ is in full effect.

Now, there are two groups of people to whom you might be writing these emails, faculty members and graduate students. And current grad students are much, much better resources than faculty members.

But if you really feel strongly about writing faculty, here’s some advice.

Faculty

Writing to faculty is a stressful proposition and there’s no clear sense of how well it works. A professor friend of mine who has also been a Director of Graduate Studies was less than sanguine about the emails they receive from prospective students, saying they rarely bother to respond. Indeed, they added, over their several years of teaching, receiving dozens of emails each year from prospective students, they were aware of only two who were ever actually admitted to the program.

This certainly depends on the field you’re in or looking to enter. If you’re one of a fairly small number of (budding) specialists in a field, it can be less difficult to reach out and touch somebody.

With that said, here is a template that shows how a reasonably professional email to a faculty member looks:

Hi [or Dear] Professor Surname,

(This is the introductory paragraph.) In the first sentence of the email I’m saying who I am and where I am. In the second I will add a detail about what I’m currently doing. This next sentence is where I’ll mention if we have any (realistic) connection–like having met previously or having been referred by a colleague. In the final sentence of the first paragraph I will say why I’m writing to them.

(This paragraph is where I say a couple brief things about why it makes sense for me to write to them.) In the first sentence I might say something about their work that is very brief but shows that I’m knowledgeable enough to discuss their work using academic short-hand. This sentence makes the connection between their interests and mine, because we share an interest and this is the aspect of it that I’m interested in. Now I’ll talk about how my previous research experiences demonstrates that I am ready to be a graduate student.

(This is a brief paragraph asking specific and answerable questions.) This sentence will ask whether they will be taking on new students? And, if so, how might I best strengthen my application for the program?

And then I’ll briefly thank them for their time and maybe add a complimentary closing like,

Best regards,
Susie Q. Applicant

That is essentially how your email should look. It’s neither too brief nor too long, it doesn’t beat around the bush, and it doesn’t demand a great deal of their time or energy.

But also consider the following:

  • Everyone (including professors) is more likely to respond to someone with whom they already perceive to be connected to them. So it’s important to try to meet people. Will they be at a symposium near you? Go to it and make an introduction, then write an email that says ‘we met at [this or that function]’. Or, drop a name. ‘My advisor, [famous mcfamouspants] suggested I get in touch with you.’
  • Don’t try to visit faculty at research universities during the summer, they’re not there. Research faculty are paid primarily to do research, not keep their offices warm, so the chances of finding them on campus besides class and office hours are not good.
  • If you’re in the same city or thereabouts, then ask for a meeting with them. Be forewarned that most everyone in the academy is out of their minds, so you’re likely walking into a hornets’ nest. Your best bet with faculty is to wait until you’re actually admitted and then learn how unpleasant they are.
  • As a life-coach I know once told me, it can take up to six emails before you receive a response in the professional world. This is a double-edged sword in the academy because while you will eventually be noticed, it will be in a bad way.
  • Campus tours are fine but don’t expect anyone in the program to care that you’re visiting. If you’re accepted they’ll invite you to tour their lovely campus, but before then you’re not on their radar.

Your ‘fit’ paragraph will mention two faculty members with whom you’d like to work, this is in case one of them will be on leave. So don’t harangue a faculty member with multiple emails asking if they’ll be around. Unless you somehow become bosom buddies with the faculty member you’re writing–unlikely–contacting prospective faculty will have a negligible impact on your overall application.

On the other hand…

Grad Students

Grad students know everything you want to know and they don’t know better than to not tell you. Is the admin talking about downsizing the department? Do they want to take in more Black students this cycle? Or fewer? Is a professor going through a messy divorce that might lead to them moving to a different school? In what direction is the department heading? How racist/sexist/ableist/homophobic is the campus and the student body? Is your dream advisor actually a scumbag who tries to fuck all their students? Are they radical or liberal? What are they like to work with?

Is the funding enough to live off of? What’s the graduate housing situation? How often do students drop out of the program and under what conditions? Are graduates getting jobs? Are their publishing opportunities? What are the working conditions for T.A.s? (These are also questions you’ll ask during campus visits once you’re admitted, but they’re a sample of the things that your average grad student will be able to explain better and more honestly than a faculty member.)

Grad students know all of this. And more. I was accepted or a finalist for acceptance at three schools during my last application cycle and they were all schools where I knew and had ongoing relationships with current grad students. That doesn’t mean you have to know current students, but it will help you understand the climate of the program much more than a few tepid emails with a faculty member or DGS.

When you’re considering writing to current grad students, think first about mining your existing social networks for folks. Is a friend of yours already in the department or at the school? What about your friends on twitter or facebook?

Admittedly, I am almost as bad at online social networking as I am in real life, so I only use them to talk to people I already know rather than to forge relationships with new people. But if you’re any good at using these tools, they’re an excellent resource for getting to know the people who know all the things you need to know.

You can always go the old-fashioned route and get their email off of the department’s web page and send them a version of the email you sent to faculty. Your email to them can be less formal, it might look like this:

Hi First-name,

My name is James and I’m currently an MA student at the University of Chicago. I’m thinking about applying to UC Santa Barbara’s Women’s Studies program, and I’d really appreciate your insight on a few issues since I’m also interested in [that research interest under your name on the site]. I do research around Chican@ small-business owners and I make heavy use of women of color and queer of color theorizing, and I was wondering whether the faculty and the department was usually supportive of that type of work?

If you have the time, I’d really love to talk with you more about the atmosphere of the program. Thanks so much in advance,

best,
james

It’s short, sweet, and personable. Just like you. The biggest impediment to writing emails is the pressure you put on yourself for them to be perfect. By worrying and writing a little less, you free yourself up to actually produce all the emails you will inevitably have to write.

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