ask a guest scatterbrain: should i write to professors in the grad programs i’m applying to?

The following is a guest post by Daniel Laurison.

Many things about the grad school application process (not to mention everything that comes next) are not at all obvious, especially if you do not already know a lot of people (besides your professors) who went to academic graduate school themselves.  The formal requirements can be tricky enough (what goes in a research statement, exactly? How is it different from a personal statement, for schools that require both? How important are the GREs?). When you add the possibility of informal expectations or norms – oof.  So here I want to address one potential unspoken norm: Apparently a lot of students have heard that they ought to write to professors of programs they intend to apply to.

This has the potential to raise so many other questions – which professors? What do you say? How far in advance? My advice, the last time I student asked me this, was, essentially:

No, I don’t think you have to, and if you don’t have anything particular to say besides a vaguely masked attempt to communicate “hi, I’m applying, please notice me and let me in!” it’s probably not a good idea.

But what did I know? I work at an institution that doesn’t have grad students, and I’ve only ever applied to graduate schools once, 14 years ago, and I got in to about half the ones I applied to (mostly, except Berkeley, not the most selective ones).  So I asked my professor-friends on Facebook, most of whom not only got into at least one graduate school, but also work at places where they regularly select graduate students for admission to their PhD programs.  These are mostly, but not entirely, sociologists, in both the most and the somewhat-less prestigious/selective departments/universities.  They’re not, of course, a representative or random sample, but the most common response, by far, was some variation on the following:

There is no benefit to students in emailing me before they apply, I find it annoying, and I wish they would stop.

Out of the 27 (roughly, I counted by scrolling on my phone & may have lost track by one or two) people who offered their experience in a PhD-granting department, 22 (or so) roughly agreed with this statement.  But, there were a few dissenters.

Broadly, grad schools programs seem to fall somewhere on a range from a model where an admissions committee decides with no input whatsoever from faculty not on the committee, to a model where an advisor who already knows they want to work with you is a prerequisite for admission.  Let’s call these the “pure committee” and the “pre-match” models, respectively.  Only people in departments on the “pre-match” end of the spectrum said it was a bad idea *not* to write to professors; outside of those programs, even the people who were happy to hear from students and/or said that it might help your admissions case said it wasn’t at all essential for admission (usually these people were outside sociology and/or outside the most-selective departments).

So, to know whether it will help to write to faculty, you need to know what model the department uses for admissions. Programs in the UK and Australia, and from what I can tell most STEM/Natural Sciences disciplines, generally use the “pre-match” model and you’ll need to connect with an advisor in advance of applying. US Sociology programs, on the other hand, mostly operate on the “committee” model, so writing to professors will most likely only annoy them.

However (of course!), there are exceptions: one top US sociology department represented on the thread does use essentially a “pre-match” approach, so students who *don’t* connect with faculty before applying are at a real disadvantage. Another program uses a hybrid model: faculty outside the committee are consulted to see if they could imagine working with potential students, and so you’re more likely to get in if you’re “on the radar” of a faculty person. One of these programs strongly suggests contacting faculty in the first 100 or so words of the “how to apply” page of their website, but the other does not.  My advice, then, is to write to the staff person in charge of graduate admissions and ask how their process works, and whether it is a good or bad idea to write to faculty. This person should know the answer to this question, and it is part of their job to help you manage this process.

The final question is what to say when you write an email to a professor. Here are some tips from the thread.

DO:

  • Know the specific work the professor does, and explain (succinctly) how it connects to what you want to do. The more specific and genuine your interest in someone’s work, the more likely they will be happy to hear from you, even if they are at a “pure committee” program where their happiness can have no bearing on your admission.
  • Be polite, and formal, and brief.
  • Ask to talk by phone or Skype (mostly/especially if it’s a pre-match program).
  • Include a bit about your proposed research (but only a bit).
  • Ask a specific question, possibly about the professor’s research or availability to take on students in the foreseeable future.

DO NOT:

  • Address the professor by wrong name (someone just did this today).
  • Ask questions that Google or Siri and/or the department website could answer (this is a big one).
  • Include many attachments (maybe just one, maybe).
  • Ask to meet in person.
  • Ask questions that will require long explanatory answers.
  • Ask for general advice about graduate schools.
  • Be discouraged if you don’t get a reply, or get a form letter. Many faculty get tens or hundreds of these emails a year, and won’t start paying attention to you until you’re admitted.

Based on all this, I think my initial advice was pretty good in general for US sociology programs, but wrong for a few particular cases.  IF the program you’re applying to uses a pre-match or hybrid approach, find a professor or two whose interests match your own as closely as possible, and write to them. And if there’s a professor somewhere who deeply and specifically inspires you, and/or you have a genuine question, which Google and the department website can’t answer, it probably won’t hurt and it might help.

Daniel Laurison is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Swarthmore College.

PS: Daniel has also started a poll to collect information on the admissions processes of Sociology departments, available here.

Author: Dan Hirschman

I am a sociologist interested in the use of numbers in organizations, markets, and policy. For more info, see here.

2 thoughts on “ask a guest scatterbrain: should i write to professors in the grad programs i’m applying to?”

  1. A reason to write is not to try to get into the program, but to figure out whether you should apply to the program. This is worth doing if you have a definite interest and are trying to find out whether the people you would hope to work with will be responsive and interested when you try to connect with them. When people write to say that they are interested in an area that I’ve said I do on my web site and want to know more about what I’m doing and whether that would connect with their interests, I feel like they are doing due diligence. And sometimes they explain what they are interested in and are asking whether I or anyone would be interested in supporting that; again, due diligence, not annoying, even if it is work to reply.

    When students write to ask whether I am taking new students with vague references to my research areas with the implication that they need to get my enthusiasm to get in, I explain central admissions and that students choose their own advisors and give a stock reply about how if they end up coming I’d be happy to talk to them.

    When people write to me with some form email that says they are really interested in X, where X is something that there is no particular reason to believe I have ever done research in, I roll my eyes and reply politely but feel like they are wasting my time.

    Like

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