Monthly Archives: February 2015

How to not find a graduate supervisor

Several times a week, I receive emails from prospective graduate students. The overwhelming majority of these emails get a boilerplate “no thanks” response from me. (I have actually automated these responses so I can send them with just a few quick mouse clicks.) Most of my colleagues don’t even bother to respond. Why? Because the emails I (and my colleagues) get almost always look like mass emails sent to (probably) hundreds of scientists worldwide without any indication that the student knows what I do or, worse, with clear indications that they don’t know what I do.

To those of you sending these emails: If you don’t want to go to graduate school, stop reading this post and keep sending those emails. My colleagues and I will keep deleting them.

Here’s what a typical one of these emails looks like, with my comments in square brackets:

Dear Professor, [What, you couldn’t be bothered to find out my name?]

I have read your website, and I am really excited about your research. [It would be a nice touch if you actually included some text in your email that showed that you knew what that research was.] I would like to join your group as a Ph.D. student starting in September.

I have an M.Sc. from U. of Wherever, where I completed a project in organic synthesis with Professor Whoever. [First you tell me you looked at my website. Now you tell me that you have experience in organic synthesis which is completely irrelevant to me. What you’re really saying is that you have not read my website and have no idea what I do. The email started off badly. Now I’m annoyed at you for wasting my time.] I think this background prepares me to contribute to your research.

I look forward to a positive response.


A. Student

Look, students. It’s never been easier to figure out what a professor does. We all have websites that contain detailed descriptions of our research because we all want to find good graduate students. All you have to do is to look at those web sites and write emails that contain specific details relating to a particular professor’s interests. Sending out several hundred generic emails won’t get you a response even from people who might otherwise be interested. If you’re too lazy to look at my web site and to write an email that has been customized to my interests, I’m not likely to take your email very seriously.

If you like rejection, go ahead and send those generic emails. If you actually want to go to graduate school, do some research, write a few targeted emails to people who are actually in your area of interest and explain to them how you’re excited about their research (mentioning actual details of what they do), and how your background is, you think, good preparation for work in that person’s lab. Professors actually answer emails that have been written to them, and not just written to a professor. So if you’re not getting answers to your emails to professors, the problem isn’t the professors. It’s your emails.