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.

2 thoughts on “How to not find a graduate supervisor

  1. Rana

    Hello Professor Roussel’s,

    I came across your blog while I was reading about how to find a supervisor. I was surprised because I do the same steps that you suggest with professors, but they usually say sorry, we do not have a space. However, they give several appointments to my friend who writes one informal letter with no specific information about herself or their research. What do you think the reason behind their rejection?!

    Thank you,

    1. Marc Roussel Post author

      Dear Rana,

      It’s really hard to say what the reason might be without looking at your emails or CV in more detail. Your friend is very lucky to have gotten an appointment with a poorly targeted contact email. Something in his or her email, possibly in his or her CV, caught the eye of the person who hired him/her. But without seeing these materials, it’s impossible to say what that might be. Moreover, anything I might contribute would be guesswork given that I can’t get into the head of your friend’s boss.

      As your friend’s experience shows, you can get lucky. And as your experience shows, you can do things the right way and still have trouble finding a position. There are a lot more students looking for graduate programs than there are places. The point of my blog post is that you can help yourself by showing the person you are contacting that you understand what they do and are genuinely interested. But there are never any guarantees.


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