Should I Contact Professors Before Applying?

contact professors before applying


This is a pretty common question among graduate school applicants: Should I contact a professor before applying if I’m interested in working with them?
The answer: sometimes yes, sometimes no.
Given how unhelpful that answer is, we’ll elaborate.

 

Useful Details

In almost all cases, faculty members cannot influence the admission process. Students generally contact professors before applying thinking it will help them get accepted. The truth is that if you’re applying to most US programs, contacting a faculty member won’t help your chances–even if they end up loving you.
There are (usually) two levels of graduate admission criteria: University and Departmental. The University has general standards they want their student body to adhere to, so typically the GRE and GPA are evaluated at the upper University level. Major GPA, Letters of Recommendation, and Personal Statements however, are generally evaluated at the Department level. This should make sense– the University has broad core standards, while each Department has specific requirements for its graduate student openings.

 

 When To Contact

There are three cases where you should definitely contact professors before applying.
(1) To find out if that professor, department, or program is accepting new students.
In a given year each department/program will have a target number of incoming students based on research areas. This is important to keep in mind: it’s not uncommon for someone applying to a popular research area (e.g. Artificial Intelligence in Computer Science) to be rejected because the department wasn’t letting in new students to that area–but had the same person applied to another research area (e.g. Operating Systems) that was looking for new students, they would have been admitted. It behooves all applicants to know if their intended research areas and faculty are accepting new students before wasting so much of their time applying. Unfortunately this information isn’t always readily available on departmental websites.
Beyond research area, it’s possible for programs (even large ones) to decrease (or even cease) their grad student in take from time to time. Grant funding can waiver, they could have had an abnormally high expectance rate the prior year, and topics can fall out of favor. Applying to a program that’s only accepting two students or highlighting a professor that has no funding for new students can spell death for an application. There is no harm (and in fact it’s your responsibility) in ensuring that your target program/professor is taking on new students. Emailing faculty or administration directly to ask about their upcoming academic year can save you hundreds of dollars and countless hours, not to mention avoiding the psychological distress of rejections. This will ultimately help you put more effort where it counts.
(2) If the PhD program doesn’t do rotations, i.e. you join a group immediately.
There are two general types of PhD program structures. One is where students are admitted and do rotations. In this set up they enter without commitment to any given professor, and throughout their first year (sometimes even into their second) they decide on a thesis advisor. The other type is one where an advisor commits to you based on your application. You enter the program already having a thesis advisor. In most cases you can switch if you want to, but there are no rotations and your initial funding is based on that faculty member agreeing to pay for you the first year.
If you’re applying to a program that matches students and faculty from the very start– it’s very important to be engaged with faculty as soon as possible. While your application still has to be approved by the university in these cases, faculty will “refer” your application, essentially telling the graduate school that they want you to be admitted. For this program structure it’s a good idea to not only have a very concrete idea of what you want to work on, but also exactly who you want to work with before starting the application. Contacting faculty early on in the process can be a game changer when it comes to admissions.
That said, if you’re applying to rotation based programs, contacting faculty is largely a waste of time. They have no say so in the admissions process and usually shy away from getting too involved with students until they know whether you’re attending or not.
(3) If you legitimately have a question about their research or research direction.
This is an obvious resource but often shrugged off by timid applicants.  If you have an actual question about a persons work or future ambitions, or even a question about an idea you have– it’s completely ok to write a faculty member and ask them about it. If you’re genuinely interested and looking for legitimate feedback (and not just sucking up for the sake of admissions), most faculty members will have no issue sharing that kind of information or discussing research. Make sure you frame it so that it’s clear you’re not looking for an admissions boost, just due diligence to make sure your research interests align.

 

 

When Not To Contact

If your situation doesn’t fall into one of the three categories above, it’s probably best to delete that draft email and focus on more important aspects of your application. If you’re applying to a relatively large department that consistently lets in at least 10-20 new graduate students a year and has a rotation system for first year students–contacting faculty is a waste of your (and their) time.
Keep in mind that each department and subject operates a little differently. Some programs are heavily focused on networking (e.g. business/economics), others tend to be more cut and dry (e.g. biomedical engineering). Depending on your field, contacting faculty may be more or less common. If you’re in doubt, just email the program. The admissions administrator has no say so on who gets in, so you don’t have to feel stupid, and in most cases they’re super helpful and provide a lot of useful information. Send them an email asking if it’s appropriate to contact professors before applying and you’ll get a very direct answer–that’s what they’re there for!

 

 

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Should I Contact Professors Before Applying?

contact professors before applying May 24th, 2016


This is a pretty common question among graduate school applicants: Should I contact a professor before applying if I’m interested in working with them?
The answer: sometimes yes, sometimes no.
Given how unhelpful that answer is, we’ll elaborate.

 

Useful Details

In almost all cases, faculty members cannot influence the admission process. Students generally contact professors before applying thinking it will help them get accepted. The truth is that if you’re applying to most US programs, contacting a faculty member won’t help your chances–even if they end up loving you.
There are (usually) two levels of graduate admission criteria: University and Departmental. The University has general standards they want their student body to adhere to, so typically the GRE and GPA are evaluated at the upper University level. Major GPA, Letters of Recommendation, and Personal Statements however, are generally evaluated at the Department level. This should make sense– the University has broad core standards, while each Department has specific requirements for its graduate student openings.

 

 When To Contact

There are three cases where you should definitely contact professors before applying.
(1) To find out if that professor, department, or program is accepting new students.
In a given year each department/program will have a target number of incoming students based on research areas. This is important to keep in mind: it’s not uncommon for someone applying to a popular research area (e.g. Artificial Intelligence in Computer Science) to be rejected because the department wasn’t letting in new students to that area–but had the same person applied to another research area (e.g. Operating Systems) that was looking for new students, they would have been admitted. It behooves all applicants to know if their intended research areas and faculty are accepting new students before wasting so much of their time applying. Unfortunately this information isn’t always readily available on departmental websites.
Beyond research area, it’s possible for programs (even large ones) to decrease (or even cease) their grad student in take from time to time. Grant funding can waiver, they could have had an abnormally high expectance rate the prior year, and topics can fall out of favor. Applying to a program that’s only accepting two students or highlighting a professor that has no funding for new students can spell death for an application. There is no harm (and in fact it’s your responsibility) in ensuring that your target program/professor is taking on new students. Emailing faculty or administration directly to ask about their upcoming academic year can save you hundreds of dollars and countless hours, not to mention avoiding the psychological distress of rejections. This will ultimately help you put more effort where it counts.
(2) If the PhD program doesn’t do rotations, i.e. you join a group immediately.
There are two general types of PhD program structures. One is where students are admitted and do rotations. In this set up they enter without commitment to any given professor, and throughout their first year (sometimes even into their second) they decide on a thesis advisor. The other type is one where an advisor commits to you based on your application. You enter the program already having a thesis advisor. In most cases you can switch if you want to, but there are no rotations and your initial funding is based on that faculty member agreeing to pay for you the first year.
If you’re applying to a program that matches students and faculty from the very start– it’s very important to be engaged with faculty as soon as possible. While your application still has to be approved by the university in these cases, faculty will “refer” your application, essentially telling the graduate school that they want you to be admitted. For this program structure it’s a good idea to not only have a very concrete idea of what you want to work on, but also exactly who you want to work with before starting the application. Contacting faculty early on in the process can be a game changer when it comes to admissions.
That said, if you’re applying to rotation based programs, contacting faculty is largely a waste of time. They have no say so in the admissions process and usually shy away from getting too involved with students until they know whether you’re attending or not.
(3) If you legitimately have a question about their research or research direction.
This is an obvious resource but often shrugged off by timid applicants.  If you have an actual question about a persons work or future ambitions, or even a question about an idea you have– it’s completely ok to write a faculty member and ask them about it. If you’re genuinely interested and looking for legitimate feedback (and not just sucking up for the sake of admissions), most faculty members will have no issue sharing that kind of information or discussing research. Make sure you frame it so that it’s clear you’re not looking for an admissions boost, just due diligence to make sure your research interests align.

 

 

When Not To Contact

If your situation doesn’t fall into one of the three categories above, it’s probably best to delete that draft email and focus on more important aspects of your application. If you’re applying to a relatively large department that consistently lets in at least 10-20 new graduate students a year and has a rotation system for first year students–contacting faculty is a waste of your (and their) time.
Keep in mind that each department and subject operates a little differently. Some programs are heavily focused on networking (e.g. business/economics), others tend to be more cut and dry (e.g. biomedical engineering). Depending on your field, contacting faculty may be more or less common. If you’re in doubt, just email the program. The admissions administrator has no say so on who gets in, so you don’t have to feel stupid, and in most cases they’re super helpful and provide a lot of useful information. Send them an email asking if it’s appropriate to contact professors before applying and you’ll get a very direct answer–that’s what they’re there for!

 

 

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