Advice for Prospective Research Students

Like most professors, I get several hundred emails a year from prospective students interested in coming to UVa for graduate school and joining my research group. I try to reply to all messages that are not obviously spam, but find most messages I receive make me less likely to want to accept the students sending them. This page provides some advice for prospective grad school applicants considering emailing me, but most of it probably applies to any other professor you want to contact also.

Who To Contact

Its a really bad idea to send spam emails to long lists of professors. These emails will never help you, and some professors will maintain blacklists of applicants who do this to make sure their application is rejected without consideration.

Your goal in sending email is not to contact as many professors as you can, but to identify a few professors who you might want as your research advisor and then to find which of those seem most promising as advisors and convince them that you would be a worthwhile student.

You should only contact professors with whom you have a genuine interest in working based on knowing something about them and what they do. You can find out about professors' research by looking at their web pages (professors who don't have web pages about their research are either not interested in recruiting students, not doing any research, or so famous they probably have someone to filter their email for them).

Do Your Homework

Before contacting a potential advisor, do your homework: read the advisor's home page (mine is http://www.cs.virginia.edu/evans/, and our group blog is www.jeffersonswheel.org) and at least one recent paper (links to my papers are available at http://www.cs.virginia.edu/evans/pubs/).

If doing this doesn't give you any interesting ideas, this is probably not someone with whom you want to do research so you shouldn't waste time contacting her or him. If it does, send a short introductory email.

First Email

A typical message should go something like this:

From: Flipper Wordsfish <flipper@adou.edu>
Subject: Student Interested in TSU Problem
Make sure your from address and subject lines are useful
Dear Professor Nemo, Greeting: its safest to be a bit formal here.
I will be finishing a BS degree in Underwater Mathematics at the Atlantis Deep Ocean University this year. I am considering applying to UVa's PhD program and would be interested joining your Octople Cryptology research group. Briefly introduce yourself in at most two sentences. Don't tell your whole life story. Be direct and clear about applying to grad school.
I found your paper, "A Linear-Time Solution to the Travelling Sea Urchin Problem", on your website (http://www.smith.org/urchin.html). I was fascinated by your result, especially as I have spent several summers studying the similar travelling sea cucumber problem as an intern at Microshifty Corp in the Attle Sea. You can find a paper about my work on this at http://www.flipper.com/research/tscp.html. Explain specifically what you read and where you found it (people sometimes publish several papers with similar names and forget which is which). A touch of flattery never hurts, but don't go overboard. If appropriate, relate it to your background and interests and briefly plug your work.
I believe your result is even more important than your paper implies, since it can be extended to solve the Travelling Salescritter Problem and thus to prove P = NP. Concisely describe your insight or why you are interested in the work.
Do you think it would be worthwhile to pursue this line of research? If you are interested, I can send you a proof sketch. End with a clear, simple question.
Offer a suggestion on how to proceed.
Regards,
Flipper Wordsfish (flipper@adou.edu)
Closing — make sure to include your name and email address.

Of course, your insight isn't likely to be so significant as Flipper's. But, you should make an effort to raise an interesting question about the work described in the paper, to suggest extensions or applications of the work, or to relate it directly to something you have done.

It is definitely worth taking time to write clearly and consisely using correct spelling and grammar. As with all emails, the message should be broken into short paragraphs, the sentences should be simple and straightforward.

What Not To Do

Never do any of these:

Follow Up

Since most professors get lots of email, there is some chance that even if you do everything right, your message will get lost in my inbox and you won't get a reply. If you don't get a reply after about a week, send a follow up email that politely asks if the message was received and includes the previous message. If you still don't get a response, that's a pretty good sign that the potential professor you are contacting either has an overly-agressive spam filter, or is not someone you want as your advisor.

Conclusion

Getting into a good PhD program is extremely competitive and professors are strongly motivated to identify and attract the best possible research students to their group. At any department you would want to go to (including UVa), the acceptance rate is usually in the single digit percentages. At the most competitive departments, only a few slots every year are awarded to students without recommendation letters from people the faculty know well.

It takes work to find the right PhD program and advisor, but contacting potential advisors directly is your best way to find a research group that matches your interests and goals well and possibly to improve your chances of being admitted.

Once you've read and followed these directions, please feel free to contact me about coming to UVa to do a PhD in Computer Science. Your goal is to start an interesting email conversation about research ideas.

If you find that my research does not fit well with your interests, feel free to contact me for general advice and suggestions on other professors to contact.

Links

Michael Locasto's advice for prospective students

My Advice Collection on other topics

Discussion

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David Evans - Advice
University of Virginia
Department of Computer Science
David Evans
evans@cs.virginia.edu