Tips for contacting department faculty

A quick internet search for “how to contact faculty for grad school” will reveal lots of advice on this process (we particularly like this blog post from Brian Romans, a geology professor at Virginia Tech, and we have added some of his tips below). There is not necessarily a right or wrong way to do this, as faculty members all have individual preferences.  Here, we’ve done our best to compile some basic tips that will help you when reaching out to faculty.

  • Start early. It’s best to reach out to faculty members ~1.5–3 months before applications are due (January 1st for fall admission or September 15th for spring admission at the University). This is when most faculty members will have decided if they plan to bring on new students. If you wait until 3–4 weeks before the deadline, faculty members may not have time to chat with you. 

  • Visit faculty members’ webpages (visit our People page). Many faculty include specific instructions and their own personal tips for the best way to reach out to them on their website. If a faculty member does this, then your job is easy, simply follow their directions when you send them an email. 

  • Take time to learn about the academic interests of the faculty member you want to be your advisor. The best way to do this is by looking at a faculty member’s website (if they have one) and/or by skimming their recent publications (you don’t necessarily need to read all of their papers, but looking at the abstracts and titles of recent papers can be quite helpful). Most faculty members will want to know why you want to work with them and what your academic interests are.  It’s OK to say “I’m interested in [insert discipline here],” but it’s much better if you can be specific and explain why the research topics being pursued by this person are exciting to you. 

  • Write the email. Take some time to do this. Faculty members can easily get 30–100 e-mails from prospective students in the months leading up to the admission deadline. You want to make sure your e-mail stands out and is written with care. Do not use a generic form letter. Make your email unique and tailored to the person you’re writing to. Again—there’s no specific formula here— but generally, you want to:
    • Briefly introduce yourself and note that you’re potentially interested in applying for an M.S. or Ph.D. (specify which of these degrees you want to pursue) in the upcoming cycle.
    • Briefly explain why you want to work with this specific person.
    • Briefly give some background on your education, work experience, and any other training to date makes you well prepared to work with this person and succeed in graduate school.
    • It is a good idea to specifically ask if your potential adviser is planning on accepting students in the next cycle, and if so, you can also ask if they would be willing to have a phone call or video chat with you to discuss the program in more detail. 
    • Attaching a CV to your email with information about your education, past work and research experience, volunteer activities, and other information is often helpful. 

  • Wait for a reply. This may take a while, and the sad truth is that many faculty may not be able to reply to your email (for some faculty, sending a follow-up email ~2–3 weeks after you initially reach out can be helpful).  Do not be discouraged if you do not hear back. This is bound to happen no matter how qualified you are.  In many cases, faculty may be looking for a very specific skill set for a project, such that even very talented students may be turned down for lack of being a good fit for the project.

  • Remember that the application process and interview is two ways. Faculty members are interviewing you to see if you’ll be a good fit in their research group, and you should be interviewing them to see if this is the type of person you want to work with.  If you’re seriously considering working with a faculty member, it can be useful to also reach out to their students to learn more about their advising style. You can find contact information for many of our current graduate students here.