Sometimes, the “etiquette” for contacting an expert in your field can be mystifying, and sometimes downright intimidating. Here are some tips from the URO to ease the pressure and increase the chances that you will get the response you’re hoping for.
- Identify yourself! Don’t write a generic message and sign with only your first name. Tell them who you are, including major and year in school. If you took a class with this person, mention that. If you were referred to this person by someone else, mention that too.
- Address the individual you’re emailing. Don’t just say “Hi” or “Dear Professor”; this can appear as if you sent out a mass email message, which in turn indicated that you haven’t thought carefully about what kind of research you want to do and who would be an appropriate faculty member for your project. It’s also a little casual in tone; addressing the recipient by name instantly sounds more serious.
- Sell yourself! You are, in a sense, trying to advertise yourself a little bit in the initial email to a faculty member. Identifying what sparked your interest in doing research is a good way to personalize your message and give them a reason to believe your interest is genuine (just don't go overboard or write too much).
Your homework! This is probably to MOST IMPORTANT part of emailing a potential research advisor. Spend time looking over what a faculty member’s current research interests are within his/her field of expertise. Knowing what he/she is specifically focusing on shows that you are already committed enough to do some reading on your own. It also suggests that you have a better sense yourself of what research would keep you genuinely interested, and that you aren’t necessarily willing to do just anything that comes along. You can find a list of what a professor has recently published in his/her curriculum vitae (an academic resume), which should be accessible on the professor’s profile on his/her department’s webpage. Find out this person’s research interests, how long he/she has been investigating that subject, or even classes he/she has recently taught related to that research. Then, go to the library and find one of the recent listed publications and check it out!
- But…the research that faculty members publish is difficult to understand! That’s OK. You don’t have to understand everything you read, but you can look for some of the key terms of the study that would catch the professor’s attention in that initial email. Make a list of questions as you read…professors will be impressed by your curiosity and the time you’ve taken to investigate their work, as much as they would be impressed by your comprehension.
- Make it easy to set up a meeting. It is helpful to close your email by listing the specific days and times you are available. It reduces the number of email exchanges needed to settle on a face-to-face meeting and makes things easier for both you and the professor.
- Send generic emails. You may be reaching out to more than one professor in your effort to get involved in research. If there are many faculty members performing research in your field of interest, or if your interests are
- diverse, that’s a perfectly appropriate strategy, so long as you keep your email messages from looking like form letters! Here is a good rule of thumb: ask yourself, “Could I change the name of the addressee in the salutation of my message and keep the body of the message same?” If the answer is “Yes”, then you have a problem. Remember, you want to personalize the emails (see ‘DO: your homework’) and raise questions around which you can build a more in-depth conversation. These initial emails should be all uniquely framed for the person to whom you are writing.
- Neglect proofreading. Silly grammar errors do not make good first impressions.
- Give up! Finding the right faculty mentor for your research may take some time. Professors are very busy…but they also have enough experience to know when they are not a good fit for your research interests. You may not get a positive response the first or second or fifth time you send an email. Keep trying! Also, don’t be afraid to ask professors who turned you down if they can refer you to another faculty member.
Learn from current students about the steps they took to obtain their research positions on the URO’s “Reasearch Spotlights” page.