When I first started looking into PhD programs in the UK, I was a bit intimidated by the expectation that applicants for research degrees contact professors they’re interested in having as dissertation advisors before they apply to the program. I combed the interwebz for tips on how to approach the task, and managed to come across one very helpful page. The professor to whom this blog belongs gives an example of a bad email (which she says would be “instantly deleted”), and a good one. These are the points I came away with after reading each example:
1) Be specific.
Give the person you’re contacting every detail pertinent to their decision, like: what you’re majoring in, your research interests/focus, your GPA (if it’ll help), what work (if any) of theirs you’ve read, and any related credentials (internships, special projects, etc). Sharing this info will show them you’re serious about pursuing this particular line of research, and give them an idea of your current knowledge of the subject.
2) Ask questions.
Not only do questions invite response, they also give the person you’re asking a chance to show off their expertise. Posing an intelligent question is just as valuable as giving an intelligent answer because it gets people thinking in ways they hadn’t before, which is the crux of great research. Asking the “right” questions will demonstrate your viability as a research student. In fact, I tend to think of the relationship between research student and advisor as more of a partnership, despite the obvious hierarchy, because (hopefully) you will be brainstorming and working together to make strides in your field.
3) Be thorough.
Check every nook and cranny of the program’s website for any relevant information about your subject and the prof you’re contacting. See what they’ve published, check the publication’s availability in your area and, if you can, get your hands on it. Boning up on the necessary info will add to your base of knowledge, and guide your brainstorming so you’ll know what questions to ask (which helps you out with points 1 AND 2 — Booyah). If nothing of theirs is handy, ask them to recommend some titles to you.
4) Be courteous.
To quote the page I linked to, “show that you respect the professor’s time.” Mention that you’re aware of how busy they are and how many questions they must field on a daily basis, then emphasize how vital their guidance is to you.
After taking quite a while to ensure I’d crafted an acceptable email, I got a more than acceptable response… and now I’m headed to my 1st choice school to work with my 1st choice advisor! My area is Creative Writing, but these tips apply no matter what your subject. If you are applying for a CW Phd, don’t forget to include a short synopsis of the creative part of your dissertation (e.g. your novel, short story/poetry collection).
Good luck! 🙂