Advice for Prospective Research Students

Like most professors, I get several hundred emails a year from prospective students interested in coming to our university 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, and our group blog is and at least one recent paper (my papers).

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 <>
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 ( 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

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.
Flipper Wordsfish (
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:

  • Don't send information about your GRE scores, GPA, class rank, cholesterol levels, favorite movies, etc. and ask what your chances of admission are. Standardized tests and grades have minimal influence on your chances of admission and reveal very little about your potential as a researcher. No one can or should tell you anything about your chances of admission based on an email (other than that you are more likely to be rejected now since you sent an annoying email).
  • Don't send a first email longer than a typical screenful. You should be able to get across everything you need in a first email concisely and use longer emails if technical depth is required in follow ups.
  • Don't waste space and time telling me how hard-working, creative and smart you are — demonstrate it with the contents of your message.
  • Don't waste space and time telling me how brilliant I am. The fact that you are interested in joining my research group is flattery enough.
  • Don't make generic statements about being interested in my work or how well it relates to your interests. Most professors have projects in several different areas and can't figure out what you mean unless you describe a specific connection or interest.
  • Don't attach anything to your email. If you want to provide additional content, you should do this by sending a URL (as plain text, not a link). It is useful to have a personal website that is fairly professional, and that conveys something about your experience and research interests. Its great if you have a blog post or two about something interesting you've learned or done. If you are applying to CS graduate programs, your personal website shouldn't be a LinkedIn page or some other site where you do not have full control over the content. There are lots of good free hosting sites (I often use github pages, but there are plenty of other good options). If you are not able to create a web page, you probably shouldn't be applying to CS graduate programs.
  • Be aware that most email is filtered out by spam filters these days and never reaches the intended recipient. If you are a non-native English speaker sending email to someone at an English-speaking instutition, make sure your "From:" address appears using the English alphabet. Using characters that are not standard English in your email increases the risk that it will be filtered out as spam. I do realize it is very unfair for us to expect you to change your name for our convenience and cultural ignorance! But, once you get admitted you can and should tell people what you want them to call you. (Note that for your formal application it may be necessary to use a Westernized version of your name to comply with the application form, so if you use another name in your email communications with faculty, it is important to also provide the name you use in your application so they can identify the corresponding application. This is a good opportunity to refresh the relationship after you send in your application by informing your contact to the formal name used in your application.)
  • Don't use any fancy formatting in your email (including your message signature).


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.


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 post comments below for general advice.

To succeed in your PhD, you may want to read My Advice Collection on other topics.

After you finish your PhD, you may be interested in How to Live in Paradise!


Comments powered by Disqus