Undergraduate Research Network
How to Successfully E-mail Professors
How to Successfully E-mail Professors
Author: David Wu (email@example.com)
Professors, especially popular ones, are extremely busy and get bombarded with e-mails every day of the week. Some professors receive up to 1 request per week from an undergraduate interested in research. Keep the following points in mind to maximize your chances of receiving a response, and more importantly, an interview. Remember that mentoring undergraduate students is often a significant tax on a a professor's time and funding - you're a risky investment, so you must convince them that you're a bet that will pay off.
1. Be courteous
Remember, you are contacting someone who may potentially be your employer and meet with you for a (casual) interview. Courtesy, manners, and respect count. You can show off your casual side once you land the job. Your message should begin with "Dear Professor _________" and end with "Sincerely, ___________" or some variation thereof. When you receive a response, try to reply within one business day - even if it's just to say you need more time to think.
2. Be concise
Keep the e-mail as short as possible. Before you send off your final draft, re-read your e-mail and eliminate as many words and sentences as possible. Everything should serve a purpose.
3. Be relevant
In a similar vein, you should only include relevant information. Your first and last names, year of graduation, major, and reasons for pursuing research are relevant. Express how long you intend to conduct research; professors know that it takes a while before a student is actually able to contribute to a project, and thus they value undergraduates who will stick around for the long haul.
Generally, your GPA and extracurricular activities can be left out of the e-mail. However, if you have an impressive transcript or resume, add them as attachments. Do not emphasize them; it serves as a supplement in case the professor is interested.
4. Be specific
Do not send the same, generic e-mail to multiple professors. They will sense your insincerity and figure out that you're just using a shotgun approach. Instead, put in the effort to research the professor's interests and write a personalized e-mail. How does the professor's interests align with yours? What is your background in this field, if any? Your e-mail should convey that you've spent some time thoughtfully reflecting on your choice of a mentor.
I also always recommend that you read the professor's recent publications. Obviously this will be difficult and you will not understand the entire article. However, you will have an enormous advantage over anyone who has not done this. You will have a good idea of the kind of research you'll be getting into, and whether you really want to follow through with this adviser. Additionally, you will impress your potential adviser with your willingness to engage in the research process and hopefully ask intelligent questions.
This is also a good way to segue into an in-person meeting - check out the samples below.
5. Be persistent
It takes a lot of time, patience, and courage to send a thoughtful e-mail to a professor. Most of the time, you will be turned down for reasons out of your control - the professor may be on sabbatical, have a fully staffed lab, not see your e-mail, and so on. Other professors might not like undergraduate students in general (would you want to work for this professor anyway? I doubt it) Don't take these rejections personally! Move on and contact the next professor on your list. All you need is to find the one faculty adviser who is a good fit for you.
6. Be resourceful
Sometimes it's hard to pick professors to e-mail because of the sheer number of them. You need other ways to help you narrow down your choices. One great way is to ask other people for advice. This includes upperclass students who are already involved in research as well as friendly professors who can point you in the right direction. In fact, this is how I got into my lab - one of my professors recommended him to me. I also know countless other students who found a great mentor this way.
A tip for getting into science research labs: volunteer
For labs, one way to get your foot in the door is to volunteer. A professor may be hesitant to offer you research credit or summer pay, especially if you have little background knowledge or experience. However, a willingness to volunteer dispels that concern. It's also a really good way to see if you will like the lab - if you are a bad match, then you can easily switch to another lab and save everyone a headache.
A note for pre-meds hoping to get involved with biomedical science research.
Mentioning "I am pre-med" in your e-mail is not relevant, and in fact, can damage your chances of a response. My faculty adviser receives e-mails from undergraduates every week and he automatically deletes e-mails that include, "I want to get involved in research because I want to go medical school" or a more subtle variation thereof. Pre-med students have a reputation of doing research solely because "all other pre-meds do it" and to get a letter of recommendation. No one wants this student. They want a student who does research because they have a passion for it.
However, always be honest. If you are asked whether you want to go to medical school, you should answer truthfully. But keep an open mind, because you might actually find that the lab environment to be more exciting than the clinic.
Sample 1: A "typical" e-mail
Hi Dr. Smith,
I'm a 2nd year student hoping to get involved in research. I am a biology major and plan to attend medical school. I would really like to work with you in biology research. Do you have any paid undergraduate research positions this summer?
Sample 2: A "better" e-mail
Dear Dr. Smith,
My name is David Wu and I'm a second year biology major at UVa. In my introductory and upper-level coursework, I've developed a passion for science and am extremely interested in pursuing independent research as an undergraduate. An extensive research experience will greatly help me consolidate my future career choice.
I am personally greatly interested in the molecular biology of stem cells. Recently I read your 2011 paper on the role of microRNAs in the differentiation of muscle stem cells and became fascinated by your work. In particular, I found it amazing that microRNAs can alter the fate of a cell in such a profound way. If possible, I would love to start working on a long-term project in your lab beginning this summer.
Would you be available to meet sometime this week to discuss your research? I would also be happy to volunteer in your lab for a few weeks before we commit to anything to see if this is a good match. My transcript and resume are attached in case you are interested. I look forward to hearing from you!