For the past several months, I’ve gotten almost weekly emails that read something like this:

Dear Professor,

I am Stu Dent from NotThisCountry, and I would like to study with you in Fall 2008. I have a BS in -ology from NotThisCountry Regional University, and I have an MS in -ology-subspecialty from NotThisCountry National University. (Optional: additional details about Stu Dent’s background.) I have looked at your web page and I find your research interests very exciting. I am interested in (something that isn’t my research interest, say snowmobiling) and I would like to study in your research program. Thank you for your consideration.

Yours Truly,

Stu Dent

How, as a junior faculty member desperate to build her research program, am I supposed to respond to emails like this?

Based on the lack of specificity about how my research interests overlap with Stu Dent’s research interests, I suspect that this email has gone out to multiple faculty, probably to multiple universities. Is it worth my time at all to respond if they can’t be bothered to tailor a letter to me? But as a prospective graduate student, I hated when I failed to get a response from someone. I didn’t know if they were uninterested, out of the country, or whether my email had gotten lost on the internets. So I can’t quite bring myself to simply ignoring these emails.

My latest tactic:

Hello Stu Dent

I am glad to hear of your interest in further graduate study and in working with me. However, I am more of a skier than a snowmobiler, although I do use some of the same trails in my research. At present, my research interest lies in understanding how skis are able to climb uphill in different snow conditions, and this is the area that I will be able to provide the most direction for a student. If you are interested in working in snow-mobiling, and you want to work with me, I would need to know that you had a particular research topic in mind and had started to identify outside resources and people that could help you with the research. Otherwise, I suggest that you contact one of the many other excellent researchers in this field.


Dr. ScienceWoman

But that reply just got this in return:

Dear Dr. ScienceWoman,

Thank you very much for your reply email. I’m interested in how snow-mobile engines work. If it is possible, I want to study related to these topics..The topics can be about snow mobile engine spark plugs or snow mobile engine antifreeze or snow mobile engine belts.

Yours Sincerely,
Stu Dent

OK, at this point, I’ve put in a good faith effort, I think it’s fine for me to ignore it. And I doubt that Stu Dent will contact me again.

But what’s going on here? Is it just that skiing is such a boring topic and that snow-mobiles are faster and louder and therefore more popular? If that’s the case, why did Mystery University bother to hire me? But I know a large community of skiing researchers, so it can’t be a universal lack of appreciation for the field. Maybe skiing just isn’t appreciated outside the US? No, that’s not it either, because I belong to an active international organization of skiing researchers.

These emails were really starting to bother me, so finally I asked a colleague about them. He’s a snowboarder, and he said he gets lots of snowmobiling emails too. His interpretation is that these letters are just from people desperate to get into the US, and his response is to encourage them all to apply and that very few of them actually do so. But that just seems like it is potentially creating another problem down the road, if the encouragement to apply is taken as a real encouragement to come here. So I guess I’ll continue to do my respond then ignore routine and hope that some better prospects come my way. Actually, I’ve got a better prospect in my email box right now.


  1. #1 Kim
    April 9, 2008

    I occasionally get “I want to be your grad student” letters from other countries.

    My institution has no graduate programs whatsoever.

    I don’t respond to the e-mails. Perhaps these students need a lesson in the workings of higher ed in the US, but… I’m not the best person to do that for them.

    (It’s a different situation when you do want grad students, though, I realize.)

  2. #2 Brigindo
    April 9, 2008

    I don’t respond to any email that seems mass produced and not tailored to my research interests. There are many demands on our time and attention and I think it is important to identify these tasks that help no one and cut them out completely.

  3. #3 Eric Toth
    April 9, 2008

    I get about 50 of those per year. If I respond, I just tell them to apply directly through the graduate program and then direct them to the graduate program website.

  4. #4 PhysioProf
    April 9, 2008

    I get those every day, both from prospective graduate students and prospective post-docs:

    “Dear Esteemed Professor:”

    If they come from foreign countries and it is clear that the writer has made no attempt to actually say anything substantive about my research program, I ignore them completely. I only respond to e-mails that appear on their face to allow some prospect of actually leading to someone decent joining my lab.

    You need to spend your time doing what you need to do to further your career. Allowing unsolicited e-mails to induce some sense of social obligation on your part to respond is not helpful to you, and wastes both time and energy. You owe these people nothing.

  5. #5 Martin
    April 9, 2008

    Agree with above. If they don’t say your name, do not say why they want to work for you and work on something completely different, then depending on your admission programme you either ignore or send them to the grad school website to apply officially (I have a standard email saved). pretty much they never do.

    The ones who are genuinely interested, know what you do and are real candidates stand out a mile. If you’re not sure, ask them to give you a ring – most of them won’t.

  6. #6 dave
    April 9, 2008

    The Pure Math Club at the university I went to (a bunch of undergrads, with no connections to grad student admissions at all) got enough of these that we were contemplating becoming a Prestigious Unaccredited University.
    Maybe you could try that?

  7. #7 Andrea Grant
    April 9, 2008

    I’d agree with the commenters that these emails could be ignored. The emails you yourself might have sent out that were ignored (thus causing the guilt you feel at ignoring these) were probably quite individualized and thus you might reasonably have expected them to be answered. Spamming (or what counts for it in the science world) professors in another country is entirely different, and I think the burden shifts to the prospective in this case to write a compelling, personalized email.

  8. #8 Becca
    April 9, 2008

    I’ve seen this come up elsewhere on the scienceborg, and I think your reply is most generous.

    I would add that even unspecific emails from people at your institution might merit a little more consideration- I like Martin’s idea of asking for a telephone call.

  9. #9 International psych student
    April 9, 2008

    As an international student, though in a different domain, I have gone through the trouble of getting in to North-American grad school. In my experience, if you are really interested, you either simply apply (which is what I did and which I remember to find scary at the time) or you send a more specific email including your area of expertise (I had done quite some research before coming here) and how that relates to (or made you interested in) potential supervisor’s area.

    At the same time, I had a hard time applying (and getting accepted for that matter). Everything so common to people who have lived and studied here all their lives was new to me. Even though I read the websites carefully and even though I talked to many profs (some of whom are American) I never felt that I completely understood the system. It’s simply the lack of exposure. Even now, after almost a year, I sometimes feel overwhelmed or dazzled, just because things don’t work the way I expect (and have experienced) them to work.

    I guess what I want to say is that international students can -and do- sometimes ask stupid questions. They come from a different culture, are used to different routines, may not know the details of being a grad student and probably need a little more guidance. But if students are really, really motivated, they’ll write a better (and more specific) email, which, despite their silliness and writing errors (I like to think) still marks them as a good candidate.

  10. #10 DrugMonkey
    April 9, 2008

    What PhysioProf said. I get the postdoc version of these and occasionally the grad student version. I trash ’em. I find that they seem to come in clusters which indicates to me that there may even be lists of professor emails in selected subfields circulating out there somewhere.

    In this day and age with at least a minimal website description of most people’s work available…there is a near zero probability that this sort of thing is from someone who is really interested in your program. Or for that matter would fit into your program in a meaningful way.

    Now, in the event that there are some legitimate but woefully ignorant grad applicants out there, some advice. Customize your letter to everyone you send it to. Take the 15 min it requires to figure out what s/he is really doing so that you can mention some specifics in a meaningful way.

  11. #11 PhysioProf
    April 9, 2008

    One of these dipshits even sent me an e-mail with a 25 megabyte photo attached of him sitting at a fucking physiology rig. Yeah, that’s gonna get your foot in the door.

  12. #12 Steve Higgins
    April 9, 2008

    “I never felt that I completely understood the system. It’s simply the lack of exposure.”

    Even as an American grad student who was able to get in a bunch of places I still don’t ‘get’ the system. It’s a bunch of random arbitrary decisions by unknown people with unknown politics that you just have to accept.

  13. #13 ianqui
    April 9, 2008

    I can sympathize with International psych student, but really, the only thing we can do is encourage them to apply through the standardized university system, right? Well, maybe your universities don’t work like mine, but every school I’ve been associated with has a standardized application procedure, and we’d never be able to take someone who didn’t apply through that channel. If the person is serious, they’ll have to meet the criteria that the system forces on them. Yes, that can be a disadvantage to some international students, but on the other hand, we have plenty of them to attest to the fact that it can be done.

    Now, the bigger problem is when I get these emails referring to people who want to do postdocs or have visiting positions in my department. I feel even less sure about how to respond to those.

  14. #14 Jane
    April 9, 2008

    I get these emails quite a bit. 99% of the time, they are addressed “Dear Sir:”. So I have no qualms deleting them, because clearly they were not specifically sent to me!

    I like Andrea’s comparison to spam—I think that’s pretty accurate.

  15. #15 Cherish
    April 9, 2008

    My advisor told me a couple weeks ago about these types of emails because another grad student (who teaches some of the undergrad courses) got some. He said he just deletes them. This is coming from a person who is very patient and generous with his time…and is constantly encouraging students to consider graduate school. I think he’s determined they’re most often not very fruitful.

  16. #16 RJ
    April 10, 2008

    Disclaimer: I’m not a scientist and don’t get these e-mails.

    That said, I’d suggest using the wonderful power of templates to have a template response. And I’d put in some honest advice too.

    Dear Stu,

    – refer to application process

    PS – I receive several e-mails like yours. In many cases, it appears that students are keen to study in the US and send substantially the same e-mail to a number of professors. Because of this, many professors do not reply to generic e-mails, even ones which say they have read their website listing.

    You may find you have better success when e-mailing professors if you take the time to read some of their research, and then write an e-mail which specifically refers to the areas of their work you find interesting, what you find interesting and why you would like to work on the area.

    It also helps if you are clear about the area they are working in. For example, as a professor of skiing, i frequently find people interested e-mail me and refer to snowboarding, rather than skiing, without taking the time to appreciate that there are significant differences.

    See, for example – link to my website where I make this clear.

    Good luck with your search.

    Yours sincerely

    Dr Sciencewoman

    I suggest this approach as: 1 – it may genuinely help someone. 2 – templates are really easy to set up in Outlook, 3 – by putting the skiing v snowboarding thing in you may help distinguish (or maybe not!) 4 – you want students so getting links can’t help marketing.

    But… by contrast : the received wisdom of the professoriat seems to be to ignore them.

  17. #17 stepwise girl
    April 10, 2008

    Like Jane I received a “Dear Mr Professor” this week (the first such request in my career), and I’m thinking I’m not going to bother replying to someone who did not bother identifying me in more detail.

  18. #18 Propter Doc
    April 10, 2008

    You can also ask yourself if you should take on a student like this when they are not directly tied into your research goals. (Imagine the application met all the above suggestions, was entirely legit but just not in your field). As a new academic you’re trying to establish a track record in your chose subfield and while it is nice to think that one day you’ll be able to take in ‘waifs and strays’ who have dissimilar interests to your own and give them a chance, you’re already spread quite thin at the moment and should focus on people who share your interests more directly. And don’t feel bad about it. There will be plenty time in your career to take chances on students when you’re better established. For now, make life easy for yourself because you’ll do a better job for everyone then.

    Interestingly I’ve been criticized on blog for saying that I would delete any emails like that. Apparently I shouldn’t be so willing to turn down potential students/postdocs on such a ‘superficial’ basis. Meh to that. If they can’t customize the email and sound intelligent, I’m hitting delete.

  19. #19 ace
    April 10, 2008

    Well I was one of those international students and let me tell you what it was like.

    Contacting faculty at institutions I was interested in was key in my success. I was applying to an interdisciplinary area that did not exist in my country and I had no idea whether I would be a competitive or interesting applicant. I really wanted to do this research but had no idea whether someone like me would be competitive in the grad applications.. I did do really well and that was thanks to the encouragement, time and feedback of the many professors who communicated with me over e-mail about grad school. I had applied to some 17 graduate programs and was admitted to all. (I know that’s a lot of applications but I had no way to gauge where I would be admitted, so I wanted to have a safety net).

    I did contact professors in my area in each university I was interested in, way ahead of the application deadlines (summer). I sent a short, polite e-mail with my CV and explained what kind of research I was interested in doing. I never wrote a blanket message to a whole department, just tailored messages to people in my general area of interest (say skiing, whether they were in snow studies dept or winter sports dept…). I mentioned I was thinking about applying to the grad program in their department and asked if they were taking on any new graduate students and whether they would have any interest in having me join their lab based on my qualifications and interests.

    I had 1-2 rude replies, some no replies, but overall, I’d say 80% wrote back with valuable information… A large number of professors were very encouraging and gave me detailed information about their grad admission process, lab, research plans. I must say I really needed this kind of encouragement at taht time, and I am so glad I was given caring and helpful feedback (looking back, now several years post a very happy and successful PhD)…

    Another reason this contact helped was money. You have to realise, these applications are very expensive, especially when you also consider the GRE and TOEFL score sham (and half of my scores never made it to their destinations even after paying the exorbitant fees!). Some students come from economically disadvantaged countries where this application process is a serious expense. To give you an idea of what this costs to foreign graduate students, that year I spent over $1000 just to apply to grad programs and have my scores sent. I was a TA and RA in a master’s program with a really high salary for my country and I made about $250 a month at that time. Yep, I spent 4 months’ salary on the applications… So any bit of information to narrow down the number of applications and focus myself on those places I would be likely to be admitted was important.

    To give you an idea how communication with professors help, in some departments I found out the only professor in my research area was retiring or moving someplace else… This information helped me to focus my applications (and save some $).

    I always had to file a formal application, there’s no way around that but a few universities waived the application fee to encourage me to apply (no, I did not ask for this, it was simply offered as a courtesy and I gladly took it).

    When I did get invited to interviews at these schools, it was wonderful to meet the professors i had corresponded with. I definitely felt it helped me to get the interviews and the positions.

    Now, I realise my approach was quite different than the letters you’re talking about here. I know, because I started to get these letters too! And I know my letters were not like the ones i am getting now… I would not recommend sending such e-mails. you have to do your homework, you can’t just spam professors and have a good outcome.

    But this is not a place to advise students. I have something to say to the professors though… I admire your care about these students ScienceWoman. A bit of attention from a professor is sometimes what a young scientist struggling to make it into a PhD program in America (or somewhere else with better resources) needs. I realise that with most of these letters, it’s waste of time for you to respond and keep communicating. But please realise, there are some future scientists among those letter writers… And if there is anything at all that communicates that potential, please be nice and encouraging. That might make all the difference in someone’s career.

    Also, sometimes, people in different cultures honestly don’t know how to do these (*cringe* I had a photo on my grad application CV! I did not know this was a no-no in America!!). Those things can be learned – the key questions are: does this person have potential for grad school/career in research? and have they done their work it takes? (researching professors you want to work with is part of the work!)

    I am not defending the really anonymous, mass e-mails. But just don’t lump all international correspondence as a waste of time and evaluate each person with as fresh a mind as you can..

    thanks everyone!

  20. #20 ceresina
    April 10, 2008

    Are the emails you & your colleague are getting from the same university, or maybe country? Or is it maybe that, while the international skiing research is active, snowmobiling is moreso? I don’t think you need to worry about skiing’s popularity, though; MU wouldn’t’ve hired you if they didn’t like the field.

  21. #22 gradgirl
    April 11, 2008

    The only reason why those letters are addressed, ‘Dear Professor’ or ‘Dear Sir’ and not ‘Dear Sciencewoman’ is that in many other countries, students don’t call their teachers/professors by their names (first or last). They either address them as Professor or Sir/Madam.
    And confusing Mr. and Ms.? Sure, they aren’t familiar with the names here, though they should have checked your website. Let’s say the website doesn’t carry a photo of you, then it could be hard for them to decide whether you are a ‘he’ or ‘she’. For instance, consider the name ‘Sathya Khan’ – he or she?

  22. #23 Gabriel
    April 11, 2008

    Some months ago I tried to apply to a couple grad programs offered by an european institution, in the humanities area though. They had a very nice website with lots of information, and both sub-fields said to include research about Opera, which was my main interest. BUT, when I contacted the proffesors in charge, one of them told me she had no idea of opera and couldn’t help me but that i could try to do research on my own. The other one told me they didn’t include Opera in their research areas, but i could fill in the application anyway. I chose to wait for other possibilities.

  23. #24 windy
    April 14, 2008

    Some months ago I tried to apply to a couple grad programs offered by an european institution, in the humanities area though. They had a very nice website with lots of information, and both sub-fields said to include research about Opera, which was my main interest. BUT, when I contacted the proffesors in charge, one of them told me she had no idea of opera and couldn’t help me but that i could try to do research on my own.

    A while back I was looking for information on a grad program too; they instructed applicants to go to the university website and contact the leader of a relevant group directly. Fine, but the research webpages of the institute of my interest were organised by animal species, with little information on who was currently working on what. I wondered if I should address my application: “Dear Snails and Butterflies; I would like to do some research on you…”

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