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Emailing Graduate Students

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Hey all, longtime lurker here intending to apply to grad programs. I've appreciated much of the advice on this forum, so I'm hoping someone can lend me some advice on emailing grad students. 

I personally know one grad student at a university in which I'm interested and have already reached out to that person. While this seemed normal given that I am already acquainted with that person, I feel more hesitant to cold email grad students at other universities whose programs I would really love more info on/insight into. So, this is all to ask: are most grad students open to cold emails like this? If so, are there any specific questions that you'd recommend asking? 

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I never cold e-mailed grad students.  I reached out to those on these forums (some of us do have telling info). I also asked my POIs about their graduate students.  Most will be happy to give names and offer introductions.  It's less awkward that way.  In my six years as a PhD student, I've never been cold e-mailed.

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I think this is acceptable, and actually good practice for graduate school, where you sometimes have to email academics you don’t know (potential outside committee members, big names you want to meet at a conference, journal editors). You want to be polite (perhaps even acknowledging the awkwardness of the situation), but treat them like a future colleague. I would also make sure to email a graduate student in your sub-field, who will generally be able to give the most helpful answers to any question, and explain why you reached out to them in particular. If I were on the receiving end of this, I would be happy to answer.

 I think you can ask about anything germane to the program, but I would not voice any concerns about it (especially not about individuals you might want to work with). Not only is this premature, but also better saved for conversations on a campus visit. I would also try to make sure your question is relatively straightforward and best answered by a graduate student.

Edited by AfricanusCrowther

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I'm in a different humanities field but I did cold e-mail a number of students and got several helpful responses in return. However,  I only did so after I was accepted. Grad students are generally willing to provide advice to applicants, but we are very busy, so that could diminish the likelihood or thoroughness of responses. I agree with @AfricanusCrowther that any more delicate topics should wait until an a campus visits.

At the application stage, I would say that your questions should probably be focused on two points: Is it worth spending the time and money to apply to this program? And, what can I do to maximize my chances of acceptance? I'm not sure graduate students will be too helpful on the latter point, although it's possible they could have some insight to the process at their program. They could however be useful on the first question is you have some make or break qualifications for programs (such as, is it possible to live reasonable comfortably on the stipend without taking out loans? Or, it seems like you're only person working on X, does the department provide adequate resources for doing that sort of research?). If you've already determined you'll apply to the program though, I'd probably wait until you're accepted to contact grad students.

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I’d say go for it—if I was cold emailed I’d be happy to respond (especially if the prospective applicant worked in my sub field). There’s definitely a difference, as others have said, between an applicant and an admitted student. The responses you’ll get from grad students will be a bit different. And, echoing everyone else—you’ll get the most helpful insights on the campus visit, where grad students can be more frank about their experiences.

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I never cold emailed graduate students but I did cold email some former graduate students who got TT jobs. But I'd say go for it as well.

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Email them!!! It never hurts, Some may not email you back right away but most students want to share their experience with others. Also you could ask them once you get accepted what an acceptable work load is. That is one thing I wish I would have done was reach out to graduate students before I enrolled in classes to ask what is doable in a semester

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Here’s the thing, I never cold emailed any graduate students either. I only cold emailed prospective advisors. Looking back now I probably still wouldn’t do it, but it was a personal preference. Honestly graduate students are more than happy to respond to your emails. I certainly would gladly answer any questions sent my way. Just know that every student has a different view on things depending on their respective fields and class level.

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I emailed a few grad students at POIs' recommendations and even spoke to a few over the phone. They were the most helpful conversations I had--who else can provide better info on your potential adviser, campus culture and funding opportunities? I can say that, as a grad student who remembers the stress of application season, I'd be happy to receive cold emails. 

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I have gotten cold emails, emails through here on gradcafe, and emails from people interested in working with my advisor. In theory, I don't mind them. Like most people, I wrote to a lot of grad students myself, including ones here on this forum, so I'm happy to repay the favor. But I would offer a few caveats/ pet peeves/ things I wish people would keep in mind:

1) It takes time to write back to applicants and admitted students. Speaking for myself, I'm happy to answer as many questions as you think I can help you answer— again, I remember what it was like, and these programs are often very opaque when viewed from the outside— but I have written many emails, answering four or five questions at a time, to students who never write back again. I'm not looking for effusive gratitude, that's not why I want to help, but some acknowledgement that you at least got the email is nice.

 2) This is more of an issue at the campus visit stage, but I have spoken to many a prospective student for whom my program is their "safety school," and they're not shy about saying so. Or they'll voice their concerns about the program in a way that essentially... shits on it, for lack of a better word. "I heard that your school is really bad for X, what do you think?" or "Well, I think Y just has such better funding but I'm deigning to pay your school a visit," type of comments. My school is also located in a pretty working-class town, and I've had people ask me things like like, "does Amazon deliver to this area?" (we are located smack in the middle of a major commuter line in one of the most densely populated states in the country, so yes, Amazon delivers here) and "I'm not sure the quality of life here is very good, what do you think?" (wellllll, I mean, I think my life is pretty okay) and so on. It's fine to ask questions and to voice concerns because that's what visit days are for. It's also fine to have schools you're more excited about than others. But leading or obviously negative questions like this are pretty difficult to respond to. 

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I've been cold-emailed by a number of prospective applicants, and I've been happy to email or talk with them.

Advice for cold-emailing:

  • Email one grad student in the department whose work seems most like yours.  Customize the message and say something about their work so that they can tell you looked them up specifically. Don't just spam a bunch of grad students.
  • Keep your initial request short and to-the-point. (For instance, you can say that you are trying to figure out whether your interests would be a good fit with the department, and you'd love to get their perspective.)  Avoid asking a million questions up front.
  • Offer to communicate however they want, on their schedule.  Some people might prefer a quick chat over Skype, while others want to write emails. Make it convenient for them. Be respectful of their time.

During the conversation:

  • If they feel well-disposed toward you, they might give you advice for how to strengthen your application.
  • You might glean departmental intel beyond what is available on the web site. Like maybe the professor you want to work with is about to retire. Or maybe there's a major new initiative which would be a perfect fit for your work.  You never know.
  • You can also get a sense of their enthusiasm level (or lack thereof) for their experience with the department overall.

Of the people I've chatted with in this way, one or two were a bit too pushy.  One person wanted to meet with professors, then have lunch with me and sit in on a class I was teaching.  I went along with it, but that level of request is really too demanding for an applicant who hasn't even been accepted yet. During our conversation, I got the sense that the person wasn't really what our department would be looking for, but that they were trying to get an "in" through these meetings. From my perspective it backfired, and sure enough, they were later rejected. 

I have had some positive experiences. Like one applicant was a great and friendly person in my field, so I'm glad we met even though they ended up getting rejected. Another applicant was a perfect fit for our department, and I gave some application advice. The person is now a student here!

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@gsc, all I can say is... unbelievable. Who do these people think they are???

To add: DO YOUR HOMEWORK.  Do read every page on the Department's website.  Do consult university student resources. Do some Google Mapping to see where things are and what's available in the area.

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On 10/28/2018 at 1:20 AM, TMP said:

@gsc, all I can say is... unbelievable. Who do these people think they are???

Right?! It’s so off putting. 

I’ve always gotten the impression that they think that, because they’ve been admitted to a private/Ivy/top 10 program, they come ahead of actual graduate students in ~less prestigious~ programs, and that entitles them to say or ask whatever they want. That or they figure we’re just grad students and not the faculty they’re trying to impress, so they can say whatever comes to mind and it will all be "off the record." (Word to the wise— when in doubt, it's on the record.)

 

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Not only did I e-mailed students when I was applying (some responded, some didn't), but I met one and because of this person I applied to the program I am now. 

This is my sixth year and I have received e-mails every year, increasingly in the last two. 

Ask the questions you want to ask. I remember someone asked how it was working with my advisor. I responded and then they responded, "Your response is consistent with the rest of the students". That was weird, I think. 

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I emailed two people and both got back to me really quickly! I only reached out if it was on the website that they had the advisor I was interested in and/or were doing a similar history to what I want to do. I just asked a couple questions about how they like it, what the faculty were like and kept it as short as I could. The best thing I got out of it was enthusiasm--I emailed one or two weeks before app deadlines, insanely stressed and tired, but hearing about their positive experiences gave me the final push to finish my SOPs. I wasn't really expecting an answer, but they were both really happy to have a chat with me, which was super nice!

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After POIs encouraged me to apply, I asked them to put me in touch with former/current grad students. In each case I was able to learn more about the program, the tone of the dept., the advisor's accessibility, funding, etc. Respect their time, but definitely reach out.

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On 10/30/2018 at 7:43 AM, gsc said:

Right?! It’s so off putting. 

I’ve always gotten the impression that they think that, because they’ve been admitted to a private/Ivy/top 10 program, they come ahead of actual graduate students in ~less prestigious~ programs, and that entitles them to say or ask whatever they want. That or they figure we’re just grad students and not the faculty they’re trying to impress, so they can say whatever comes to mind and it will all be "off the record." (Word to the wise— when in doubt, it's on the record.)

 

This is IMPORTANT advise. And I'll paraphrase it a little bit: 

When you enter a program, you enter an entire field and all its networks. If you visit a place or contact people from a place you don't think you will attend, rest assured you will cross paths again. This is a very, VERY small world. You never know who will be in grant committees or job searches, so be professionally kind. 

In this line, I think I mentioned this elsewhere and I adhere to it here: You begin you graduate career the moment you e-mail the first POI. E-mailing grad students and chatting with them in campus visits is the part of your job were you do networking. Let me provide some examples:

* I met a prospective student who was doing fieldwork where I lived. They eventually dropped out of the program but because of our connection I could recommend some companies where I worked. They got a once-in-a-lifetime job in one of these. 

* Through this previous person I got in touch with a ten-grad student working on a similar topic as I did. They are now helping me with job applications. 

* A POI in a program that accepted me but where I didn't go introduced me to another student working on similar themes as I did. When he got a tenure-track job, he invited me to present at conferences. We collaborate at least once a year. 

 

In conclusion: Be kind, be professional, be smart. 

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