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approaching PoI - what am I actually asking for?

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So I've scoped a potential advisor and am ready to make contact. But in drafting the email, I kind of hit a wall: what do I really want from this person at this stage? What is appropriate?

Here's my if-I-could-have-whatever-I-wanted list:

1) to meet this person and see if we would even get along (I'm in the same city so a meeting is possible, practically speaking)

2) to suss out how interested they would be in my thesis topic

3) to learn more about the program, get a feel for it, what they think are the essentials to doing well, what are the danger zones/problems that crop up (the kind of stuff they never put on the website)

I'm not sure I can actually say that, but I expect that most PoIs kind of know that this is real purpose for pre-application contact. Or can I just say that? If not, what else would I say?

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Are you applying for MS or PhD? The questions are different, IMHO.

Myself, I send them a blurb on my background and ask whether they are taking on any new PhD students for fall 2013. If they aren't then really no point in further communications with them at this stage of the game (although they might be a good candidate for your dissertation/thesis committee). Some profs don't reply. Some email back with a "yes, I'm taking on one new student in fall 2013, your background looks like a good fit and I encourage you to apply". Some profs have just left it at that, some have included some detailed questions about my research interests/experience, some said we should talk on the phone, some have encouraged me to visit campus. If they want to talk more I keep the conversation going and at that time try to see how interested they are in my dissertation topic, ask specific questions about the PhD program at their university, etc. This is where you're trying to screen them for potential fit as an advisor.

If applying for a masters, their availability for new grad students is not so crucial, unless you're looking for full funding in exchange for an RA spot, in which case you need to verify that they are going to have an RA spot open (this usually more of an issue with PhD applications, many/most M.S. don't do funded RA's).

That's just my opinion, YMMV. Best of luck!

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Thanks iowaguy, you raised some good points.

It's for a master's, I'm pretty sure this person is taking students next year (or could direct me to other PoIs if they aren't), I'm not looking for an RA spot or funding, since I'll be doing the program part-time while working full-time, and I'll apply to the program either way (I doubt this PoI would actually tell me not to apply though).

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Since you are local, your initial email could just explain your research interests and ask to arrange a meeting on campus. All of your other questions can be brought up in person (which I think is less awkward than trying to write out what you want to know). And although I agree with iowaguy that your POI for a master's isn't quite as important as for a PhD, I think you should know what the program has to offer and if you feel like it's a good fit. And if a program accepts terminal master's students, then they should be open to meeting them.

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