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L13

Choosing a recommendation letter writer.

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EDIT: Let me preface the wall of text below with the warning that this thread solicits advice. It only occurred to me after posting that laying out one's personal story in some detail and expecting people to opine on what one should do next is not common practice in this subforum. I'm sorry if this thread violates the history subforum's posting etiquette/wastes people's time/whatever. Maybe there's a better place for my question?

 

ANYWAY. On to the issue:

 

I'm a rising senior in college, I intend to apply to programs in history in the fall, and I'm looking for advice on whom to approach for a letter of recommendation.

 

I know most history programs in the US require three letters, and I think I've got the first two writers locked down. They're both professors who have known me since I was a freshman, and I've done well in their classes. I haven't asked either of them for a letter yet, but given that they have acted as mentors to me in different capacities, and have shown real interest in my academic development, I think/hope they will readily agree to write on my behalf--and may in fact be expecting me to ask. I'm waiting until the beginning of the year before I make the request because I want to do it in person. If I talk to them at the end of August, they will have a little over three months to write their letters, which I think is reasonable enough. (However, if any of you think I should email them right now, I'd be interested in hearing your reasoning. Be aware that one of these professors, while very dear to me, is not particularly good at answering her email over the summer, which is partly why I want to talk to her face to face.)

 

Now.

 

It is the third letter that's giving me trouble. I spent my junior year studying abroad, and as a result I'm not really a familiar face in my home department. While I developed some very rewarding academic relationships with instructors at the institution I was visiting last year, those people are all unsuitable letter writers for one reason or another. So I am left with very little choice for my third letter writer.

 

I have come up with two possible solutions: Ask one of the two history professors at my school with whom I've taken one class, or ask my senior thesis advisor.

 

Re. the first option, these are professors who have known me for one semester, and only in a very narrow context. I did well in both classes--in fact I think I did exceptionally well in one of them--but I did not really develop close personal relationships with the professors or talk to either of them about my personal and professional goals. Frankly, I don't know what either of them would be able to say about me.

 

Re. the second option, I have been in touch with a professor I'm interested in working with as a senior, and have procured his tentative agreement to advise my senior thesis. We don't know each other, but I'm excited about learning from him, and about my project more generally. I hope I'll be able to do some good work under his guidance, and make a good enough impression on him that he'll agree to write me a recommendation letter. I think this is a good choice in theory; at my college it's more or less assumed that if you're applying to grad school, your thesis advisor will be one of your letter writers. The problem for me is that I have no pre-existing relationship with my advisor and he'll need to see and evaluate my work for himself before agreeing to write me a letter. In other words, I fear if I wait until, say, November to ask for a letter I will leave him with insufficient time--but I cannot reasonably expect him to recommend me to grad schools any earlier.

 

As you can see, I'm in a bit of a pickle here. What should I do, o wise denizens of Grad Café? This recommendation letter business has got me beat.

Edited by L13

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Faculty don't take three months to write letters. If you insist on applying to grad school this year (and I really think you'd be better off waiting a year, both to have a year away from school, and because you're likely both to have a better sense of your interests and to do substantially better in the application process once you've actually done a really substantial research project like a senior thesis), you should explain the situation to your thesis advisor early in the year, but not expect him to write the letter until shortly before the applications are due. If, once November rolls around, he isn't willing to write you a letter, you have bigger problems with your grad school candidacy than being a letter short, because that's only likely to happen if your thesis work is going poorly, and would at that point almost certainly have to delay your candidacy by a year.

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If I was you, I would ask your thesis advisor if he would be willing to write you a rec based on the next few months of work, offer to show him some papers written in other courses, and hope he says yes. But I have to agree with pudewen that a year off or even an MA would do you a lot of good in the application process and, more generally, as an historian.

I remember when I finished up my BA at a large state school. I knew very few of the faculty well enough for them to write me a strong recommendation. I did not know the historiography of my area and period of focus well -- heck, I didn't even know what my focus would be. I ended up taking a year off and working while staying connected to history by reading A TON, then started an MA program. Now I have upwards of four professors willing to write me strong recs (they know me super well because, by nature, MA programs are smallish), my focus is...well...focused, and I have several solid, primary source based research papers that could be writing samples. Besides all that, I've done graduate-level work (which in this day and age of intense admissions competition goes a long way). I'm not saying you need to follow my path, but I know for sure I would not have been able to do a PhD out of my undergrad. It helped me a lot to get some perspective on my year off, and really become more sophisticated in my studies during my MA--and POIs I've spoken to agree.

Anywho, this is my 2 cents. I don't see anything wrong with you applying this time around, but maybe include some MA apps just in case. Nothing wrong with having contingency plans!

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Thanks to both of you for your advice! It's very helpful.

 

Both of you seem to think there's nothing wrong with approaching my advisor with a preliminary request that he'll fulfill based on my thesis work if he deems it good enough. That's great to hear, since this is the approach I was hoping to take, but I was afraid it would be seen as pushy or rude. I have to say I find it very difficult to approach professors with recommendation requests, personally, so I am always second-guessing my conduct and wondering if I'm being too forward. It's reassuring to hear the approach I need to take here is not considered impolite.

 

I also understand your misgivings about applying to graduate school as a senior in college, and share them to an extent. That being said, applying as a senior is a relatively common practice at my college, so there is a support network in place, and I've already familiarized myself with the main historiographical currents in my field of study and narrowed down my interests a lot. These things happened last year, which I spent studying history and languages exclusively (a treat given my college's broad distribution requirements).

 

ashiepoo72, I will also be applying to master's programs! In fact three of the first five choices on my current list are master's programs. I'm originally from Europe and would like to return there for grad school, but going straight for the doctorate is practically impossible in most European countries. I will, however, be applying to some PhD programs in America as well. I don't have a strong preference between the two, really.

 

Also, in response to your remark about knowing one's professors well, I'd like to just clarify that I attend a small liberal arts college and have gotten very well acquainted with several professors here. It's just that some of them do not teach history. To be honest, I don't mesh very well with the history department as a whole, in terms of areas of interest and faculty dynamics, and have so far stuck to a small number of history profs whom I like, rather than making sure everyone in the department knows me and can speak to my ability as a student. Spending an entire year away from campus did not help either. I don't regret the choices I've made on the whole, but in times like this they are limiting.

 

Anyway. Thanks again for the advice to both of you! I do realize applying next year is going to be difficult, and to be honest am having a lot of anxiety about it. The points you brought up are well taken.

Edited by L13

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Why not ask for advice from one of the two faculty members who you think would be very willing to write you a letter.  They know much better the politics and personalities of your department than anyone on this forum.  This is my number 1 suggestion.

 

Re: other people's unsolicited advice that you wait a year to apply.  I don't see what it could hurt to throw in a few applications this year.  Just don't beat yourself up if you don't get in the first time.  That is what happened to me, and I learned a lot that helped me with my apps the second time around that I wouldn't have necessarily known otherwise.

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It's apparent that you're being thoughtful about this process. I think all we can do is talk from our experiences and hope they give you some ideas. You know your department, professors and self better than any of us do. I apologize for coming on so strong about the year off or MA, particularly since it really was unsolicited advice. I was very alone when I applied to MAs and had to hope I did things "right," so my advice comes from a place of good intentions--and, as we history majors know, everyone is influenced by their unique context.

I think you're just fine. Talking to your profs (as riotbeard suggested) sounds like a great first step. They can be a huge asset.

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It's apparent that you're being thoughtful about this process. I think all we can do is talk from our experiences and hope they give you some ideas. You know your department, professors and self better than any of us do. I apologize for coming on so strong about the year off or MA, particularly since it really was unsolicited advice. I was very alone when I applied to MAs and had to hope I did things "right," so my advice comes from a place of good intentions--and, as we history majors know, everyone is influenced by their unique context.

I think you're just fine. Talking to your profs (as riotbeard suggested) sounds like a great first step. They can be a huge asset.

 

Sorry for jumping on you a bit :)

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More unsolicited advice here but you may consider applying to MA programs too. Not that it's easy to get in but it is easier than getting in to a PhD program. You might also find that having two strong letters and one positive but not very insightful about your strengths letter could be enough to enter an MA program while two strong letters and one weak one may not be enough for a PhD. There's no negative outcome of earning an MA, it may actually help you enter a PhD program. Sorry if I sound like a commercial for master programs.

As to who to ask about your third letter, I would consider your thesis advisor. I assume you aren't going to apply until a few months into the fall semester. Your thesis advisor will know you better by then. Grad programs are super concerned with your ability to research. Asking a professor that you took courses with but didnt do any serious research will probably get you a positive letter but nothing that will "wow" an admissions committee

Edited by DCguy

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I'd urge you to delay your application season for one year. On the one hand, a professor who has only taught you once isn't going to write you a great recommendation. On the other hand, while it is quite common (expected, even) for a thesis advisor to be a letter-writer, you haven't really worked with him yet, and he's unlikely to be qualified to speak to your potential. For this specific reason, I found my thesis advisor and began work on my thesis a year early.

 

In addition, a solid thesis makes for a good writing sample, so that extra year may also pay off in that regard.

 

Finally, your remark about asking for letters in person is spot-on. I went to a public university struggling with overcrowding, and learned that even the most devoted instructors occasionally fail to respond. As a direct consequence, I always sought housing within 5 minutes' driving or 15 minutes' walking of campus, and, unless a particular faculty was off-campus for the academic term, always (and I mean always) dropped by office hours instead of sending e-mails.

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Wow, more opinions! Thanks to everyone who's responded.

 

Riotbeard, I did actually seek out the advice of my professors after starting this thread; I was in a momentary state of panic when I made it, and wanted to canvass the widest possible range of opinion, but I know the value of talking to your own professors.

 

I haven't made formal recommendation requests yet because, like thedig13, I think these things should happen in person unless it's absolutely necessary to make arrangements remotely. However, I have been in contact with my prospective advisor and he's been incredibly forthcoming with grad school advice. He's also talked about helping me work on my application and mentioned being one of the faculty members I would depend on during the process, which leads me to believe it won't be too difficult to get him to agree to the proposal made in this thread. He is in fact spending the summer and part of next year at one of the universities I intend to apply to, and has extensive connections at another, which I was not aware of originally; he mentioned it in his emails. All in all, his openness to helping me has reassured me, and I think my original question--how am I going to find a third recommendation letter--has been answered.

 

DCguy, as I said, I will be applying to some master's programs. I will also, however, be applying to PhD programs. We'll see what, if anything, comes of it.

 

thedig13, I would have liked to start work on my thesis early, but my school does not allow that. Nevertheless, as I said, my prospective advisor brought up graduate school and mentorship without my prompting, which frankly bowled me over. I have a really good feeling about our working relationship, which I hope will translate to a good thesis project. Ideally, I'll have enough of it done to pull together a writing sample that demonstrates the current level of my work, but if not, another one of my letter writers has agreed to help me work on a writing sample with him, and I have some essays I'm not too ashamed of. I hope I'll have something to show for my time in college even if I'm not done with my thesis by the time I apply.

 

Thanks again, y'all!

Edited by L13

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Sorry to resurrect my own thread like this, but I now have another question (!) about sending emails and I figured it would be less annoying to put it in this thread than to start a new one.

 

What's the consensus on contacting POIs in advance? I'd like to email a professor I'm interested in working with and ask him if he's planning on taking on new students and if my interests match up with his current ones. Is this considered inappropriate in history? I know it's the norm in some other disciplines.

Edited by L13

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Sorry to resurrect my own thread like this, but I now have another question (!) about sending emails and I figured it would be less annoying to put it in this thread than to start a new one.

What's the consensus on contacting POIs in advance? I'd like to email a professor I'm interested in working with and ask him if he's planning on taking on new students and if my interests match up with his current ones. Is this considered inappropriate in history? I know it's the norm in some other disciplines.

That's more or less how I did it, and my POIs seemed rather receptive to me. Many even offered to schedule a phone-conversation with me to chat.

Be sure to mention to your POIs what your interests are, and (in case it's not obvious) how you see your interests aligning with theirs.

Edited by thedig13

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Sorry to resurrect my own thread like this, but I now have another question (!) about sending emails and I figured it would be less annoying to put it in this thread than to start a new one.

 

What's the consensus on contacting POIs in advance? I'd like to email a professor I'm interested in working with and ask him if he's planning on taking on new students and if my interests match up with his current ones. Is this considered inappropriate in history? I know it's the norm in some other disciplines.

 

I'd just like to mention that although contacting POIs in advance can be done, and may even prove beneficial, it is far from necessary. I didn't contact any POIs at any of my schools because I felt that my application spoke for itself. Unless you have something significant to say to the POI, I wouldn't contact them - their inbox is full enough as it is. If you have nothing to say beyond "I'd love to work with you, here are my interests, don't you think it could be a great match?" then I advise you not to write at all. They get dozens of emails like this, and an email like that isn't going to stand out.

 

Most professors post on their website whether they are going on sabbatical next term/year, and you can often even see how many grad students they are currently mentoring, so usually it isn't necessary to contact them about that. By all means, feel free to contact them, but if you do, make sure that you say something interesting and significant, otherwise that email will just get lost in a sea of others and may even make you come off as trite and/or a bit of a suck-up. 

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I'd just like to mention that although contacting POIs in advance can be done, and may even prove beneficial, it is far from necessary. I didn't contact any POIs at any of my schools because I felt that my application spoke for itself. Unless you have something significant to say to the POI, I wouldn't contact them - their inbox is full enough as it is. If you have nothing to say beyond "I'd love to work with you, here are my interests, don't you think it could be a great match?" then I advise you not to write at all. They get dozens of emails like this, and an email like that isn't going to stand out.

 

Most professors post on their website whether they are going on sabbatical next term/year, and you can often even see how many grad students they are currently mentoring, so usually it isn't necessary to contact them about that. By all means, feel free to contact them, but if you do, make sure that you say something interesting and significant, otherwise that email will just get lost in a sea of others and may even make you come off as trite and/or a bit of a suck-up. 

 

Ha, thanks! That's the response I was afraid of when I asked my question. I really wanted to write to a professor I'm interested in working with because his books practically shaped my research interests and I wanted to know if he was still advising people on topics he'd covered a long time ago.

 

Maybe I shouldn't have contacted him since I didn't *really* have anything new or insightful to say to him, and only meant to express my admiration and ask a slightly redundant question, but I did, and he responded very generously, by answering my question and many more besides, talking about his department, giving me a long list of colleagues who work in similar fields, talking to me about the difficulty of the admission process, giving me some general advice, and implying he'd have more to say to me later.

 

I'm sure he did that because he's a decent person, which accounts for the fact he responded at all, and he's used to being contacted by people like me, so he more or less has this spiel memorized, but I still felt overwhelmed by the helpfulness of his response. I genuinely hope I didn't impose on him, but I can't say I regret contacting him.

 

I will definitely be more cautious about contacting other professors, though, especially ones whose work I'm not as familiar with.

 

Thanks to both of you for weighing in!

Edited by L13

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Ha, thanks! That's the response I was afraid of when I asked my question. I really wanted to write to a professor I'm interested in working with because his books practically shaped my research interests and I wanted to know if he was still advising people on topics he'd covered a long time ago.

 

Maybe I shouldn't have contacted him since I didn't *really* have anything new or insightful to say to him, and only meant to express my admiration and ask a slightly redundant question, but I did, and he responded very generously, by answering my question and many more besides, talking about his department, giving me a long list of colleagues who work in similar fields, talking to me about the difficulty of the admission process, giving me some general advice, and implying he'd have more to say to me later.

 

I'm sure he did that because he's a decent person, which accounts for the fact he responded at all, and he's used to being contacted by people like me, so he more or less has this spiel memorized, but I still felt overwhelmed by the helpfulness of his response. I genuinely hope I didn't impose on him, but I can't say I regret contacting him.

 

I will definitely be more cautious about contacting other professors, though, especially ones whose work I'm not as familiar with.

 

Thanks to both of you for weighing in!

 

I do want to note that what maelia8 said isn't entirely true.  Most of the time it is a better thing to contact the POI before applying to make sure they are accepting students for your admission year.  You don't want to spend the time applying to a school if they aren't actually accepting students, and it also lightens the admission committee's load a lot if you don't apply when the professor isn't accepting anyone.  I have NEVER had a professor, or anyone for that matter, say that it is bad to contact a POI before you apply.  It is usually suggested that you do contact them ASAP.  Every professor that I have contacted has been open and receptive to me.  Maybe it's different in anthropology and I haven't written any history professors yet since I'm not sure if I want to get my MA in history first, but this is just from my experience so far.

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@bioarch_fan at the institution I am attending, the history department website specifically advises applicants NOT to contact professors just to introduce yourself before applying because the volume of emails they receive makes this a burden rather than a help. Perhaps it's different at smaller schools that receive less applications, but I think at most departments receiving over 400 applications per year, writing in to the professors is unnecessary and may even be considered an annoyance. In order to ascertain which professors were going to be absent/who isn't capable of taking on new students, one can also appeal to the department secretary, who keeps abreast of developments like this. I'm not saying that it's bad to contact a POI in this situation, but I do recommend thinking twice about it unless you have something specific and significant to ask, and I also advise checking the department website to see if contacting a POI is encouraged.

Edited by maelia8

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^^ I agree with maelia8 that there's no need to contact a POI just to say 'Hi, I'm John Doe, I want to work with you" because (especially at the top tier schools) professors get approximately a billion emails like that. But I think it's good to email professors you are seriously considering as potential advisors to ask if they will be accepting students and if you have specific questions for them (not stuff you could easily find on the department website), which it sounds like you did (re: whether he's willing to advise on something he covered awhile ago). The point is to make your emails have a purpose--everyone gets ticked off when their time gets wasted.

 

What you may want to do is get in contact with grad students at the programs you're looking at--I've spoken to a few people working with scholars I'm interested in and their insight has been invaluable.

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I'd just like to mention that although contacting POIs in advance can be done, and may even prove beneficial, it is far from necessary. I didn't contact any POIs at any of my schools because I felt that my application spoke for itself. Unless you have something significant to say to the POI, I wouldn't contact them - their inbox is full enough as it is. If you have nothing to say beyond "I'd love to work with you, here are my interests, don't you think it could be a great match?" then I advise you not to write at all. They get dozens of emails like this, and an email like that isn't going to stand out.

 

Most professors post on their website whether they are going on sabbatical next term/year, and you can often even see how many grad students they are currently mentoring, so usually it isn't necessary to contact them about that. By all means, feel free to contact them, but if you do, make sure that you say something interesting and significant, otherwise that email will just get lost in a sea of others and may even make you come off as trite and/or a bit of a suck-up. 

 

I am sorry, but based on my experience I would say this is poor advice. If I had not contacted any POIs I would have ended up applying to at least 4-5 programs where the people I wanted to work with turned out not to be accepting students because they were close to retirement, and one program where the exchange with the POI was so awkward I decided not apply... I later found out I dodged a HUGE bullet there. At the same time, I would not have applied to the program I am in now because I didn't think it was a match based on the website... turns out it really was. 

 

The websites, furthermore, tend to be out of date, and they rarely list who is working with whom. You wouldn't know what project a prof might be working on next, for example, because profs often forget or don't care to update their profiles. 

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I have to say the professor I contacted gave me advice similar to CageFree's post above, and moreover made the surprising (for me) point that if a POI won't make time for you as a prospective student, he/she isn't likely to be much more attentive as an advisor.

Edited by L13

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I am sorry, but based on my experience I would say this is poor advice. If I had not contacted any POIs I would have ended up applying to at least 4-5 programs where the people I wanted to work with turned out not to be accepting students because they were close to retirement, and one program where the exchange with the POI was so awkward I decided not apply... I later found out I dodged a HUGE bullet there. 

 

@CageFree, for the benefit of those who are new to this BB, could you please share your thoughts on to what extent did your background as a "non traditional" student gave you the experience to assess the awkwardness of the exchanges with that POI?

Edited by Sigaba

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@CageFree, for the benefit of those who are new to this BB, could you please share your thoughts on to what extent did your background as a "non traditional" student gave you the experience to assess the awkwardness of the exchanges with that POI?

 

I don't think it had anything to do with my background. When I said 'experience" I meant what happened during my application season. The professor sent me an email back using another student's name AND information, and said she didn't really take students because she "traveled back to ____" (country of research) every year and "didn't have the time" to do that. It was like she was actively trying to discourage me from applying. 

 

I later found out that this particular professor has NEVER had a graduate student because she doesn't like to mentor. So... it would have been a wasted application. Had I been admitted, it would have been awkward...  I would have expected to work with her only to find myself passed around to other people. So... I'm very glad I emailed... that saved me $90.

Edited by CageFree

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If I had not contacted any POIs I would have ended up applying to at least 4-5 programs where the people I wanted to work with turned out not to be accepting students because they were close to retirement.

 

I would like to second this particular tidbit: several professors I was quite interested in working with notified me of their forthcoming retirements, and it helped me narrow down the schools I was applying to, as well as refine my SOPs (i.e.: which POIs to mention) for the schools I did apply to.

 

To re-iterate: None of this would have been possible if I had not sent out e-mails to my POIs.

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To respond to CageFree and thedig13  (as well as the OP) and clarify, I am not attempting to say that you shouldn't contact POIs, and I freely admit that doing so could prove to be beneficial. However, I stand by my statement that contacting a POI is not necessary in order to be admitted (i.e. you shouldn't feel that it's a mandatory part of the application process), and both at the institution I'll be attending and two more that I applied to, the history department website specifically indicated that potential students should not email professors due to the high volume of emails they receive and should instead address themselves to the grad secretary if they have any questions about who is going on sabbatical or retiring. I can only speak from my experience as someone who didn't send any emails to POIs and was still admitted to institutions that offered viable POI matches for me (which I was able to confirm at visit day). TL;DR: by all means, go ahead and contact a POI if you believe it's necessary and fitting in your particular situation, but don't just do it for the sake of doing it if you have nothing important to ask or say (especially if the department website specifically advises against it). 

Edited by maelia8

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It's quite likely that people email POIs about things that are better directed to administrators... deadlines, where to send transcripts, etc.., so I totally get that and it seems to me that the websites are trying to discourage such emails. But trying to suss out whether an adviser might be a good match intellectually, or whether they plan to be around are perfectly legitimate reasons to contact them. Is it mandatory? No, of course not, and it also is unlikely to influence an admission. If you're writing to gush about a POI in the hopes of getting in, that's a terrible idea.

 

Also, admins are not all-knowing. They don't always know, for example, whether a prof plans on being gone for a while... if someone is planning to be super busy with a book and has to travel abroad in the next two-three years (right as you're defining your dissertation), the person who processes papers will NOT know that.

Edited by CageFree

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@CageFree to be honest, I just worry that a lot of applicants are getting the message that they MUST contact a POI in order to be considered legitimate/prove that they are serious - several people I know just sent a form email to all potential POIs that contained exactly that sort of gushy prof-worship mixed in with a bit of self-promotion that you want to avoid because, as you say, it's a terrible idea.

 

Nobody should be putting themselves under pressure to write some clever email to potential POIs that shows off their rapier wit and sets them apart from the crowd, only to be crestfallen when they realize that the POI has received a hundred similar emails that all say something along the lines of "I'd love to work with you." As long as people are writing emails with actual pertinent questions specifically related to the POI (gush-free), then I'm all for it ;)

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