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How to make a connection with a professor at desired school

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I was just wondering, what is the best way to go about making a connection with a professor at the graduate school to which you intend to apply? I'm in the sciences, if the research bent would help. Should I send an email asking about the program? Inquiring about the professor's own research? Asking how best to proceed on my own academic path? How can I make it seem nonchalant and not like I'm just trying to get into their good graces for admissions decisions? Thanks!

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Is there a way to tactfully see if the professor has actually received the email? Perhaps emailing/calling their secretary and asking them to pass along a message? Is that rude at all?

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Is there a way to tactfully see if the professor has actually received the email? Perhaps emailing/calling their secretary and asking them to pass along a message? Is that rude at all?

It's not rude but some might take it as nagging. You should wait a reasonable amount of time before following up on an email. If more than ~10 days have passed, forward your email again in case the prof lost the original version. Don't forget that profs may be out of the office during the semester break so it could take them a while to get back to you. I would only contact a secretary to ask if the prof was in and if I had their correct email address.

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I found the best way to get a professor to acknowledge your emails is not to send them generic emails. I know it takes a lot of time, but you should read some of their papers and ask them questions. Everyone loves talking about their work, and you can mention briefly in your email that you are considering applying to said school for graduate study.

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I find a good ice-breaker is something to the tune of, "Hello, Professor X. My name is (name) and I'm currently a (major) undergraduate at (my college). I'll be applying to (institution) next year, and wanted to ask if your lab is currently accepting graduate students: I read a few of your papers, namely (paper I was really interested in), and was wondering if the research in your lab is currently still proceeding in this direction. Thank you for your time, and I hope to hear from you soon."

Few caveats, though: read the paper(s), and make sure anything you ask isn't already covered on their faculty page (or on their lab page, which I've noticed is often separate from the "official" university website). I try and make the e-mail as short as possible, since I know their inbox is probably jam-packed with grad students just like us, and show genuine interest.

Like it was said above, don't stress if you don't get a response/get a late response. I'm not sure how much contacting professors really helps, since I've heard some people get really positive responses and then are rejected, and vice-versa. That being said, you can get some great resources if you hit on the right professor: I sent an e-mail to a professor in the vein above, and received a really warm response. He gave me the run-down on the research being done in the school in his department, let me know that he should have an opening, but--if not--there were three or four other professors doing similar research, along with names and interests. Finally, he told me to ask for him in the interview (if I'm interviewed, of course), and that if he was away, to call him.

Cast your net and see what happens! :)

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agree w/Serric.

Before emailing professors, I read their bios, abstracts on a bunch of papers and usually at least one paper and then I sent them an email introducing myself, saying what I was interested in and why I thought it would match what they were researching and then asked if they were accepting graduate students. Most wrote back, and a few asked if I'd like to chat on the phone. For the phone calls, I read 3-4 more papers and took good notes and had prepared questions.

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agree with above comments and add: try to refer to work that's current and not what the professor did 30 years ago in their dissertation. That way you're likelier to grab their attention.

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Thanks for the responses! They were very helpful! Just one more question pertaining to my specific situation: is sophomore year of undergrad too early to start contacting profs? (I'll be a soph this coming year) I would like to build as strong a connection as possible, and maybe even do summer work in a lab if they're interested. I have extensive research experience right now, so I'm not just some upstart undergraduate trying to worm my way in--but I don't want to start emailing if it'll just be a quick exchange, fizzle out, and they'll forget me by the time I get around to applying. Thanks!

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I really want to do this, but I can't possibly think of away of doing so that doesn't seem terribly awkward! Do professors get that all the time?

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Thanks for the responses! They were very helpful! Just one more question pertaining to my specific situation: is sophomore year of undergrad too early to start contacting profs? (I'll be a soph this coming year) I would like to build as strong a connection as possible, and maybe even do summer work in a lab if they're interested. I have extensive research experience right now, so I'm not just some upstart undergraduate trying to worm my way in--but I don't want to start emailing if it'll just be a quick exchange, fizzle out, and they'll forget me by the time I get around to applying. Thanks!

I think this is too early. Professors will be dealing with their current students, plus students who will be coming in for the next year. Also, by the time you are ready to apply, they may not still be at the school they're at now. Planning ahead is good, but I'd focus on strengthening connections with profs at your undergrad institution so that when it is time to apply, you'll have great refs.

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Thanks for the responses! They were very helpful! Just one more question pertaining to my specific situation: is sophomore year of undergrad too early to start contacting profs? (I'll be a soph this coming year) I would like to build as strong a connection as possible, and maybe even do summer work in a lab if they're interested.

It is WAY too early to be emailing about graduate school. If you want to work in someone's lab, look for NSF-REU programs, which are designed to give undergraduates research experience, and use one of those to get into the person's lab.

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