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etiquette and expectations on contacting professors


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I've contacted a few professors and have a few questions. This is the last phase of my application and probably one of the most important. The answers I get might be of use to others so I want to ask it here in a new thread.

So far, I contacted 4 professors by sending targeted emails. I browsed through every professor in the department and finalized my choice to four. Many people have warned against spamming too many professors, and I think that's important. BTW, I'm applying for MS in ECE. 

I essentially asked for a meeting in my emails, and said I planned on visiting campus. 

I got 3 replies. One person asked me to email him in 2 weeks to schedule a meeting. Another said he is at sabbatical in Vietnam, and couldn't meet. Another said he doesn't have opening for next year. 

Question 1: How should I email back the latter two? Just a simple thanks or something that can keep possibilities open?

Question 2: Should I try to contact more professors? Someone told me I should try for a few more, even if their research is not exactly what I want, as long as it's "close". He said for MS, it's not too important that their research fit your interest exactly.

Question 3: Should I be happy with the result so far? I mean, I understand that contacting professors is a numbers game, but I have no idea what to expect.

Question 4: I was told by a student there that the professor who agreed to meet me just retired. He is a very distinguished professor. However, the student also said just because the professor retired, doesn't mean he can't help me or even be my adviser. 

Based on my situation, what are your suggestions and thoughts? Much appreciated it. Thanks

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1. Email back the professor on sabbatical and ask if there is a time he would prefer for you to follow up, after his sabbatical ends. Email the professor without an opening back now to say thank you.

2. Yes.

3. On average, 1/3 of the professors I emailed replied with encouraging words, 1/3 just said that they will talk to me after the admission decisions are made and 1/3 didn't reply at all.

4. Sometimes when people retire, they just disappear and won't be good advisors. Sometimes "retired" professors are still there full time and you wouldn't even know they are "retired". It's still worth meeting them, you won't know how much they will be around until you meet them and talk to them.

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Now, let' say I go down there to meet with this professor (or some other professors), what should I expect in the meeting? I obviously should bring documents about me and tell them about myself, skill, and goals. But will it be like a job interview? Specifically, should I expect them to "test" me on highly technical material? 

I just would like to know the best ways to prepare. Thanks

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In my experience, academic "interviews" like this are very informal. Think of it more like a conversation about yourself and expect them to also spend a lot of time telling you about their work. If they ask you direct questions about your knowledge, it wouldn't really be like an exam/test but more to find out/clarify what you do know. For example, in my field, for a visit by a potential applicant, they would never ask something like "Okay, derive the equation for hydrostatic equilibrium here for me" but instead they might just ask if you know how to do it. They will certainly ask you a lot of questions about your past experience though, so the best way to prepare, in my opinion is to make sure you are able to summarize all of your past achievements and your past research experience concisely. I would even think up a 30-second summary for each item you might want to talk about. Another good way to prepare is to be knowledgeable about their work so that you are able to understand their discussion and to ask interesting and appropriate questions.

This is not to say that you aren't going to be evaluated, but I don't think it will be an oral exam format. Through their conversation with you, they should learn a lot about how you interact with others, how you approach science/research and this will be your chance to tell the faculty about yourself and make a good impression (so that when they see your application later, they can remember you in a positive way).

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Thanks for the great advice.

Now, would they tell you at the end if they want you or will recommend you for admission? Should you ask for this?

BTW, only one professor replied to me so far and he just retired. He is a very distinguished professor and since he agreed to meet me in 3 weeks, I'm assuming he is still able to help me or be my adviser for my MS. Otherwise, why would he agree to meet me? Having said that, the application asks me to fill in any contacts I've made, and I'm allowed to write about it in my SOP. Since only one prof. agreed to meet me and I can't meet before the application is due, I'm guessing I should be more general in my SOP rather than specifically targeting him and his work. Or would it be better to put "all egg in one basket" to make a stronger SOP and pray I make a good impression when I see him?



Edited by paulwece
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They won't tell you if they will accept you because they are not the ones making the decision. Also, don't ask about this. The purpose of the interview/meeting is for the two of you to talk to each other and get to know one another, not for you to find out a decision and it's not for them to make a decision on the spot.

For your SOP, I'd keep it general. Just say that you are looking forward to meeting Prof X and the rest of the faculty when you visit on Y date (if they read it before your visit, maybe they will take time to meet with you; if they read it after your visit, then maybe this will remind them of you).

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