samman1994

How to email a lab you want to join

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Hello everyone,

So I officially have a list of professors at 6 different schools that I would be applying to for my PhD. Now I'm in the process of emailing them to see if they have room, are accepting students, and have available funding. My question is though, how do you proceed about doing this? Do you just email them "Hi Dr. Blank, I am interested in joining your lab for a PhD program this date, are you accepting students?" Or is it more involved? The lab I am looking at are all things I have done before in my previous lab, so I'm pretty sure I would already be a very good fit for the labs I am looking at. Furthermore, my application is not very strong, so I would like to convince these POIs that they want me in their lab, and that I would be a great addition to the school and their lab (so that they could personally push my application further). That being said, I have no idea how to go about this. There are a couple issues that I have that I was hoping you guys could help me out with. 

1) I have a minimum of 3 POIs from each school, and I would theoretically ask them all at the same time if they have room or not in their lab (within the same school). However, if I am also trying to convince the POI that I would be a good fit in their lab, I don't want to basically email all 3 of them and go on about how great their lab is, and what i like about it and why I really want to join. The reason for this is, say all of them do have room, and say they'd love to take me on (after I go on about how amazing their lab is). Say I do get accepted in the school, and now there are 3 professors waiting for me to join their lab. If I pick one over the other, I feel as if it'll look bad (i.e. wait you told me my lab was the best and exactly what you were looking for, why did you join theirs then?). Or on the off chance they have a discussion (before I apply) and find out I told all 3 of them basically the same story (e.g. your lab is the best), in which case then I look fake, and none of them will want to take me on. Should I only ask 2 if they have room and that I'd like to join their lab, but try and sell myself to the 3rd one? Should I not even contact the other professors if my ideal one says they have room? I don't really know how to go about this, so any help would be appreciated. 

2) How do I start? What do I say? Again, I'd like to see if the lab has room, and I'd also like to sell myself a bit. That being said, I feel like it would be rushing if I started out immediatly saying, Hi Dr. blank, my name is blank, and this is why I would be a good fit in your lab etc etc etc. I'd imagine you'd probably email and just say you have an interest in their lab and wanted to see if they had room and were accepting students, and if they agreed, then maybe go on and sell yourself? So 1st email is icebreaker intent to join, 2nd email is selling yourself? Again, I really don't know how to go about even contacting them, so any help here would be appreciated. 

My main concern is, this field is relatively small, and most of the faculty know each other across the country (that do similar research). This field is also where I plan to do my career in, so I really don't want to burn any bridges or give bad impressions. Thank you again as always!

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Honestly, only some of this needs to be done before you apply. 

You don't need to know all of the faculty are taking students/have funding when you apply, just before you accept an offer. 

And if you take out those parts, it's easier to contact faculty without "over-selling" you wanting to join just their lab. 

Then you can send a more general email as a student who will be applying, and is reading out to faculty who they have particular interest in. 

My personal advice is... Don't contact someone unless you have specific and relevant questions to ask them.

Ask about possible directions for their work- something like "I'm really interested in the work you did in X paper 2 years ago, and was wondering if you have plans to pursue Y direction?"

You can include some things about yourself and your background as you ask these questions, which comes across less pushy than an overt "sell". 

If you can get a conversation started, you have more opportunities to sell yourself down the road. 

Keep the first email short and make it have a specific point. 

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2 hours ago, Eigen said:

Honestly, only some of this needs to be done before you apply. 

You don't need to know all of the faculty are taking students/have funding when you apply, just before you accept an offer. 

And if you take out those parts, it's easier to contact faculty without "over-selling" you wanting to join just their lab. 

Then you can send a more general email as a student who will be applying, and is reading out to faculty who they have particular interest in. 

My personal advice is... Don't contact someone unless you have specific and relevant questions to ask them.

Ask about possible directions for their work- something like "I'm really interested in the work you did in X paper 2 years ago, and was wondering if you have plans to pursue Y direction?"

You can include some things about yourself and your background as you ask these questions, which comes across less pushy than an overt "sell". 

If you can get a conversation started, you have more opportunities to sell yourself down the road. 

Keep the first email short and make it have a specific point. 

Well my first email would be to state my intent (I'd like to apply for said program and would like to join their lab), and ask basically if they are accepting students next year, short and simple. From there, I guess I could send a second email discussing which part of their project I am interested in, discuss how it relates to prior experience, and hopefully try and demonstrate (rather than outright tell) that I'd be a good fit. 

So you'd advise don't message the other professors unless I've gotten accepted into the school, or the professor I want is not accepting students? I haven't quite picked one professor (from my list of 3) at each school, I assumed I'd first email them and see which one is accepting students, and narrow it down from there. I.e. if 2 of the professors aren't even accepting students, then by default I know which professor I'd pick to go after. 

 

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My point was that you don't need to know if they're accepting students before you apply. That's the whole point in picking schools with multiple potential PIs. 

I can't see what you gain by asking them that now, and think you'd be better off introducing yourself, saying you're applying, and asking an insightful question about their work. 

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10 minutes ago, Eigen said:

My point was that you don't need to know if they're accepting students before you apply. That's the whole point in picking schools with multiple potential PIs. 

I can't see what you gain by asking them that now, and think you'd be better off introducing yourself, saying you're applying, and asking an insightful question about their work. 

My reason for picking multiple PIs is if one of them screws me over (says they have room but doesn't, or their grant gets rejected), or something like that, I have a back up plan. If none of the POIs are even accepting students I wouldn't waste my money applying to the school. But I see what you're saying. A follow up question then, say we have a discussion about the research, I find it very interesting, and I state my position, my interest, my background etc. Would it be improper if I asked them if I they thought I would be a good fit to their lab? Or whether they would take me? Basically asking the "are they accepting students" question, but indirectly. Again, my whole point to reaching out would simply be: 1) that I would want to get to know them and their research a bit better, 2) so that they can know me and where I come from (so that they can hopefully become interested in acquiring me, thus giving my application a little weight), and 3) To know whether they have room/funding for me. I don't wish to waste my time going after a school or pursuing a PI that can't even take me on, even if they wanted to. 

Regardless, I understand your point of coming across more as a conversation about their research and my interests, rather than an inquiry about applying to the school and their lab. Thank you by the way! 

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I just emailed a potential PI today. Since they are in Comm and I come from an Anth background, I mentioned a little bit about my background (like, two sentences or so) and then spent a few sentences on the topic I wish to pursue. I found out about this PI's recent research through a friend in the program and mentioned this as well as how I would like to incorporate this research into my project. Then I asked a few questions (will my anth background be a hindrance when applying here, suggestions for reducing the gap in knowledge before attending the program, etc). Probably a longer email than you want to send if you are within the same field or talking about already published research, but I think it suited my needs fairly well. 

We'll see if they respond, haha.

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The PI i emailed replied me to ask about the courses detail i did in my BSc and MSc, after emaling him all the detail ....he replied back as Dear, I encourage you to apply till the end of the year, nothing else???

i don't know what this mean......he has not told me any thing regarding he have any opportunities in his lab??

Should i email him back asking will he take me to his lab or accept me as a grad student??

need opinions...thanks :)

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3 hours ago, AD said:

The PI i emailed replied me to ask about the courses detail i did in my BSc and MSc, after emaling him all the detail ....he replied back as Dear, I encourage you to apply till the end of the year, nothing else???

i don't know what this mean......he has not told me any thing regarding he have any opportunities in his lab??

Should i email him back asking will he take me to his lab or accept me as a grad student??

need opinions...thanks :)

It is somewhere between rare and not appropriate for a professor to tell you they would accept you as a grad student before you've applied to the program. 

It's one of the reasons I discourage people from directly asking this question- you almost never get a good response, and you put pressure on someone to sidestep the application system at the same time. 

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Also, a response like,

"Dear X, I encourage you to apply to our program at the end of the year"

basically means nothing if you didn't already know the person ahead of time. It's just a standard polite response that professors use. I would just follow up with another polite response: "Thank you, Prof Y, I will be submitting my application this year." or you can just ignore the email.

 

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On ‎9‎/‎3‎/‎2017 at 10:33 PM, samman1994 said:

Well my first email would be to state my intent (I'd like to apply for said program and would like to join their lab), and ask basically if they are accepting students next year, short and simple. From there, I guess I could send a second email discussing which part of their project I am interested in, discuss how it relates to prior experience, and hopefully try and demonstrate (rather than outright tell) that I'd be a good fit. 

So you'd advise don't message the other professors unless I've gotten accepted into the school, or the professor I want is not accepting students? I haven't quite picked one professor (from my list of 3) at each school, I assumed I'd first email them and see which one is accepting students, and narrow it down from there. I.e. if 2 of the professors aren't even accepting students, then by default I know which professor I'd pick to go after. 

 

I am going to 110% back up what Eigen had to say on this post regarding what you would actually have to gain from this.

Here is an anecdote, take from it what you will. My number one choice in professor at my current university is amazing. Incredible research, extremely personable, hard-working, you name it. I emailed the prof in April, when I was having trouble deciding between schools, asking if she had any spots available for rotations/permanent placement and she responded with a whole-hearted yes. I accepted my offer at the school and was extremely excited to have the opportunity to work with her.

Something that was not mentioned in the emails (it wasn't something I thought to ask, and not something she was obligated in any way to bring up) is that I was most certainly not the only person interested in working with her, in fact, she is one of the most popular professors at my university. It is a borderline bloodbath to get a rotation in her lab. I did manage to secure a rotation, but she has at least 6 students rotating with her and only one spot for a permanent student (unless she gets more funding and can afford to take more than one).

The moral of the story: just because emails go well early on does not mean that things will not change.

On ‎9‎/‎3‎/‎2017 at 6:51 PM, samman1994 said:

The lab I am looking at are all things I have done before in my previous lab, so I'm pretty sure I would already be a very good fit for the labs I am looking at. Furthermore, my application is not very strong, so I would like to convince these POIs that they want me in their lab, and that I would be a great addition to the school and their lab (so that they could personally push my application further).

I have a minimum of 3 POIs from each school, and I would theoretically ask them all at the same time if they have room or not in their lab (within the same school). However, if I am also trying to convince the POI that I would be a good fit in their lab, I don't want to basically email all 3 of them and go on about how great their lab is, and what i like about it and why I really want to join. The reason for this is, say all of them do have room, and say they'd love to take me on (after I go on about how amazing their lab is). Say I do get accepted in the school, and now there are 3 professors waiting for me to join their lab. If I pick one over the other, I feel as if it'll look bad (i.e. wait you told me my lab was the best and exactly what you were looking for, why did you join theirs then?). Or on the off chance they have a discussion (before I apply) and find out I told all 3 of them basically the same story (e.g. your lab is the best), in which case then I look fake, and none of them will want to take me on. Should I only ask 2 if they have room and that I'd like to join their lab, but try and sell myself to the 3rd one? Should I not even contact the other professors if my ideal one says they have room? I don't really know how to go about this, so any help would be appreciated. 

 

1) Research fit is not everything in a mentoring relationship. PhDs are about learning, and focusing on labs that use techniques you already have experience with won't get you very far.  IMO, one of the most important things you can get out of your PhD is a good mentor. And what someone looks like on paper/grant sources/resources/email exchange, etc., might not be what you need in a mentor for your PhD. Many things play into how a lab functions- other lab personnel (are there a lot of other graduate students? how many post docs? what about research assistants and lab technicians?), your PIs relationship with the lab (Is he/she a micromanager, or so hands-off they don't even know you exist, or somewhere in the middle?), the lab's relationship with your program, etc. You've done research before; you know there is zero way to get a feel for it based off of emails. And although we'd like to pretend that the research is all that matters, the wrong work environment can destroy you.

2) Also, don't take this the wrong way, but professors aren't going to get super attached to you based on a few emails and/or an interview. I know I really struggled with that when I was rejecting the other schools I got into. Are you applying to programs that require you to have direct PI support from day 1, or are you applying to schools that require research rotations? If you do rotations, that brings me back to point #1 where mentorship > research fit.

If you want my input for how I ended up at the school I did, or anything else regarding this insane process, feel free to PM me.

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On 9/5/2017 at 7:39 PM, Eigen said:

It is somewhere between rare and not appropriate for a professor to tell you they would accept you as a grad student before you've applied to the program. 

It's one of the reasons I discourage people from directly asking this question- you almost never get a good response, and you put pressure on someone to sidestep the application system at the same time. 

 

Yeah!! but at the time of interview, they ask us have you identified and talked to your potential supervisor????....

On 9/5/2017 at 9:33 PM, TakeruK said:

Also, a response like,

"Dear X, I encourage you to apply to our program at the end of the year"

basically means nothing if you didn't already know the person ahead of time. It's just a standard polite response that professors use. I would just follow up with another polite response: "Thank you, Prof Y, I will be submitting my application this year." or you can just ignore the email.

 

haha!! yeah..finally he replied back again and told me he encourages me to apply but he cannot confirm he will pick me as a grad student.....that means a waste of 100$ for me.....

and another polite respnse has been sent by me.....Thankyou for your time :P

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So I talked to my PI and some other professors, and they all recommended I do reach out to the POI and introduce myself. So I'm going to email my POIs, but I"ll take the more subtle approach of introduction and inquiry about the research instead of "selling" myself or asking about the school. 

 

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24 minutes ago, samman1994 said:

but I"ll take the more subtle approach of introduction and inquiry about the research instead of "selling" myself or asking about the school

For what it's worth, I think asking a few good questions about a PI's research (that show that you understand their previous work and have thought about the extensions) is much more effective in garnering a PI's interest in you as a student than detailing your background/"selling" your previous experience.

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9 hours ago, AD said:

haha!! yeah..finally he replied back again and told me he encourages me to apply but he cannot confirm he will pick me as a grad student.....that means a waste of 100$ for me.....

Well, it's not necessarily a waste of $100. It just means the prof is not promising they will pick you because very few people will do this. It just means you have to compete for the position just like everyone else?

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I'd say with what Tak said. Few professors will actually confirm or hold your spot in the lab unless they personally know you, or know someone who knows you (and again they'd know to knw that person pretty well as well). Unless through the conversations you have with them they come to know you and reaallllly like you (which is sorta what I'm hoping for). Even then, I'd argue its not a guarantee. I knew a PI who guaranteed someone a spot, but their grant got rejected so they couldn't take the student into the lab. Also, keep in mind, any school you apply to you should have back up plans, which means even if he can't or won't take you, there is someone else you would like to join. 

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So I've come across a potential dilemma, and thought I'd get some feedback and opinions on it before I proceed. So I've narrowed down my list of professors at each school to the top professor I'm interested in. However, for one of them, the thing that interests me most about them is their most recent work (there are no publications on it, but they do discuss it on their lab page). Based on the previous methodology and other papers, I have a good idea about how they are or planning to approach their new research interest. The problem is, since there are no publications about it, I'm just going on assumptions right now. I know you're supposed to email them and ask specific questions about their research, but do you guys think it would be fine if I emailed them and asked the PI to actually explain their new research interest as a whole? What I mean is, email the PI and basically say, " I saw on your lab page your lab is now pursuing X, could you please explain what you're looking at and how you are approaching it? Also, what phase of project X are you in right now?" For most professors, I'm planning on taking a project they already have, ask a few questions regarding one specific part of it, and basically demonstrate where I could fit in and what exact part of their research interests me (basically if got accepted and joined their lab, what would I be doing). The problem with this project is, I don't know anything about it since they haven't published anything about it, so I'd be asking for a brief overview of their project and its status. Is that ok? 

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5 minutes ago, samman1994 said:

So I've come across a potential dilemma, and thought I'd get some feedback and opinions on it before I proceed. So I've narrowed down my list of professors at each school to the top professor I'm interested in. However, for one of them, the thing that interests me most about them is their most recent work (there are no publications on it, but they do discuss it on their lab page). Based on the previous methodology and other papers, I have a good idea about how they are or planning to approach their new research interest. The problem is, since there are no publications about it, I'm just going on assumptions right now. I know you're supposed to email them and ask specific questions about their research, but do you guys think it would be fine if I emailed them and asked the PI to actually explain their new research interest as a whole? What I mean is, email the PI and basically say, " I saw on your lab page your lab is now pursuing X, could you please explain what you're looking at and how you are approaching it? Also, what phase of project X are you in right now?" For most professors, I'm planning on taking a project they already have, ask a few questions regarding one specific part of it, and basically demonstrate where I could fit in and what exact part of their research interests me (basically if got accepted and joined their lab, what would I be doing). The problem with this project is, I don't know anything about it since they haven't published anything about it, so I'd be asking for a brief overview of their project and its status. Is that ok? 

look up their current grants on the NIH Reporter website.

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9 minutes ago, aquamarine said:

look up their current grants on the NIH Reporter website.

Found it. Thank you!

Edited by samman1994

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Hello everyone, 

So I sent my first email, and I was hoping to get some feedback on how you guys think it was (format wise). If its good, I'll probably send the other emails to other POIs the same way. I know this is a little subject specific, so I'll try adding annotations where possible to help explain what I'm saying. I tried to make it very brief and short. I opened it up introducing myself, and stating my interest in the project. Informed the POI I have experience in her project, and proceeded to ask some questions about her project that will hopefully show her that I know what I'm talking about. I tried to make my questions interesting (like these are not things I could just google about her and find) and not too detailed (POIs don't want to nor will go into detail about their project, but will explain the gist of it). 

Hello Dr. Cambell,

 
My name is Sam Mahdi, and I was interested in applying to UNC for the fall 2018 semester for a PhD program. I saw your research page, and found your recent project looking at Gai1s [a protein] structure very intriguing. I worked on the G-protein signaling pathway in my undergraduate research lab (looking at RGS4 and RGS7 [more proteins] interactions, structure, and dynamics with Gai1 and Gao), so I know a little bit about the pathway and structural/dynamic work using NMR [an instrument]. I wanted to first and foremost introduce myself, but I also had a few questions regarding the project. 
 
I saw in your Grant information online that your lab will specifically be looking at Gai1s structure and dynamics during its activation and de-activation, and I was curious as to the details of the project. There are many papers regarding the structure of Gai1 and its dynamics involving GTP and GDP [small molecules] exchange during various transition states using NMR. I'm curious as to specifically what process of the pathway your lab will be looking at, and how it is different from other papers. Secondly, I know you said you primarily will be using NMR, but will you also be using other biophysical methods such as SAXS, CD, or even potentially crystallography? [these are just various instruments that are also used for structural determination for proteins] 
 
Thank you ahead of time for taking the time to answer my questions! I look forward to hearing from you. 
 
Sincerely,
Sam Mahdi

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A small point: In your first sentence you say "I was interested in applying to UNC". Using the past tense makes it sound like you were interested in the past, but not anymore. Just say "I am interested in applying..." or "I will be applying to..."

Next, your third sentence says, "I did some work in X so I know a little bit about Y". I would recommend to demonstrate you know Y (instead of just stating that you know Y) via your experience with X. For example, "I worked on X using method Y with Dr. Z at School A" will cover it concisely.

Maybe it's just me, but your second paragraph starts a little awkwardly. Maybe this is more normal in your field. But if I was receiving an email like that from a student, I would feel that the student is getting ahead of themselves. There is a gamble though, one could interpret your actions as being very resourceful / enthusiastic etc. But like I said, unless you know how they would react, it's a gamble.

I would also provide a word of caution. A prof may have a grant for something but that doesn't mean they are necessarily looking for new students for that project. Maybe it's to fund existing student projects. It might be a little presumptuous to assume that because this grant exists, if you were accepted there that you would be able to work on it.

That said, whether you choose to ask about the grant or something else, I think you should rethink the questions you are asking. The one that strikes me as odd is the one where you ask the prof to do a mini lit-review for you and tell you why their work is different from the others. That's something you ask another academic when you have a good reason, such as being their reviewer or if they had made a presentation or pitch to you. It's not the type of question you just ask them out of the blue. It's your own job to read the other papers and figure out why they are different.

But more generally, from my point of view, I don't understand the purpose of your questions. If I was a faculty member looking for students and I got this email unsolicited, I might be a little annoyed at the questions that don't seem to lead to anywhere. You might just get a simple reply back with a message encouraging you to apply and to discuss potential research plans with you once you are accepted / started the program. This goes back to what @Eigen said earlier about not really needing to email profs at this stage to see if they are taking students. These detailed questions seem premature. But maybe you have some other reason to ask these questions, in which case, it might be a good idea to actually say this before asking the questions. 

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To me, if I got it cold from a student, that second paragraph reads very abrasively. It comes across less as interest, and more as questioning the validity of the work and asking them to justify what they're doing and why. 

Especially leading into your third paragraph, where you basically assume they'll respond. 

Nowhere in your message do you mention anything like "I'm sure you're busy", or "if you have time, I was curious"- things that take the tone from entitled to polite. 

But now we're also getting back to the "why are you doing this" question. What are you hoping to gain from it?

Introducing yourself through email doesn't help much with admissions in chemistry, and if you set the wrong tone it has the potential to hurt. You don't want to get lumped in with the large number of people that send what are basically form letters to a bunch of different faculty that everyone treats as spam. 

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Thanks for the feedback. 

1) Yeah I realized that after I sent it, I should've said "am" applying since that is the case

2) I probably should have gone into more detail with who this is, but my PI has collaborated with this PI before, so I thought a detailed description might make them remember, oh its that lab (although again, I probably should have stated who my PI is explicitly)

3) Well that is the main thing I'd be interested in working on in their lab, so they may not be accepting students for that project, but I want her to know that's the project I'm interested in. Sorta show that I have read her publications and looked at her page, that I do know what she's talking about (e.g. didn't just go, oh protein nmr that sounds cool). 

4) This I think may address a couple issues. She has not published anything on this project, and from her grant proposal, honestly this project has already theoretically been done and finished (I have read papers from a few years ago that already discuss exactly what her grant states, and answers the questions her grants ask). That being said, there are different approaches she can take, different things she can look at in the same pathway, that may not be explained in detail in a simple grant outline. I am interested in working on this pathway with this protein, but as it stands, I don't know where in the pathway we would be working on. I have a few potential ideas, but all just hypothetical. Finally, I want to show her my knowledge of the field, that I know what is known and what is not known in the field (I've done my research basically). Again, this is all because there are no papers regarding this project (from her), so I don't exactly know what she is doing with this project. I don't mean it to come across as a challenge or to question her research, but more along the lines of, I really don't know what she is doing regarding this project. The stuff her grant says has already been done before, so I don't know what she's doing (I assume she's not going to be answering the same questions those papers did, but if it's not that, then I don't know what it is). I don't know if its the way I worded it, but I really didn't want it to come across as challenging. 

5) The purpose is 3-fold. I want to introduce myself first and foremost (as I stated), but I also want to know more about their research. As stated, the research for this lab sounds very interesting (in fact I'd say ideal), but that all depends on what the lab is actually doing as of right now. I got an email from another POI that I emailed today, and found out they are now approaching their project a completely different way (one which I have no interest in pursuing anymore), that was different from their previous publications. Finally, I plan on using this in my SOP. I want to explain (in my fit) why I'm interested in the school and it's faculty members (maybe the faculty member is approaching the problem in a way that really fits well with my skill set and interest). I feel like it'll show (in my SOP), that I not only am a good fit for the faculty, but that I've also done my research. A deeper reason aside from all this is, I want to create an early relationship with the POI if possible, and hope they can get interested in me joining their lab (e.g. I may not be accepted yet, but if they like me enough, they may influence my chances). It is possible they will just reply "email me when you get accepted" in which case, I understand, but I did at least try. 

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Okay, then if you still want to send an email, consider rephrasing the email to something more like:

- Introduction with the adjustments

- Say that you are specifically interested in their lab because of their work in XYZ

- Mention that you read their grant at ABC and hope to be able to ask a few questions (or other wording that switches your tone to one that demands the prof's attention to one that politely requests their time)

- Ask good questions that are relevant to your stated interests above and make it clear why you are asking the question (i.e. you would like to be working on XYZ and want to know if there are any opportunities in the lab for XYZ work).

That said, this level of questions/information really should be for the accepted student phase (e.g. when you are visiting the school or if you have set up a skype call or something after acceptance). Going into this level of detail to get information and asking for this much of their time is risky, in my opinion. You have very little to gain (there's nothing you need to learn now that you can't wait for afterwards, the SOP would not have so much detail that you need to "interview" a prof before writing it). As others said, there is only a tiny slim chance that this prof is even able to advocate for you (and if you offend them with the questions, then this will backfire). But there is a lot more that could go wrong from asking these questions. I also think that you might be digging too deep for your "fit" section of your SOP. I know you haven't wrote it yet, but you need to also be careful to not give off the impression that you are rigid and only want to do this one exact thing. Unless you know the school is specifically looking for this level of focus, it could hurt you / paint you as closed minded instead of showing that you know your stuff.

Personally, I think you should either not send this email. Or, scale it back to really only ask if the lab will continue working in XYZ **if** (and only if) your decision to apply to this school completely depends on this one person's answer. Otherwise, it's better to apply first and ask these questions later. Note that your example of the lab that has changed directions is something you could have found out at the visit stage with no harm to you (and no harm to your SOP either....those shouldn't have that level of detail unless the program specifically wants applicants to set up projects with PIs before applying).

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One thing to note by the way, the POI that did reply, the work they are doing now was unpublished. I discussed their previous published work and asked what they were doing now, and he discussed the current status of the project and it's direction. I was very interested in previous work they had done, but their new direction is not exactly what I'm looking for, so it helped me to realize maybe this lab isn't the one I'd like to pursue (one could argue you don't even need to know this until you've been accepted), but I understand what you're saying. Thank you for all your advice by the way!

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7 hours ago, samman1994 said:

5) The purpose is 3-fold. I want to introduce myself first and foremost (as I stated), but I also want to know more about their research. As stated, the research for this lab sounds very interesting (in fact I'd say ideal), but that all depends on what the lab is actually doing as of right now. I got an email from another POI that I emailed today, and found out they are now approaching their project a completely different way (one which I have no interest in pursuing anymore), that was different from their previous publications. Finally, I plan on using this in my SOP. I want to explain (in my fit) why I'm interested in the school and it's faculty members (maybe the faculty member is approaching the problem in a way that really fits well with my skill set and interest). I feel like it'll show (in my SOP), that I not only am a good fit for the faculty, but that I've also done my research. A deeper reason aside from all this is, I want to create an early relationship with the POI if possible, and hope they can get interested in me joining their lab (e.g. I may not be accepted yet, but if they like me enough, they may influence my chances). It is possible they will just reply "email me when you get accepted" in which case, I understand, but I did at least try. 

I think you're overestimating what an email can do. 

For the first part of this, why do you want to introduce yourself? What's the benefit? Lots of people think this way, but an email introduction is next to worthless for anything practical, especially when PIs like this are probably getting a handful of unsolicited introductions a day this time of year.

For the second part- projects change. There's just as much of a chance that you'll love what your PI is working on when you start, and you have to switch projects a year in. You don't pick projects, you pick a PI. And then work on varied things. When you're a PI, you get to pick projects- until then it's all just gaining skills. And you don't know how many other people your year are going to want to work on the same thing. You're expending a lot of effort for something with marginal (if any) real benefit. 

For the final part- again, emails don't create relationships, and there's only a small chance that they can advocate for you. The worry here isn't that they'll just say "email me when you get accepted", it's that what you're doing now has the potential, if done wrong, to create a negative association. It's not likely, but it's a non-zero chance.

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