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How to contact faculty members?

  1. May 19, 2009 #1
    Hello, I am a senior and am planning to go to a physics gradschool. Looking at several forums and tips online, I came to know that it is good to contact faculty members of prospective gradschool. But I am not sure how to start the conversation, like what to talk about and how. What should i mention in my first email? Can anyone please help me with this?

  2. jcsd
  3. May 19, 2009 #2

    Vanadium 50

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    It is not necessary to do this.
  4. May 19, 2009 #3
    Are you planning to be a teaching assistant or research assistant your first semester, or are you putting it off for a year? If you are thinking about being a research assistant, think a little bit about which field, and find out which professors at your university are working in that area. I found a good research assistant job the summer before I started grad school, and 5 years later, the Prof I was working for signed my Ph. D. thesis.
  5. May 19, 2009 #4


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    Well, I wouldn't say I have expert advice for you since I kind of neglected to do this myself... I think it hurt my prospects of admission though. Grad school applications ask for the names of any professors you've contacted at that institution, and I've gotten the distinct impression that people who have a name or two to write down will be looked at somewhat more favorably than people who don't.

    Although this isn't actually true, I'd suggest going about your grad school applications as though you were applying to a particular professor's research group, rather than to a particular university. That means, of course, that your first step should be to find out what professors and universities have good research programs in the field of physics you want to work with. I've heard that there exist rankings of graduate programs for specific areas within physics (i.e. a ranking of departments by their strength in gravity research, and in elementary particle physics, and in condensed matter, etc.). Find the one(s) for the areas of physics you're interested in and make a note of the top several schools that you think you have some chance of getting into. As with applying to an undergrad institution, you should have one or two "stretches" and one or two "safety schools" and the rankings (although they are somewhat subjective and you shouldn't take them too seriously) can help you figure out which those are.

    All university physics departments list their faculty by research area on their websites, and most professors have web pages that describe their research interests. Once you've identified some likely candidate grad schools to apply to, go to their web pages and see which professors are doing the kind of research you want to do. You can also independently build up a list of professors that are working in your desired field, by e.g. looking at the authors of papers you may have read or asking professors at your current college who has a strong research program in that area, and cross-reference the list of professors with the list of schools you identified from the rankings. You should find a few people with interesting research programs who are on one or both lists. Once you do, I guess you can just send an email stating that you're going to be applying to grad school, you found the research description on their web page interesting, and you'd like to know a little more about their work. It also might not hurt to ask whether they anticipate having an opening for a grad student sometime in the next couple of years, but the main point is to initiate contact. You'll probably be able to tell from the replies who's interested in you and who isn't. Keep in touch with the people who do seem interested; you don't need to have daily contact or anything (that would be weird), but exchanging 2 or 3 emails is probably reasonable - basically you want to achieve name recognition with that professor. Once application season comes around you can write down the professor's name on your grad school application and hopefully he/she will remember the email exchange, if asked about you by the school's admissions committee ;-)

    Of course, if you don't do all that stuff it's certainly still possible to get into a decent grad school. None of this represents any commitment; you usually don't officially start working with a single research advisor until your second or maybe even third year as a grad student. (In my graduate program most of the other students came in already knowing who they would be working with... I've heard repeatedly that that's highly unusual, but it definitely doesn't hurt to be ahead of the game.)
  6. May 20, 2009 #5

    Andy Resnick

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    How about a few simple sentences on why you are contacting them?
  7. May 20, 2009 #6
    When I was a on a graduate admissions committee, it didn't really help (or hurt) if the students contacted faculty members (with the exception perhaps of if they had been a summer research / REU student for the faculty member and had that faculty member write a recommendation. The admissions process was separate from the typically later process of contacting faculty members for summer research assistant positions. This was at a large (and reputable) state flagship institution.

    Two notes:
    1) Sometimes we still declined students even if they had references from our own department faculty. Our admissions process looked at all the applicants in terms of both their ability to get through first year coursework / "comps" when in competition with other selected students, and their ability to be competitive for research positions in their selected field against the other accepted students. We tried simply to get the best admitted class from the pool of applicants. Our faculty never complained, in fact, they were pleased with our results.

    2) Sometimes contact with a faculty member can hurt as well as help. They can see right through your e-mail strategy you know... and if your application is weak (and your email exchange is weak), they'll probably note THAT to the committee. You can probably look up about their work on their web pages and read those papers... then perhaps contact them to ask clear questions about the work, and about what direction they envision their research will be going in the next several years. This would be a stronger way of going about the process, should you choose to do this.

    Like Vanadium says: it's not necessary... and I'll add that I personally think it's often risky.
  8. May 20, 2009 #7
    Completely off-topic, sorry. But what is your cat reading in that pic physics girl phd? It just always bugs me when I see it... I need to know!
  9. May 20, 2009 #8
    It looks to me like the cat is napping on "Advanced Quantum Mechanics" by Sakurai...

    I would second physics girl's statement about asking clear questions about their research and where they feel their research will be heading in the next 5 years or so.
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