To reach out or not to reach out…

The art of sending cold emails to future faculty advisors and the science behind how to make it work

Contacting faculty members before/during the application cycle is becoming more of a “trend” than a “hack” among students applying to graduate programs in many different fields. While some programs explicitly advise applicants against contacting faculty members, many welcome this kind of correspondence. However, keep in mind that faculty members are incredibly busy and you might never hear back. Nevertheless, do not let the possibility of being ignored deter you from trying to establish a connection that could help you down the road. When executed properly, cold emails can be a powerful tool that can help expand your network even if you do not end up going to a particular program. In this article, we will discuss the why, when, and how of the process of sending cold emails to future faculty advisors in your potential graduate institutions.

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Why is it important to contact faculty members in graduate programs you are targeting?

  • It makes them aware of you and about the fact that you are applying during the current admission cycle.
  • It gives your portfolio a chance to stand out – often faculty members are part of the admissions committee reading statements of purpose and deciding whether to invite a certain applicant for interview.
  • It helps you summarize your past research experience and interest concisely so that you gain practice talking about them to people outside your immediate circle.
  • It gives you an opportunity to inquire if the faculty members is looking for new graduate students  It is possible that the faculty member loved your profile but doesn’t have the funding or space in their group.
  • The investigation going into identifying potential faculty members, i.e., exploring their recent work, can help you gauge if that particular school or program is a good fit for you.

It is worthwhile to also remember that individual faculty members usually CANNOT admit you to a program. That decision is made by the admissions committee. They can sometimes recommend you to be considered for interviews, if that is indeed part of the process. Thus, it is not uncommon for a faculty member to refer you back to the central application to proceed forth with the cycle.

How to identify which faculty members to contact?

You can identify potential faculty members to contact in various ways. The easiest way to go about this is to ask your current professors, research advisors, and/or principal investigator(s) if they can recommend someone that you could network with based on your research interest, assuming you are willing to continue research in the same area as your undergraduate or master’s. You can still ask for their advice even if you are thinking of moving to a new area of focus. In addition, you can narrow down some potential universities to apply to based on location, reputation, ranking, etc., and then do a more targeted search for affiliated faculty members who are studying topics that you are interested in. Occasionally, you might already know of some big names in the field based on your current research or coursework. It is also possible to learn of experts in the field and meet them through conferences you attend.

Once you have some names on your list, dive deeper into the faculty member’s area of research/focus by carefully reading through their website and some of their recent publications, both primary and review articles. Do not worry if you cannot understand everything that is written but at least you will have an idea of some of the techniques that the lab/group uses and some of the ongoing projects.

If you start this process early enough, you could also use LinkedIn to try to connect with some of the post-docs and graduate students in the group to find out more information about the faculty member and the work. If you can identify Penn students among past/current students, that is even better! 

How many faculty member’s should you contact?

It really depends on the number of programs that you are planning to apply to, the field you are targeting, and the amount of time you anticipate spending on this. Try not to spam indiscriminately. For a typical student interested in the life sciences, for example, with a research focus that is not too niche, about 3-5 faculty members per program is a safe number. Since faculty members are very busy, the chance of not hearing back is very high. Regardless of whether or not you hear back from them, you should still consider mentioning 2-4 of the faculty members on your list in your statement of purpose and mention WHY you would want to work with them. For students who have a very specific research interest, the number might be closer to 1-3 within each program they are applying to.

When is a good time to send emails to faculty members?

Unless you have met the faculty member on a previous occasion or have been introduced to them by your research mentor, professors, etc., the most common time to reach out to future faculty/research advisors is late spring through early fall of the year you are going to apply. If you reach out too early and are not intending to apply during the upcoming cycle, the faculty member may not be as interested in getting back to you or might forget about you when you actually apply.

Often, students are finalizing their list of programs to apply to by early summer and it is during then that they start sending out cold emails to relevant faculty members in the programs they are targeting. For example, an undergraduate intending to start a PhD program right after graduation will be applying during the fall of their senior year. Thus, the process of reaching out can start as early as the summer between their junior and senior years.

The following is a template that you could follow while crafting your first cold email:

Dear Professor/Dr. XXXX

Your introduction – Keep it brief. Mention that you are applying to the school this cycle.

Your current position and 1-2 lines mentioning your current/prior work that aligns with the faculty member’s research/area of focus – Do not forget to mention the department your lab is in. This allows your profile to stand out and gives it a chance to be remembered.

What led you to them, their research/area of focus, and their group – This shows you have done your due diligence and are not sending generic cold emails to everyone within the program.

Optional/highly recommended: 1-2 Questions in bullet points that indirectly answer your real questions. Examples include:

  • Are you looking for new graduate students for Fall ‘XY?
  • Which program should I select to be able to work in your lab?
  • What qualities/skills do you prefer in a student?

Thank you in advance for your time!


Your name and contact details

(This is also a good place to include your LinkedIn/ResearchGate/GitHub/online portfolio link that the faculty member can look at in lieu of your CV)

A few tips to help you succeed in this endeavor:

  1. Use professional language and proofread to keep the email free from errors. Use short sentences and paragraphs to make the email easy to read. Make sure you are addressing the right person and check the spelling of their name. Be respectful and honor them by using appropriate titles.
  2. Tailoring the email by referring to the faculty member’s previous or recent papers/articles makes it even more impactful.
  3. Just before signing off, offer to send your resume/CV to give a detailed background about your work. While it can be compelling to send your CV as an attachment with your first email, remember that some people might be cautious about opening external emails with attachments.
  4. For programs in humanities/social sciences, it may also be useful to offer to share a writing sample if the faculty member is interested.
  5. Include links sparingly to prevent your email from being filtered out as a phishing scam. However, consider including your LinkedIn/ResearchGate/GitHub link.
  6. If you have gotten the idea that the faculty member is looking for new students, definitely mention their name in the statement of purpose. Even if you have not heard back from them but their research/area of focus aligns well with your interests, you should still mention them. In fact, it is not a bad idea to mention more than one potential faculty advisor in your essay.
  7. If you hear back from a faculty member, thank them and follow up promptly and appropriately but please DO NOT feel the need to email them every week.
  8. Remember to be genuine. If you randomly select any of their papers that do not have any correlation with your work or interest, you will simply sound desperate.
  9. Also, remember to be brief. The cold email is not a place to narrate your life story. Be concise and to the point. Only share what is necessary.
  10. ALWAYS, remember to schedule your email according to the time zone of the institution. The best time to contact is usually 8-8:30 am in the morning on weekdays (Monday-Friday).

The process of sending cold emails can be tedious and daunting. However, going through it is a good way to improve your networking and communication skills. The worst that can happen is that you never hear back from all or any of the people you reached out to. The best case scenario is that a faculty member finds you and your work very interesting and are motivated to encourage the admissions committee to look out for your application. Whatever you do, do not let this process stress you out. Rest assured that you are not the only one sending emails to future faculty advisors just as you are not the only one NOT sending these emails. If there is already too much going on, then it is ok to put this on the back burner.

If you have further questions about contacting future faculty members or about any part of your graduate application process, do not hesitate to contact a pre-grad advisor or schedule an appointment through Handshake. We are here to help.

All the best in your journey ahead!

By Doris Tabassum
Doris Tabassum Associate Director, Graduate School Advising