Advice for Prospective Graduate Students

(Shamelessly borrowed from David Evans at the University of Virginia)

Like most professors, I get several hundred emails a year from prospective students interested in coming to Iowa State for graduate school and joining my research group. I try to reply to all messages that are not obviously spam, but find most messages I receive make me less likely to want to accept the students sending them. This page provides some advice for prospective grad school applicants considering emailing me, but most of it probably applies to any other professor you want to contact also.

Who To Contact

Its a really bad idea to send spam emails to long lists of professors. These emails will never help you, and some professors will maintain blacklists of applicants who do this to make sure their application is rejected without consideration. Your goal in sending email is not to contact as many professors as you can, but to identify a few professors who you might want as your research advisor and then to find which of those seem most promising as advisors and convince them that you would be a worthwhile student. You should only contact professors with whom you have a genuine interest in working based on knowing something about them and what they do. You can find out about professors’ research interested by looking at their web pages.

Do Your Homework

Before contacting a potential advisor, do your homework: read the advisor’s home page and at least one recent paper.

If doing this doesn’t give you any interesting ideas, this is probably not someone with whom you want to do research so you shouldn’t waste time contacting her or him. If it does, send a short introductory email.

First Email

A typical message should go something like this:

E-mail Explanation
From: Flipper Wordsfish Make sure your from address is professional.
Subject: Prospective Student Interested in TSU Problem Make sure your subject line is useful
Dear Professor Nemo, Greeting: its safest to be a bit formal here.
I will be finishing a BS degree in Underwater Mathematics at the Atlantis Deep Ocean University this year. I am considering applying to ISU’s PhD program and would be interested joining your Octople Cryptology research group. Briefly introduce yourself in at most two sentences. Don’t tell your whole life story. Be direct and clear about applying to grad school.
I found your paper, “A Linear-Time Solution to the Travelling Sea Urchin Problem”, on your website ( I was fascinated by your result, especially as I have spent several summers studying the similar travelling sea cucumber problem as an intern at Microshifty Corp in the Attle Sea. (You can find a paper about my work on this at Explain specifically what you read and where you found it (people sometimes publish several papers with similar names and forget which is which). A touch of flattery never hurts, but don’t go overboard. If appropriate, relate it to your background and interests and briefly plug your work.
I believe your result is even more important than your paper implies, since it can be extended to solve the Travelling Salesman Problem and thus to prove P = NP. Concisely describe your insight or why you are interested in the work.
Do you think it would be worthwhile to pursue this line of research? If you are interested, I can send you a proof sketch. End with a clear, simple question.
  Offer a suggestion on how to proceed.
Flipper Wordsfish ( Closing — make sure to include you name and email address.
  Include the word “#potential#” in the subject line.

Of course, your insight isn’t likely to be so significant as Flipper’s. But, you should make an effort to raise an interesting question about the work described in the paper, to suggest extensions or applications of the work, or to relate it directly to something you have done.

It is definitely worth taking time to write clearly and consisely using correct spelling and grammar. As with all emails, the message should be broken into short paragraphs, the sentences should be simple and straightforward, and no line should have more than 80 characters.

What Not To Do

Never do any of these:

  • Don’t send information about your GRE scores, GPA, class rank, cholesterol levels, favorite movies, etc. and ask what your chances of admission are. Standardized tests and grades have minimal influence on your chances of admission and reveal very little about your potential as a researcher. No one can or should tell you anything about your chances of admission based on an email.

  • Don’t send a first email longer than one screenful (about 60 lines). You should be able to get across everything you need in a first email concisely and use longer emails if technical depth is required in follow ups.

  • Don’t waste space and time telling me how hard-working, creative and smart you are — demonstrate it with the contents of your message.

  • Don’t waste space and time telling me how brilliant I am. The fact that you are interested in joining my research group is flattery enough.

  • Don’t attach anything to your email. If you want to provide additional content, you should do this by sending a URL (as plain text, not a link). If you are not able to create a web page, you may mention that you have a relevant paper and will send it to me if I request it.

  • Don’t use any fancy formatting in your email (including your message signature).

Follow Up

Since most professors get lots of email, there is some chance that even if you do everything right, your message will get lost in my inbox and you won’t get a reply. If you don’t get a reply after about a week, send a follow up email that politely asks if the message was received and includes the previous message. If you still don’t get a response, that’s a pretty good sign that the potential professor you are contacting is not someone you want as your advisor.


Getting into a good PhD program is extremely competitive and professors are strongly motivated to identify and attract the best possible research students to their group. At reasonably good departments (including Iowa State), the acceptance rate is usually less than 2 percent. At the most competitive departments, only a few slots every year are awarded to students without recommendation letters from people the faculty know well.