I recently wrote a post about how I got into my Ph.D. program with a 3.1 GPA straight out of undergrad, and I included the exact email I sent to my soon-to-be Ph.D. advisor.
I know everyone can write a basic, polite email asking for something.
However, there are definitely a few situations in grad school where the emails are pretty important and you want to get it just right. The first impression is important!
Hopefully, you can find the template for one of those emails you need here. This list will span everything from admissions to the dissertation defense.
Please feel free to leave a comment with any other requests you may have, and I’ll try to dig them up or provide tips!
Admissions: Contacting Potential Advisors
I discuss this in depth in my blog post about how I got into my Ph.D. program with a 3.1 GPA straight out of undergrad, but contacting potential advisors the summer of the year you submit applications is a really crucial way to get your foot in the door.
So, because I wanted to go directly into a Ph.D. program, I emailed faculty at various programs I was interested in the summer before my senior year of undergrad.
Sending emails to potential advisors you’re interested in working with is a behavior that’s pretty much a given at this point, so not doing so will be a detriment to you if you’re up against applicants who did email and correspond actively.
I got evidence of just how bombarded some faculty are by emails, when I emailed someone asking about their research and they responded with a PDF file that they had prepped to send to applicants, and literally said they were bombarded by emails.
This is the exact email I sent to the faculty member who ultimately became my advisor:
Email subject: Interested in X program at X
Dear Dr. X,
Hello. My name is X, and I am a rising senior at X, majoring in X and minoring in X. I will be applying to the X program this fall to start in Fall of X. Could you please let me know if you envision having space and resources available for graduate students in the near future?
As a X major, I have solid background knowledge in X. My research interests are in the topics of X. I have a very strong fascination towards X. Many of my research experiences during my time as a student at X have been related to X and X. Your research on X is very fascinating to me, such as your paper “X”. I am very curious about the effects that X have on X. Your paper on “X” also interested me. I have taken a course on X, which introduced me to a wide variety of X, as well as information about X, and truly enjoyed utilizing my X background in a field I am interested in. In graduate school, I would love to apply my experiences to other research related to X, particularly in the topics related to X.
I am also very open to new research areas and topics within X that I have not explored before. My career goal is to X. My CV is available upon request. I am interested in discussing possibilities with your lab. Thank you very much for your time!
You can read through my other post mentioned above for the details on how the rest of the email exchange went down, but basically we set a time for a phone call, which happened, and then I just emailed them a few months later, saying I applied.
The other emails I sent were written in a very similar format as the above. I only changed up the descriptions of their research and what I was interested in so that it best suited their perspective.
I was honest with my career goal, saying that I was interested in industry.
This is really important, because you want to be clear from the get-go that you are interested in a particular outcome. Some faculty members are old-school and don’t want to be a good mentor to you if you want to leave academia (I know it sucks, but it’s still reality) so it’s best to weed them out if you’re interested in industry and make sure they don’t make your life miserable during grad school and your career search.
One thing you can do is to state that you lean towards one option, but include that you have an open mind and are flexible as your perspective may change during your graduate training.
This also applies well to research topics; you don’t want to seem too set on one topic, and you can see that I made that flexibility clear in my email.
Potential advisors love hearing how flexible and open-minded you are.
If you want to organize each correspondence and not lose track of what you said and when, you can use my 16-Column Ph.D. Application Information Spreadsheet to help with that!
Admissions: Asking Your TA to Meet With You for Grad School Application Advice
Chances are, if someone is your TA, they are in a field that’s related to the field you want to get your Ph.D. in. That means they’ll have great insight into the overall grad school admissions process, even if you’re not interested in being a grad student at the school you’re currently an undergrad at.
I had some really nice TAs during my time as an undergrad and thinking back now, I feel really lucky to have had their guidance and for them to have given me the time of day.
One of them was a TA for a second-level course in the fall of my junior year that was in the field I wanted to get my Ph.D. in, and they were pretty nice and agreed to chat with me after winter break.
I sent them this email after winter break to follow up:
Email subject: Questions about applying to X programs
This is X from your X discussion. I was in your Thursday discussion and always sat near the middle with my friend.
Hope you had a good winter break!!
Thank you for agreeing last semester to give me your insight on applying to grad school.
Like I said before, I’m interested in X PhD programs.
I have some questions about selecting programs, how to know what is a safety school, contacting professors, and fellowships/aid.
Would it be possible for you to meet with me when the semester starts, to talk about it a bit? If you are busy, then communicating through email is fine too.
Thank you for your time!
Apparently, I was really into line breaks in my emails back then.
We ended up meeting for smoothies on campus a few days later, and I got a lot of interesting anecdotal insight from them!
They even sent me the essays they wrote to get into the school we were at.
Definitely try reaching out to the TAs and grad students that you know. Even if they aren’t grad students in the exact field or department you hope to end up in, out of the people you know in real life, they will definitely have the most up-to-date insight into the grad school application process.
Admissions: Contacting Grad Program Admin
I also contacted grad program admin for a few of the programs I was interested in applying to, especially if I had the opportunity to go visit the summer before my senior year of undergrad to check out the facilities and meet people.
Doing this won’t make or break your admissions decision, but having them know your name is really useful when there are things about your application that need clarification or if glitches occur (both of which happened in the admissions process and for this school in particular).
Email subject: Interested in X program at X
Hello, my name is X, and I am a rising senior at X majoring in X and minoring in X. I am applying to the X Graduate Program (Ph.D.) this upcoming application season.
I will be visiting campus on July 28 to take a look at the facilities and to get to know the campus and surrounding area. Would it be possible for you to answer some questions I have about the program? I would love to be able to set up a time and meet with you in the morning of July 28. I may also be free on the morning of July 21, if that date is more suitable.
I have already emailed X regarding his research that I am interested in, and am waiting for his response. Alternatively, could you please let me know of other faculty, perhaps those involved in the admissions process or those who direct graduate student resources, that I may contact to inquire specifically about admissions to the program?
Thank you for your time, and I look forward to hearing from you.
Email subject: Application to X program
Hello, my name is X, and I am a senior at X applying to the X Ph.D. program at X. We spoke over the summer when I visited the campus, about admissions to the program.
I wanted to let you know that I submitted my application to X this weekend. I will be looking at the status of my application through this fall.
Thank you for taking time to speak with me this summer and for setting up my meetings with X.
If you can’t visit campuses to check out the facilities, it’s totally fine. I didn’t visit the one I ultimately ended up at; I only emailed the faculty, as shown above.
Cold-Emailing to Ask About a Rotation Opportunity
Hopefully, you are applying to Ph.D. programs that allow or require rotations. They are so invaluable for making the ultimate decision about which lab you’re going to commit to.
The rotations are when you can start to peel back the layers and facades, and see exactly how the labs are run. You get to critically assess how you’ll fit into the lab’s work and social environment, and how good of a person the advisor is.
It’s also really important to pick advisors who are able to provide funding and to directly ask about it before you commit to a rotation.
Generally, the faculty you are emailing to ask about rotations are faculty that you’ve connected with in the application process to some extent. It’s okay if you haven’t spoken to them at all yet, though, as I know plenty of colleagues from my program who cold-emailed faculty and ended up working with them.
In my case, for the program I was accepted to, the faculty I rotated with were those that I had emailed before and they were at least aware of who I was.
Here’s the rotation inquiry I sent to one of those faculty members:
Email subject: Laboratory Rotation
Dear Dr. X,
Hello, my name is X, and I’m an incoming X Ph.D. student. We spoke during my interview on March 9 about your research. Our conversation included topics such as X, and its effect on the X. We also talked about X and its effect on X as well as on human health. I was wondering if it would be possible to do my first laboratory rotation with you. I would like to explore some of the topics we spoke about during my interview, and other related topics. If this is possible, could you please let me know what your lab’s research topics are right now and how I can get started with it in the fall? Thank you.
This is the rotation inquiry I sent to the faculty member who ended up being my advisor:
Email subject: Lab rotation
Hello, my name is X, and I am a first year student in X. I am currently rotating in Dr. X’s lab. I was wondering if it would be possible to do a laboratory rotation in your lab in X quarter. If this is possible, could you please let me know when you would be available to meet to speak about possible projects? Thank you very much for your time.
Like I mentioned above, it’s important to confirm that the lab has funding to take on a graduate student. That way, you don’t waste your rotation doing work for a lab you don’t have a chance at joining.
If the faculty member responds favorably to your initial email, that’s when you can directly ask if they have space/funding to permanently take on a graduate student. That’s how I did it, and it worked out nicely because I felt like I wasn’t being super invasive asking about money in the very first rotation inquiry email (even though it’s very important), and I was more sure that if they responded favorably to that first email, they were more likely to have funding or at least be open to discussing my funding options.
It’s all connected as well, because the faculty members I emailed were the faculty members that showed interest in me and that I communicated with prior to submitting my application. That’s another reason why those initial emails before applying are so important. It’s so if you do get in, you’ll already have a network.
I am almost certain you can ask about funding in the initial rotation inquiry email as well, by phrasing it like “resources to take on a graduate student”, like how I did in my pre-application emails. I actually have a post that lists 10 important questions to ask during your lab rotation that you can check out if you’re interested in learning more about what to watch out for before and during rotations.
Asking Someone to Be On Your Committee
I took my qualifying exam the summer after my 3rd year. It was the perfect time for me to do it, because by that point I had made some good progress on my research and I felt comfortable with the ins and outs of presenting my results.
I formed my committee that spring, so it was the spring during my 3rd academic year. A majority of the faculty on my doctoral committee were folks I had never spoken to or met. From my experience, this was pretty normal for my program and for committees on my campus in general.
It’s hard to organically get the opportunity to know 4-5 faculty members, all of whom are experts on things that are important to your research, in the first 2-3 years of your program. One of the responsibilities of being a faculty member is to be on doctoral committees, so I didn’t worry about reaching out to people I didn’t know personally.
This was the cold-email format that I used for all of them:
Email subject: Doctoral Thesis Committee Question
Hello Dr. X,
My name is X, and I am a third-year doctoral student in the laboratory of X in the Department of X. The program I am in is the X Program. I am planning on taking my qualifying exam soon, and am forming my thesis committee. I was wondering if you would be interested in being on my committee.
The context of my research is the X link between X and the development of X. In particular, I am studying the X of X, focusing on the X. I’m using X as the model organism for my work. Your expertise on X and the study of X would be very helpful for the development of my work.
Would you be willing to be on my thesis committee? I am planning on scheduling my qualifying exam for anytime after July 4, preferably sometime in July.
Thank you very much for your time.
Their responses were pretty simple and effective, like these:
Yes, I can be on your thesis committee.
I will be here for most of July (and August).
Yes I can do this but would have to do it remotely…so if grad division allows this (there is a process to apply for remote participation) and you can find a room etc to do this in then I can participate. I am on sabbatical this summer.
Important tip: A lot of faculty members are busy and out of town during summers. This made scheduling my dissertation defense an absolute nightmare, and I had to end up submitting paperwork to the university to formally remove one of my committee members from my committee at the last minute because their summer schedule didn’t allow them to join, even with my defense being strictly virtual (on Zoom) and having gone through multiple Doodle polls.
If you want to make plans with faculty members during the summers, definitely email them months in advance to get a sense of which months they’ll be available.
Asking Someone to Meet for Career Conversation or Networking
I was interested in industry positions from the very beginning of my time as a grad student. One time, I attended a departmental lunch event and randomly sat next to a new faculty member who had worked for a major policy research company. I tried my best to chat with them a bit during the lunch event and I asked them for their email address when I was leaving.
I emailed them asking about the opportunity:
Email subject: Interested in learning more about X career options
Hi Dr. X,
Hello, my name is X, and I spoke with you at the X lunch a few weeks ago about your time at X. I sat to your right, and I am the 5th year X Ph.D. student that studies X.
Would it be possible to set up a meeting sometime to speak with you more about the type of work you have done at X, and to get more information about your perspective on career opportunities there? I am trying to explore and learn about career options available to me, as I finish my research at X. I would love to be able to expand on and utilize my graduate research training in ways that may not necessarily be wet-lab-based. Thank you for your time.
We ended up meeting in their office that Friday for about 30 minutes and it was a really great conversation because I got to learn about their educational history and how they went from grad school, to postdoc, to industry.
There are a lot of times when you have to write pretty important emails during grad school, where it might feel like you have just one shot to seal the deal or make an impression. I hope that my templates are helpful for you when you are in one of those situations!
These were just the ones I could think of off the top of my head and was able to find in my email history. If you’re struggling to write a particular email that’s not mentioned here, or have other questions, please don’t hesitate to leave a comment or send me an email and I can get back to you about it. Best of luck to you.
If you want more info about grad school admissions, my other blog post: The Top 3 Things That Helped Me Get Into an R1 Research University for my Ph.D. with a 3.1 Undergrad GPA is probably your best bet.