How to approach professors when applying to graduate school – Part 1

Leo Chou: My name is Leo Chou. I’m an assistant professor in the Institute of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Toronto. I started my lab in 2019. Currently we have a group of about six graduate students.

My first question to you is we have a lot of prospective students from various backgrounds who want to pursue research based graduate work. In your opinion, what is the best way to reach out to your professor? Is it through social media, email or a phone call?

Leo Chou: Well, I think the best platform, at least for me is through email. I check my email multiple times a day, and I do get a lot of students approaching me through email and I read them all. I think you can reach most professors that way.

Obviously, if you take a class and are able to find a professor in one of your classes that suits your research interests, then by all means approach them in person and send a follow up email afterwards. But most of the time, if you are unable to meet the professor in person first then just send them an email and ask them directly if they’re they are looking for new graduate students in the upcoming year.

When they’re sending you an email, student’s usually do not get an immediate response and I think in their mind what they think is the professor is not interested in hiring me, or maybe my application is not as good as I thought. What should the student really expect when they’re sending an email to professors?

Leo Chou: Either possibilities are true. Either they’re just not looking for someone right now, or you’re not a suitable candidate that they’re looking for. But I would say most of the time they’re just too busy to reply at the moment and they forget. I am certainly guilty of that sometimes, I get 40 to 50 emails a day sometimes and one email might have slipped through the crack, and so if it is a lab that you’re really interested in, for good reason, I would say by all means send one or two follow up emails afterwards. And if you still don’t get a reply after a couple follow ups then so be, you can look for other labs. This might not be the best fit for you for a variety of reasons, some of which are not within your control.

When a prospective student is reaching out to you, how should they construct their email, from the title to the body of context to make sure that it stands out in these 40 to 50 emails that you get on a daily basis.

Leo Chou: I think one thing is to approach this exercise as you would any regular job. Some level of professional courtesy and professionalism should permeate throughout the entire email.

Secondly, be as specific as possible. If you’re looking for a graduate position, state clearly in the subject that this is a graduate position inquiry email, and the more information that you can provide that’s unique to you could help you stand out the better. Some emails that I get, the students don’t include a CV or a resume and transcript. Others do, so right off the bat I’m going to read the one with the CV and transcript first.

And in the body of the email, if you are able to do some research about the lab that you’re interested in, and you know a lot about the professor that you’re sending the email to, then by all means, talk about science and talk about your research interest and be as specific as possible. And professors will know whether your interests are kind of superficial and diffuse curiosity, or whether they are the result of some in depth research and introspection. Do everything you can and provide as much information as you can and be as specific as you can to stand out.

Okay, so I’m going to jump in really quickly, you mentioned something about how professors can usually tell when an interest in a specific topic is genuine. How does that come across? Based on your experience when you’re going through applications or the emails that prospective students send to you, how do you evaluate authenticity or genuine interest in the research that you do?

Leo Chou: That’s a great question. I think it comes through in multiple formats.

One could be a very consistent trajectory, so if an applicant said that they’ve always been interested in some form of therapeutics, and you can see that they devoted their summertime to research in that topic and that they have taken certain classes and they’ve done some internships, jobs and co-op opportunities, you know the kind of activities throughout their undergraduate training. And now they’re looking for a position with a similar theme, that suggests to me, that they are really, really interested in this.

Sometimes if your interests have changed over the course of your education, then you can rationalize it through email and tell a compelling story of this is who you are, and this is how you evolved. Then you can see how this person’s developing and why they are interested in pursuing this next step. Conversely, if they say they are interested in this, but they have shown no effort in the past towards this topic, then the story becomes not that compelling.

Let’s say if I’m a student and in my previous employment I’ve only had experience working in a non-research related background, how can someone like that leverage their background to say that I am interested in research, I just never had the opportunity to have a position in research.

Leo Chou: I think that’s a fair point, and this happens sometimes. I think you leverage the things that you have done well at and the skills that you have, you tell a story of what made you decide to pursue a career in academic research at this point, and something that reflects the authenticity of yourself.

That’s the other thing too right. It’s not just your professional interest, but also, we want to know the kind of person, the kind of student and the kind of team member you will be when you join the lab. Whether you bring positive energy and a spirit of teamwork and the spirit of learning to the lab. Those are all kind of soft skills, and transferable skills that we would like to tease out through your email and through interactions with you. Whatever your story is, be genuine about it and tell your authentic story, I think that’s how you can come through the pool of applicants.

Do you prefer long or short emails?

Leo Chou: That’s a good question. I think it should always be short and to the point, just because we get so many emails a day.

And how short should these emails be?

Leo Chou: I think if you want a strict guideline, and again, this is a personal biased opinion, it’s not a universal formula to follow, different PI’s read emails differently, but I would say three paragraphs, the first one tells me who you are. The second one tells me why you’re interested in this lab and what your potential fits are. And the third paragraph tells me, what you’re looking for as next steps and what you’ve enclosed for information to follow up on. Each paragraph should be two to three sentences long to illustrate those points.

How should they address you? You kind of mentioned there has to be some kind of professional demeanor when someone send an email. When they email should they say stuff like ‘Hello, Dr. Chou’ or ‘Hi Leo’/’Dear Leo’/’Dear Dr Chou’. Is there a preference? Do you think that makes a difference?

Leo Chou: It makes a difference just because it’s telling of what kind of person the student is. I think if you’re complete strangers and don’t know each other, and you’re sending an email inquiry, you should address them by their title. It doesn’t matter if it’s ‘Dear Dr. Chou’ or ‘Hello Dr. Chou’ or ‘Hello Professor Chou’. Something along those lines, because if we don’t know each other, why would we address each other on a first name basis? And that’s just my personal bias. I mean, all my current students call me by my first name and vice versa. But when we don’t know each other, we will address each other by a title.

What are some of the best practices in summary in terms of how to write email or reaching out to you?

Leo Chou: I think tip number one is to be specific about what you’re looking for and what it is that you want to get from a professor in this case, because email is fundamentally a tool of communication, you just really should get to the point about what it is that you want.

Tip number two, again, be professional, because this is a professional environment, use professional language.

Tip number three use the subject heading strategically. What I mean by that is, we get so many emails so a lot of time we screen the order of emails we read by the subject heading, or at least I do. Some things are more urgent than others, so if you could write in the subject heading, the summary of your email in keyword form that could really help us in determining whether we should open this email now or later. For example, if you had a specific deadline write it so I know that I need to deal with this right away.

If you have pet peeves in terms of how people email you, what should they not do?

Leo Chou: Well, I guess the obvious one is using universal templates. This applies to graduate inquiries, and the ones that use universal templates makes it really obvious that this is just a universal template and you’re just putting my name on the top. It’s as if I’m opening spam. Every professor will tell you that they don’t enjoy reading that.

The last question is, do you have any advice to people who are reaching out to professors in their application to graduate school.

Leo Chou: What I hear from students is that they would like to know a little bit more about professors, but they find everything interesting, so they don’t know where to begin. That’s really difficult, and in the beginning, I guess that’s just the way it is.

I would encourage people to start early. It is a big decision and try to get as much information as possible and talk to the graduate students in the lab as much as you can to find out a bit more about the topic and a bit more about the lifestyle and management style of the lab, and see that fits you. The more people you talk to, the more informed of a decision you can make, and an informed decision is the best decision.