How to approach professors when applying to graduate school – Part 2

Penney Gilbert: I am Dr. Penny Gilbert. I’m an associate professor here at the University of Toronto in the Institute of Biomedical Engineering, where I hold a Canada Research Chair in endogenous repair. My research team applies engineering principles to uncover cues that guide muscle stem cells and repairing skeletal muscle tissue damage. On a personal level, I am a first-generation university graduate.

You’ve been a professor at the Institute of Biomedical Engineering for six years, seven years?

Penney Gilbert: I started in 2012.

Okay, well, it’s been eight years. So, you’ve had plenty of experience talking to prospective students who are applying to your lab. The first question I want to ask is, what is the best way for them to reach out to you If they want to apply for a position in your lab?

Penney Gilbert: It’s a great question, and you also speak to a unique aspect of the BME U of T admission process. In addition to prospective students needing to meet the minimum academic criteria, it’s also necessary that they secure an advisor in order to be formally admitted into the Master of Applied Science or PhD graduate program.

You can imagine there are lots of ways that someone might think to reach out to a professor that they’re interested in working in their labs. They may use email, LinkedIn or other social media like Twitter, they’ve may do a cold phone call, or you know sometimes they may drop by an office. Although not right now, as we know, things are limited in that regard.

I think I can speak for my BME colleagues when I say that email is the strongly preferred method. One thing that really cannot be overstated is that a professor’s time is really limited. At any moment we’re teaching, meeting with one of our students writing a grant or manuscript, and literally nearly every minute of the workday is occupied.

Ultimately, your goal as a prospective student is to make the best impression that you possibly can, especially the first impression. Unfortunately, a phone call or a drop into to an office, which again, it right now is not feasible, almost always interrupt something and that invariably has this very unintended consequence of leaving a bad impression, which is really unfortunate. So, email really is the best option. It signals that you’re respectful of others time by providing a request for consideration via a mechanism that can be reviewed by the professor at their convenience.

If a student reached out to you, and they don’t get an immediate response within maybe a day or two, how would they evaluate that response? Is it because you’re too busy with your teaching, your research? Or is it because you are not interested in this particular applicant?

Penney Gilbert: I think I will first answer that question by giving you a sense of my experience of emailing my colleagues in BME. Some colleagues will respond within minutes, some respond within 24 hours, and I have several colleagues who I know that I won’t receive a response for about two weeks. Now keep in mind, those are colleagues who I’m in regular contact with, and so I know that two weeks wait has nothing to do with me. It is just the congestion in their inbox, and so students that are sending an email to a professor need to understand that sort of window of response time of somewhere between two hours and two weeks is honestly quite normal. You may not hear for two weeks, you may not hear ever, and not hearing back could be for many different reasons.

Most of those reasons have nothing to do with you. It could be that they didn’t get your message, it could be that they’re traveling, it could be that they don’t have sufficient funding at the moment to take on a student or they don’t have an appropriate project or mentors available. Or maybe they’re just really overwhelmed with applicants in that particular year, and they’ve just already enlisted all the students that they can possibly take, and they’re still receiving large numbers of applications and can’t process all of them. There’s many reasons that you might not get a response right away, or ever, to be honest.

Is there a specific time they should be reaching out to a professor to optimize the chance that there are open positions in that lab?

Penney Gilbert: It’s a good question, and I will admit that I start to receive my first applications for a given matriculation period, one year in advance. And that is really far in advance. In fact, the online portal is not even open at that point for applications to be submitted, but this is usually an inquiry where someone is gauging whether there might be positions and whether their particular background is something that might fit in with the work that we’re doing. Or that they’ve been studying in a particular area and have a very specific interest in joining my lab. A lot of times 75% of the positions that I may have available in any given matriculation year could be filled by the point when the application portal opens, which is the reality of the situation sometimes.

The opening period for graduate school application is usually February of the year?

Penney Gilbert: If we say 2021 as an example, I will start to have individuals reaching out to me for fall 2021 in September October of 2020.

How would a student go about finding out what kind of research projects you’re working on because usually on the website or on a publication, they’re usually two years behind already? Because it will take you two years, or more than two years to publish a paper. And once it’s published, that’s actually a time capsule of two years ago. How would a student find out the more recent research that you’re doing?

Penney Gilbert: To get a sense of what current research might be, the tools that you can make use of are, one to take a look at the lab website. That’s not a guaranteed method and you absolutely have to look at dates and see when the most recent postings are, but the website often is a conduit to have a sense of an overview of the projects in the group.

But also, often linked to social media and in social media, if that group happens to be active, the students will be linked to the lab and they will be promoting awards that they might have received or talks that they’ve given at conferences.

Even through Google, you can get a sense of conferences that students from different labs have gone to and see the titles of the projects that the student’s posters were focused on. Now, that will give you a sense of the more recent work in the lab.

At U of T theses are deposited in the U of T library and oftentimes, stories that are in progress, which are the next in line to be published will be in those theses, and it’s sort of a raw cut of the work that’s going on in the lab, but you can kind of get a sense from those theses, what’s happening in the lab.

And another approach is to look for webinars and other types of recorded materials that professors are involved in that will give you a sense of the types of research areas that they’re working on at the moment. Those are some examples of different ways that you can get a sense of what’s happening in the lab.

When a student is reaching out about a graduate school application or inquiry, how should they construct the content of their email?

Penney Gilbert: This is an area that I’m happy to provide some very specific advice on, that hopefully makes the process honestly just much easier for students as they’re reaching out to a prospective lab. First key thing is you really need to keep the email as brief and focused as possible. You want to make the intent of your email clear in the subject line.

Something like ‘BME direct entry’, ‘PhD inquiry’, or ‘BME, MASc inquiry’ is a good straightforward approach. And then as for the email itself, you can use the following formula, which is four to five sentences that will either hook or not hook the reader but it’s short and gets to the point.

First you need to introduce yourself, you want to say my name is (whatever your name is), and I’m starting my, let’s say, fourth year in such a program at whatever institution. That’s sentence number one.

And then the second sentence is that you need to make some sort of connection, to make it clear that this is not a generic email, and that you’re reaching out because you have a genuine interest in joining the lab. Your second sentence is making a connection that makes it clear you’ve done your homework. You might say, ‘I recently watched your stem cell technologies webinar’, or ‘I read your recent manuscript on engineering skeletal muscle micro tissues’, or ‘I reviewed your website’. You want to say I value the opportunity to join your team to study, in my case, skeletal muscle endogenous repair. Make sure that it’s specific to the group that you’re writing to.

Then in your third sentence, you want to speak to what you can bring to the table. Oftentimes, I see that the email inquiry is ‘I want something’, but the ones that really stand out or where the student provides a little bit about what they can bring to the table to merge with what my group is doing already. You want to explain what type of background you have, and how you see your background adding value to the research program that you’re applying to. You might say I have experience in statistics computation modeling stem cell biology, whatever it is, and that you think might be interesting to apply to, for example, skeletal muscle regenerative medicine in the Gilbert lab. That’s sentence number three, offering what you bring to the table.

Then finally, you’ll want to attach your resume and your transcripts, and then you can state that I’ve attached my resume and transcripts as a single PDF for your consideration. In some cases, you may also like to include a cover letter, that should only be included if there are very specific things that you’d like to expand upon from your resume. And in that case, you can add the sentence I’ve also included a cover letter in which I expand upon some notable prior experiences mentioned in my resume.

Then you conclude, I look forward to your response, sincerely your name. We’re looking at five maximally six sentences, and in those six sentences, you express your interest, you show that you’ve done, your background research on the lab, and you make it clear that you want to contribute as well as to gain experience in a research area.

I do have a follow up about sentence number three, which is for the student to kind of talk about what they’re bringing to the table. I think, you know, I’m kind of speaking from my own experience here. When I was applying for graduate school, I felt like I was not offering that much experience wise or technique wise, and I think I drew a lot of experiences from courses that I’ve taken and not so much the stuff I did in the lab. If I’m a student who’s applying to your lab, how do I maximize what I know and communicate that in terms of what I can actually bring to the table?

Penney Gilbert: It’s not uncommon to for students to think that they don’t have relevant skill sets or any special skill sets. But I find that in conversation with any undergrad I’ve ever spoken with, we can always draw out some special skill that they have that’s different that I would consider valuable in my research lab.

That could be related to your extracurricular activities, it could be related to leadership work that you’ve been involved in outside of courses. It could just be related to your organizational skills in managing your undergraduate studies as an example, all of those things, they may not seem special to you, but to us looking at an applicant, it’s something that you’re highlighting as a unique skill of yours. It tells us that that you’ll proactively contribute to the research mission, even ahead of joining the group,

From what I’m hearing is part of a sentence number three should also convey some kind of initiative.

Penney Gilbert: Yes, that’s a really good way to summarize it.

If you were to kind of summarize all of your tips and advice into three or five tips, what would they be?

Penney Gilbert: For best practices, I would say if you do receive a response to your email, even if it is not the response that you’d hoped for, send a thank you. And the reason is, you never know when your paths might cross again and a simple thank you is so uncommon nowadays, that it really stands out and is remembered so, I would really urge students to do that.

When you attach your transcripts, resume and cover letter, if that is a useful element of your approach, make sure that you attach them as a single PDF. It seems really trivial, but the less buttons that need to be clicked on, the more likely that all of your materials will be looked at. Do make sure that you attach your transcripts and resume in that initial approach because they’re going to be asked for, and you don’t want your email exchange to just be send me your resume or transcripts. Sometimes that could be a reason that you don’t get a response, so make sure that you attach those as a single PDF.

As we already touched on, make sure that you start your process of doing your research and identifying labs that you’re interested in, and reaching out early. Keep in mind that connection is a key, so do your homework, check the website publications. Google is your friend. You know, why do you want to reach out to a specific lab over any other lab that might be in the department or otherwise.

And then finally, with your resume, make sure that it’s brief, at the undergraduate level, it should be one to two pages max. Make sure that it includes education, followed by fellowships and awards, prior research experiences, leadership evidence, any unique skill sets that you may have or certificates. Then it’s always nice to end with extracurricular, we love to see what else people do with their spare time.

In terms of practices to avoid, top of the list is mass emails. Do not send an email where you’ve cc’d it clearly to 100 faculties – that is the fastest way to have your email never read.

Make sure that you don’t send generic emails or emails that are just too superficial. In my area of research, a very common approaches to receive an email entitled something to the effect of interested in stem cells. ‘I’m interested to come to Canada to learn about stem cells’ or ‘come to Toronto to learn about stem cells’. It should be a little bit more specific than that.

Make sure you do a quick spelling and grammar check. Have a friend check over your email text just to make sure that there aren’t any errors. Avoid the as I refer to it, ‘Dear Sir’ email. I can’t tell you how many emails I received that start out as ‘dear sir’. Quick check of my website would probably make one think that it should probably be ‘dear ma’am’ but even then, it’s hard to say how I identify so it’s best just to say ‘dear professor’.

Then finally, you should really avoid excessive resending of emails. If you don’t hear back after a second reminder email, it’s probably not going to be responded to or it will be responded to at a timescale that that is possible for the professor but resending many times does not make a good impression. Those my best practices and practices to avoid.

Okay, Penny, thanks for being here.

Penney Gilbert: It’s been great chatting with you today, Bill.