How to approach professors when applying to graduate school – Part 3

Omar Khan: My name is Omar Khan. I’m a professor in the Institute of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Toronto.

The first question is regarding the first stage in how a prospective student can reach out to you regarding a research position, either a MASc position or a PhD position in your lab. What is the best platform for them to reach out to you?

Omar Khan: I think the best way to start is to always seek out their webpages and from there, you can kind of get a sense of the types of platforms that they encourage. If they list Twitter and LinkedIn and that sort of thing, that probably means its fair game. Otherwise you’re most likely going to be emailing them, or even potentially calling them if that’s also a possibility. But in general, I think email is always a safe way to go.

How receptive would you be if someone randomly calls you on your cell phone or your work phone saying, ‘Hey, excuse me, I would like to apply to your lab?’

Omar Khan: Honestly, I think most of us screen our phone calls anyway, and they go to voicemail and then we check voicemail after. But I think it’s an interesting way to follow up. So, if you do send an email, you can also maybe send a voicemail saying I’m really interested in your lab, I sent you an email and looking forward to hearing back from you. That could be a potential way to combine the two.

Would you respond to student requests through Twitter as well?

Omar Khan: I’m pretty new to Twitter, so personally no, not really. For me email would be the primary way to go. But I do see other professors are much more active on social media and that could potentially be a great way for you to gauge whether or not that’s an appropriate way to go. If they are constantly posting, then they are probably constantly reviewing that kind of content.

To reiterate your point, the first thing they should do is check out your lab webpage to kind of find out what are the most appropriate ways to approach you.

Omar Khan: Yeah, I think that’s a great way to do it.

When they do approach you, how should they construct their email to make sure that it stands out?

Omar Khan: I think it’s a combination of brevity and being direct to the point. Your subject line should always be pretty clear about what you want to do, whether you want to do a master’s degree or PhD it would be great to know that. So potentially writing “I’m interested in graduate school and a master’s degree in your lab”, or a shorter version of that in your subject line, that’s always a great way to go. Then when you get down to the body of the email it’s the same, you kind of introduce yourself and what your intent is. It’s great to talk about your past program and what your degree is in, and what is it about this professor’s lab that intrigues you and makes you want to join up and do some fun and interesting new research. That’s always great, to kind of get that energy across. I think a lot of us see emails that are not necessarily generic, but for examples, some people apply, and their background doesn’t really align with what is happening in the lab. And there’s nothing wrong with that, we are always open to people who want to try new things and learn new things. But it’s always great to know that you acknowledge that and say my background is in photonics, but I’m really interested in doing polymer chemistry to round out my skills, and I’m looking for a potential way to combine them all. That would be a great way to address that early, and shows us when we’re doing our initial checks, and kind of flagging that well, obviously you do know what I do, and you’re not just emailing every professor in the department.

How would you identify an email that can come off as generic versus in your case, you want a more tailored email towards the lab that they’re applying to? What are some of the factors that would make the email stand out as a generic email?

Omar Khan: Well, it might be easier to go the other way and what would make them stand out as being a unique email. And that would be, I reviewed some of your work, I’m really interested in these papers or this potential project and it would be great if I can contribute to that somehow, and I was thinking, perhaps there’s an opportunity we can discuss a chance to pursue graduate research. Something like that, and at least that way you know, for example, if someone’s working on inflammation, saying that I read a copy of your papers on inflammation, and I looked at your lab website and your areas of interest are really interesting to me, and I would love to pursue a masters or a PhD in that area and was hoping you’d be open to having a conversation about that thing. I think that’s really an easier way to go. It should always come from the basic research because remember you’re coming into a lab, and while labs are absolutely able to create new projects and look at new things, you want to kind of get in by saying that I know what the lab does and I’m interested in that, and I think there’s new ways and new possibilities we can look at this. That’s always nice. So really, it’s not necessarily if these are the things to avoid, rather, it’s, construct your pitch based on what you know about the lab and what you see is the perceived fit. So, it’s really coming from both sides, it’s not necessarily 100% on the professor to find the right project for you and it’s not necessarily for you to 100% find the project. If there’s something in the middle, that’s always very easy for everyone and it makes for a great start.

Let me follow up on what you said earlier about when they reach out to you and they want a specific project. Are you more receptive to students who propose their own project, or they’re looking for some guidance when they’re first emailing you?

Omar Khan: For me, it’s the same. I always like it if a student comes in and says, I haven’t really done any work in this formerly in the lab. I’ve done a lot of undergraduate training, a lot of coursework, but I’d really love to explore this area. That’s always great, and it’s just as great for someone to say that I have a real passion about this specific area, and I see you’ve done some work in there and I would love to explore that more with you as my academic supervisor. That’s always a great as well. There’s really kind of two ways you can look at it, and really, it’s about the ability to kind of get that across and communicate that and that’s really what’s important.

So how long should they craft their email? This is another common question that we get from prospective students. They’re not sure if they should write you an essay? Or they should keep it under, let’s say 500 words? Do you have any guidelines on how long that particular email should be?

Omar Khan: I think it’s important to always try to keep things as short as possible, but not to the detriment of your content, and that’s a great way to go. If it’s long for the sake of being long, or if it’s long words just listing your CV and then you have a CV attachment. That is, if there’s interest, we’ll look at the CV and we’ll look at the transcripts, but what we’re trying to do is, understand a bit more about who you are, what your motivations are, and what is it about this lab that makes you think it’s a good fit. Those are really important things for us because we are just beating you. But you’ve had the potential to learn a lot more about us, and anything you can do to help us see what you see is fantastic.

What are some of the best practices that you will suggest? You kind of mentioned some of them already, keeping it brief, as well as identifying the specific interests that they want to pursue in your lab. What are some of the other best practices that you would like to see from prospective students who are applying to your lab?

Omar Khan: It’s always nice to be proactive. Some professors appreciate it if you mentioned that, I’m really interested in applying for this fellowship and or this scholarship, and if I can get your feedback on some of that, that’s great. That also shows some initiative. I know, at least from my time in America, that was a great way a lot of professors filtered out just the shotgun emails that went to everyone, or they say that I’m interested in joining your lab, would you be interested in reviewing a scholarship application I’m doing, and if I get the scholarship can I come to your lab. That’s also really handy for students who are aren’t domestic, for an international student because that is also a great way to overcome that kind of activation barrier. That being said at Toronto, we absolutely love having as many international students as we can get our hands on. That extra perspective is wonderful, especially for us with a global outlook, and we absolutely want that.

What I’m hearing from that is there has to be some kind of understanding of the processes of graduate school. You mentioned when students usually come in, they have gone through this process of scholarship applications. And if they can kind of demonstrate the fact that they’re aware of this process, and they have taken the initiative to start that process, that is a boon to make their email or their application stand out.

Omar Khan: Absolutely. I think it may be a bit easier for domestic students because they are already familiar with the system, and for International students again, it’s apologized that it may feel like an extra burden. But it’s also great for them to start that homework early, because then they can at least come in on more of a level footing with others who are already familiar with this system. That’s always great, and again, what we’re looking for is maintaining our global outlook and our diversity, so we want to encourage everyone to do that. And if part of that means you understand the administrative process, you know, absolutely, that’s well worth your time.

After they get through the first barrier, which is that email the next process is really for you to look at their CV and to evaluate their past experiences. What do you look for in their CV or their letter of intent if they do decide to include that in the email?

Omar Khan: While the CV is always great, and things like transcripts are great because they at least tell you if they meet the institutions minimum cutoff. And that way you know that they’re able to get into grad school and join, so that’s kind of the first pass. But I can speak personally about what I look at when I see CV’s and I tend to like people who have interesting perspectives, because I think a diversity of perspectives is excellent for science because people have different ways of looking at problems, and that is always where I find the most fun and creative and interesting innovation comes from. So, don’t necessarily be worried about showing that you’ve done some work in an area that is a bit different from what you would think a standard academic would do. Your collective experiences make you who you are, and, you know, a CV helps us understand a bit more about your path. On my CV when I was younger, I put that I worked in an Ice Cream Factory and you know, it was It was a great experience for me, because I’m a chemical engineer and what we’re working with is basically like a plant that makes ice cream, and it was a lot of fun.

After this podcast is published, you’re going to get a lot of students who are going to say that their past experience has been working in an Ice Cream Factory.

Omar Khan: Well, I don’t know if they would like that experience, especially when the cooling system fails, and all the ice cream goes rancid. I don’t eat ice cream anymore. I’ll tell you that.

Well, Omar thanks for being here.

Omar Khan: Well, thanks for having me. I appreciate the invite and happy to be here.