How to contact an academic

Ever since I started graduate school, I've gotten the occasional academic spam from applying students.  These folks are obviously trying to be clever by automating their emails, but usually people see through it.  I also regularly get emails from people who want to work for my advisor, or from friends and strangers who want advice on applying to grad school.  It feels as though I've repeating myself recently, so I'm collecting all of my advice about contacting professors (or other academics) into a blog post.

1. Keep it brief

Nobody likes a long rambling email, except maybe your mom.  At the most, attach or link a CV/resume.   A general template is to introduce yourself, express why you're interested in their work, and then tell them what you want.  Each of these can easily be one sentence, maybe two.  If you want to put lots of effort into this email because it's really important to you, don't just make it longer.  Instead, take the time to craft your words so they read quickly and easily.

2. Have a purpose / Make it easy for them to respond

Think about why you're writing to this person.  Is it because you want to be noticed in graduate applications?  If that's it, just skip the email because it probably won't do anything.  You should only email folks when you have a purpose.  Examples of good purposes: you want to be a research assistant, want to join their reading group, would like to sit in on a group meeting, or would like to schedule a meeting with them (e.g., to get their advice on a project).  If you make it clear what you want, and show that it isn't that much work for them (15m of their time or a two-line email response), then they're much more likely to respond positively.

Now, contrary to what I just said, you can still write to a professor even if you just want to be noticed for graduate school applications.  You just need an additional reason, like one of the examples I mentioned above.  You should simply say that you're applying, would love to join their research group, and then give them that extra something else that allows them to respond easily, like asking if you can stop in on their group meeting or if they could put you in touch with one of their current students.  Simply saying "I'm applying to grad school at your university" is usually a waste of everyone's time, yours included.

If you don't actually need them to respond, you can just say so, but sometimes it's implicit.  "I just wanted to thank you for your great work on ABC; I've used it for XYZ and thought you might be interested in seeing the results at <link>."  Regardless of whether or not you want a response, make it clear why you're writing to them so that they know what to with the email; this is just general email etiquette.

3. Do your homework

Read their papers.  Download and run their code.  This takes a bit of work, but you should only be contacting a handful of people anyway—probably under a dozen if you're applying to graduate school, or maybe three if you're looking for a research position at your current institution.  If reading their papers is intensely painful for you, then maybe you shouldn't be writing to them.

You also want to avoid looking silly.  You shouldn't be asking them questions that they've answered recently on their blog, or asking for their latest reading group paper that's posted on an easy-to-find publicly available schedule.

The last reason you want to do your homework is that you don't want to look like a bot.  Consider the difference between "I like your research in machine learning" and "I like your research on visualizing topic models".  The first could be sent to thousands of people, but the second could only be sent to a handful.  If the content of your email is sufficiently personal, it's obvious that you're a human being that might be worth responding to.


Keep your messages short, sincere, and specific.  These seem like good guides for general correspondence as well.

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