Emailing or Writing to a Potential Phd Supervisor
Once you’ve decided that a PhD is for you, getting the best supervisor you can is essential, not just to your progress academically but also to the levels of funding available to you and the scope for presenting research findings at conferences and symposia through the period of your project.
Researching The FieldGiven that you are about to become a conductor of original research, one of the key areas in which your research skills will be tested is that of identifying your supervisor shortlist.
Begin by asking yourself some questions that will help you identify what you need from a supervisor.
- Are you a self-starter or a team player?
- Do you like to be challenged or supported?
- Which is more exciting – a completely original idea or building upon an established basis of knowledge?
- Does potential failure interest or threaten you?
Answering these questions helps you work out the level of support you will require from a supervisor, the degree to which you need constant contact with them, and the scope your personality allows for risk-taking. While you don’t have to reveal this research to your eventual supervisor, it’s a good idea to undertake this scoping survey before identifying your shortlist.
Then explore who is doing work in your area of interest, and find out what you can about their work and their working methods. A recent survey of academics based at University College London revealed that 67% of them had received research enquiries that did not relate to their current research interests. Not only is this a waste of their time, and yours, in very small fields of research it can lead to you getting known as somebody who doesn’t do effective research before approaching people – a black mark to have against your name even before you’ve begun.
Once you’ve identified a shortlist, examine their recent publications to find out who, if anybody, they collaborate with – this gives you some idea of their place on the scale of ‘supportive v hands off’. If possible, go to lectures they give or find them on the internet, so that you develop a sense of their communication style.
Given that you feel confident that your potential supervisor(s) are appropriate to approach, send them an email or letter well in advance of your application deadline.
The Contents Of An Approach LetterBegin by choosing a good subject line for your email. Remember that a good supervisor will be getting loads of approaches and needs to find yours quickly in their inbox.
Ensure your greeting is formal ‘Dear Professor’ or something similar. Then state your current situation concisely: where you are completing your first degree or MA and which PhD programme you are considering applying to.
Say something about their recent work e.g. ‘I read your paper on X and found your conclusion Y to be of particular interest to my planned field of research Z’. This immediately locates you as somebody who has found a link between their work and your own. Describe any insight you have or what it was you found interesting in the paper and, if possible, link it to your own intended project.
In not more than two sentences, introduce yourself, including any worthwhile recent academic achievements such as fellowships, scholarships or extremely high grades. Ask if they would be interested in supervising your project. Remember to include your name, email address, postal address and telephone numbers at the end of the email so he or she doesn’t have to hunt around for this information.
It’s important to remember that you’ve chosen the people on your shortlist because they are experts at the top of their field. Many others will be contacting them too. If you don’t hear back within a couple of weeks, send a brief reminder email with your original message pasted in below and if you don’t hear back then, assume that the individual either isn’t interested or isn’t good at communicating – and move on.
What Not To Do
- Don’t send information about your personal life, or your academic career before university (unless it was scholarship or exhibition level).
- Don’t write too much – the best idea is to get your message onto a single page of A4 to post, or a single screen shot (excluding name and address details) if emailing. If your approach is interesting, you may be invited to correspond with a potential supervisor and at that point you can expand on your initial ideas.
- Never bother with claims of being a hard worker, a creative thinker or a team player – everybody makes such claims and they waste time and space better dedicated to proving you’re smarter and more focused than the average!
- Similarly, don’t write fawning sentences flattering the potential supervisor. It’s safe to say they know how brilliant they are and that you want to work with them. But if you can comment intelligently on some aspect of their work, do so.
- Never send attachments. Put everything in a basic email and if you really must supply ancillary information does it as a URL to a web page, and make it a clickable link, not just a cut and paste. If you can’t create a simple web page to showcase your PhD aspirations, it may be time to take a crash course in peer-to-peer communications online, to ensure you can work as others do. Cloud research, online collaboration and cloud computing are all part of the modern research world and it’s vital to show that you have an understanding of them.