How to email a professor
It is a hugely sad fact of life that professors at universities are ridiculously swamped. As a result, email is a day to day process of ruthless triage. This means that if you're cold-emailing a professor art your institution or some other one, there's a good chance you simply won't get a reply. Here are some tips that might help, though I can make no promises of success, not even with regard to my own responsiveness. I'm going to use an actual message that a student in my lab shared with me after not receiving a reply from the professor they were writing to. I'm also including brief take-aways for the comments.
- Hello Professor,
There's problem #1 right off the bat. It may seem like this is a respectful way to start an email, but it's also the way lots and lots of students bulk-send messages to multiple professors. There's nothing wrong with "Hello" (though the more formal "Dear" is also fine). But use the professor's name. And, although this is a minor point, preferably use the norms of the professor's own institution if your norms are different; my name is Philip Resnik, so in my case it would be "Dear Professor Resnik", not, for example, "Dear Resnik".
Take-away. Make sure the prof knows you're writing specifically to them.
- I am an artificial intelligence researcher at the University of Maryland (resume attached).
This student is, in fact, an artificial intelligence researcher, and quite an accomplished one. But there are a few problems with this. First, it's not representing the most important fact about the student, which is that they're an undergraduate at the same institution. "I am a rising senior in Computer Science here at UMD" would be much better: many professors appropriately feel a commitment to not ignoring students at their own institution. By saying this you not only trigger that sense of commitment when it exists, but you also create a stronger sense of connection. Plus being specific about what year you're in starts to lay foundations for whatever "ask" you're going to be going for.
As a second point, this is not the place to flag the resume attachment; the prof doesn't want to look at a resume until they have some idea why they would be doing so. The right place for this is at the end; see below.
Take-away. Introduce yourself appropriately for the context of this specific email.
- I have done natural language processing and deep reinforcement learning research for the last few years, and am now looking for something different. I got really into plants this past semester (currently 70+ plants, 17 different species in my room). I have also started foraging to make teas, and have been generally recovering from my previous 'plant blindness'.
This is mostly ok. But it could use a few tweaks.
- You need to target your specific audience; in this case it's a CS student writing to a prof in a non-CS department, so terms like "natural language processing" and "deep reinforcement learning" are probably not going to be particularly meaningful. You want to give them what is most relevant to them at the right level, e.g. in this case something more like "I have been doing AI research since my sophomore year.".
- Saying "I'm looking for something different" is not the way to convey to a prof that you're deeply interested in the kind of thing they do! Skip to the stuff that conveys that enthusiasm. In this case continuing with "I got really into" through the end of the paragraph is fine, although I might suggest being a little less informal, e.g. "I became seriously interested in" rather than "I got really into".
- The sentence beginning "I am fascinated by" is great but it should be the beginning of a new paragraph. Remember learning in high school that every paragraph should have exactly one point? The previous stuff is introducing relevant aspects of yourself for context. But now you're transitioning to the reason you're writing.
- "Seeing that you are interested in the former" -- this is high level and vague. It's the kind of thing that you could write just having taken ten seconds looking at the prof's web page and seeing the word "phytoremediation". What you want to do when writing to a prof is show that you have put in the effort, done your homework. For this sentence you want to convey that you took the time to do your homework. You've looked at their publications, watched a video of a talk they gave... What you need to demonstrate here is not just interest, but initiative and a willingness to put in effort.
- You have some credits to burn and are trying fill time? That's supposed to induce an overwhelmed professor to spend time on you??! What you want to be doing here is to reinforce the strength of your interest and the impression that there's a potential win-win here. Working with an undergrad is a serious investment of time, and it's usually a high-risk investment; you do it because it's good for the student, despite non-trivial odds that no substantial research progress will be made, but you also want those odds to be as good as possible.
This is threfore good place to be more specific about your interest. In this student's case, they actually have specific, compelling reasons for believing phytoremediation is an important topic: Ukraine is grappling with environmental contamination in its wheat fields and other areas due to munitions, including depleted uranium shells, with implications both for its agricultural economy and health risks such as radiation exposure. That is, the student has actually been thoughtful about why this topic is important and the kinds of issues they care about, but none of that is coming across here in the email. This is the place to be more specific, and again to show initiative. Have you already looked for research articles talking about phytoremediation and munitions? About the effects of environmental contamination on Ukraine's economy (or other examples from previous wars that provide models or insight)? Say so. And if you haven't, maybe do that kind of thing first so you can say so. Nobody expects an undergrad to already be an expert, but the more you can show you're already partway up the on-ramp to understanding the issues, and to understanding what research in the professor's field is about and how it's done, the better.
- Finally, there's the "ask". Forget about mentioning credits: what you want to be emphasizing is the desire to get involved in this kind of work, and what you should be asking for is a conversation or, if that might not be possible, a pointer to other faculty who it might make sense to reach out to.
- The end is the place for supplemental information -- again, as a separate paragraph. E.g. "In case it might be helpful, I'm attaching my resume." At this point if you've piqued the prof's interest, they can look for your GPA, at your previous research experience, at your skills, etc. This will help them decide whether a conversation makes sense; for example, if their research requires experience programming in MATLAB and you don't list that under your skills, they're equipped to calibrate whether teaching you what you need to know is going to be an obstacle.
- Best, [name]. "Best", not "Thank you"? It is good form to thank someone for their time. At minimum in the sign off, but often it is good to include not only a thank-you but also an indication that you know they may not choose to respond in the way you hope (or at all). For example: "Thank you, and I look forward to the possibility of talking with you". I acknowledge that the latter is a complicated issue: the power dynamic between professors and students should in principle not create a situation where the student feels like a supplicant expected to demonstrate humility, and IMHO good professors avoid that kind of thing like the plague. But the reality is that there are all sorts of reasons, conscious and unconscious, that professors might react negatively to an unsolicited email, plus even professors like to feel that someone knows their time is valuable. (See also the related comments above about doing your homework and reading FAQs.) Here, as in many other aspects of life, there is little harm in erring on the side of politeness and appreciation.
Take-aways. Do your homework. Demonstrate initiative and a willingness to put in effort. Make sure you're giving the prof reasons to want to talk to you by providing evidence for a win-win.
As one more note, many professors' web pages provide a link to a Frequently Asked Questions or other info for students who might be interested in working with them. Read it. My own FAQ, for example -- which is prominently visible on my web page -- says right up front that if email from a student is not addressed to me by name, I will delete the message immediately without reading the rest. And I do. I also say in that FAQ that the student should tell me they've read the FAQ before writing to me. If a student does not, what they'll get back is a boilerplate response saying they should do so and then write again.
Take-away. Profs have often taken the time to give you useful information. Use it.
Although expressed in terms of students writing to professors, the advice above generally holds for many kinds of communications. As always, your mileage may vary, but I hope this might be helpful!