Should You Contact Professors Before Applying to Grad School? — The Admit Lab

Philippe Barr, PhD
8 min readMar 24, 2023

So, you’re a budding scholar and ready to embark on the exciting journey of applying to grad school, and you have been asking yourself: Should I contact professors before applying to grad school or not? You Googled “how do I apply,” only to be filled with hundreds of headlines that are completely contradictory as to what you should do next: “contact professors right away!” says one, and “wait until after admission decisions for sure” screams another.

So what’s an aspiring graduate student supposed to do? Should you contact professors before applying to grad school or not? Let’s dive into this pressing matter and take out all the guesswork!

The Myth Behind Contacting Professors Before Sending Your Ph.D. Application

Students write to professors before applying to grad school for several reasons. Firstly, they believe it can be a great way to introduce themselves and make a good first impression. By offering their thoughts on the professor’s research or asking questions about their field of study, students aim to demonstrate their interest in the professor’s work and show that they are eager to learn more. Others contact a professor because they believe it can allow them to gain feedback on their plans and goals related to graduate school. They often think that professors may be able to guide them on specific programs or courses that may fit their academic interests. Some think that professors can use their connections with other faculty or administrators at graduate schools to help recommend them for admission or even refer them directly.

In other words, many prospective students think that “who you know” is more important than “what you know and do” when applying to Ph.D. programs, and oftentimes, applicants make contact with faculty to stand out from the competition and gain a competitive edge.

The Harsh Reality of Trying to Network Yourself Into A Ph.D. Program

While emailing professors before receiving an admissions offer has become more commonplace, it has become a less viable plan. In reality, professors are becoming increasingly frustrated and overwhelmed with the sheer volume of inquiry emails flooding their inboxes. For this reason, reaching out to faculty before acceptance should be avoided if possible. Unless stated otherwise on the program’s website, there is no point in emailing a professor to inquire about admission. Why? It would be unjustified and unproductive to attempt to sidestep the established admissions process by contacting a faculty member since they often have little-to-no authority in the admission decisions.

A faculty committee evaluates all applicants and ultimately determines who will be admitted based on their collective merit. After all, it’s the department’s objective to invite those whom they deem to be most capable overall; which requires a thorough comparison of each application against every other applicant’s credentials. Sending an email directly to just one professor offers them nothing more than an incomplete picture — offering no basis for comparison with rival contenders.

Moreover, in numerous university departments, Ph.D. students are not assigned until the incoming class is accepted by the admissions committee and a few weeks have been spent introducing students and faculty to one another. If you’re contemplating embarking on a Ph.D., it’s best to hold off choosing your professor or research project until after you’ve had the chance to meet with them in person and discuss potential prospects. Picking a dissertation mentor is arguably the most significant decision you’ll make in your educational experience. Much like in a relationship, it’s better to build a rapport with someone first and then let their research be the catalyst for your topic selection instead of vice versa. After all, this type of relationship should not be established via email- so take your time and get it right!

In other words, timing should be an important element as you are wondering if you should contact professors before applying to grad school or not. The ideal time to reach out to a professor is after you’ve been admitted, and when you’re physically present on campus. Your application is the only thing that matters; words won’t sway the decision whether or not you are admitted.

As a potential Ph.D. student, you should be aware of and adhere to the department’s policy regarding pre-admission inquiries to faculty members. If the policy permits or encourages such contact before enrollment, those contacts must be made with care. Professors have a broad array of views on their level of contact with applicants. While some welcome the opportunity to connect, others are indifferent or uninterested in forming relationships. Some even view applicant outreach as detrimental at worst. It all depends on the individual professor’s perspective and preference! Certain professors express disdain for communication with prospective students, as they tend to perceive it as an effort to gain favor. This is especially true when the queries posed by applicants are ill-informed or inappropriate. When an applicant’s communication is focused mainly on their chances of admission, professors tend to assume that this individual may need extra guidance throughout graduate school.

Although some professors are open to receiving inquiries, it can often be difficult to decide when and if it is the right time to reach out.

So, when should you contact professors before applying to grad school?

Cold-calling professors can leave a negative impression on your application, so it’s not recommended. On the contrary, some professors take offense to phone calls and may even view you negatively as an applicant. To avoid this scenario altogether, refrain from initiating contact by telephone to give yourself the best chance of success with your application.

Sending an email is the ideal course of action, as it provides your professor with adequate time to contemplate your inquiry and provide a fitting response. We tend to prefer short emails that request a more informal exchange with the professor via phone and Zoom.

If you are genuinely interested and have done thorough research into the professor’s work, then it can be beneficial to reach out to them. Expressing genuine curiosity about their scholarship is an excellent way for you to demonstrate that you are well-read and engaged with the subject matter.

Unless you plan to send 50 unique messages, it’s best not to blast out a generic email. Not only will this likely do nothing for your candidacy, but such careless behavior could compromise the quality of your application and leave an unfavorable impression. If you craft a message that’s tailored to each professor and demonstrates your research into why they would be the perfect fit for you, then it can dramatically increase the likelihood of receiving an informative response.

When should you not contact professors before applying to grad school.

Don’t reach out to a faculty member unless you have a pertinent question and know what it is that they do. Ensure that you are well-informed on the professor’s research interests before making contact, as this will demonstrate your respect for their work. Doing so means your inquiry should be meaningful and purposeful — not superfluous or aimless.

If you believe that contacting them is your ticket into the program. There’s no good reason to do this. Your motivations are more apparent than you’re aware of, so if your goal is just to let someone know your name, drop it, and don’t bother contacting them. Being memorable isn’t always good; rather, students should prioritize connecting in meaningful ways that are beneficial for both parties. Don’t waste your time attempting to make contact and ask a question that can already be found on the website — it will not earn you any extra points. If the website does not address your inquiries about the program, it is best to ask either the graduate program administrator or the program director for further information instead of individual faculty.

Contacting professors is often a hit or miss

Many professors don’t answer emails from applicants due to their overflowing inboxes, but that doesn’t mean your graduate school dreams are dashed. In fact, oftentimes professors remain silent because they are busy with their own research and current students-so a lack of contact shouldn’t be taken as disinterest in you!

If you receive a response, be sure to express your gratitude briefly. Professors are often busy and wouldn’t want to engage in an overly long email exchange with prospective applicants. Unless there is something new that needs mentioning, avoid replying beyond sending a short thank-you note.

Networking is not necessarily all about connecting with professors

Reaching out to alumni from the school you’re applying to, and attending events for prospective students are all great ways to make valuable connections. This will not only provide insight into the application process but also give you access to individuals who can offer helpful advice and support throughout your journey. Ultimately, establishing relationships with key individuals in the academic community may be one of the most crucial elements in achieving success when applying for a Ph.D. program and does not necessarily have to be with a professor!

Bottom Line

As you have seen, the answer to the “Should I contact professors before applying to grad school” question is a tricky one. Knowing to reach out to professors can make the difference between being admitted and rejected into a Ph.D. program. As a prospective student, you should avoid prematurely reaching out to professors before submitting your applications, but if you choose to do so, you should handle it cautiously and professionally. Ultimately, it is up to each student to decide what path they are willing to take while preparing for the application.

If you are still uncertain about how best to proceed, consider signing up for a free admissions consultation with an experienced professor who can provide valuable guidance. With the right advice, you may be able to make the most of your Ph.D. application process!

Originally published at https://admit-lab.com on March 24, 2023.

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Philippe Barr, PhD

I am Philippe Barr, founder of The Admit Lab, a graduate school admissions consultancy that helps students get admitted into grad school: https://admit-lab.com/