Questions for a professor at a PhD program you are applying to

Contact faculty when you apply to graduate school

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Through my work with PhD applicants, it seems clear that reaching out to professors is like a lottery – you never know what response you will get.  Some will try to pass on questions about their own research to program coordinators because they can’t be bothered to read an email.  Others politely copy and paste their standard inquiry response that gives you links to their program pages and fail to answer the question.  Then there are two types of positive responses too.  One is a thoughtful email response that addresses your questions and perhaps even refers you to another person that would be good to contact (at the same university or a different one).

It is quite the rare professor indeed that will suggest a conversation on the phone or via Skype to more completely answer your questions.  These are prized opportunities to be handled with care and preparation.  The tips below will help you make the most of a conversation with a PhD professor whose research you are interested in.

Subject of the conversation

  • Ask about their research, but not in an academic debate way.  They are infinitely “deeper” in their interest than you so try not to go deep.  Ask about the different prospectives they look at their work from, their recent research interests, work that they are no longer doing (and why – so you understand current trends in research).
  • Briefly say a few general things you are interested in – this maximizes the chance they find a match with them.  Don’t go overboard because the conversation is about them, not you.
  • Ask about their interaction with current PhD students and what kind of contribution they make to his research.

The flow of questions and conversation

  • Use a relaxed and conversational tone.  Don’t be a journalist and push to ask every question on your list.  This isn’t an inquisition, but a chance for you to learn about their research and interaction with PhD students in general.
  • If you would like examples, ask for one.  If you don’t understand something, say so and ask for clarification.

How long to talk to professors

  • Be brief.  You want to ask a few questions to get the conversation going, make a good impression, then end the call.  Obviously they value their time so don’t “take” much.  If things go really well and they are “giving” more time then keep talking if there is a real connection.
  • They probably have 15-20 minutes, but a real strong connection could run the call to 45 minutes or more.

Opening remarks and ending comments

  • Opening: This is [your name], hi how are you today?
  • Thank them for offering to speak with you directly.  Tell them how generous that is and how much you appreciate it.
  • Closing: Thank them for the insights or conversation and say how it helped you understand their research and the school’s program even better.  Don’t ask for permission to stay in touch or call them again because you don’t want to be pushy.  Appreciate what you have and they will think better of you than if you try to become their new BFF.

Other useful tips

  • This isn’t an admissions interview – relax and have the conversation you want.  You are curious about his/her research interests, trends, the PhD program and school.
  • Don’t ask any procedural questions: nothing about the application or scholarships at all.  Unless the professor is also the PhD program coordinator or PhD program director, they don’t know or care about the application process.
  • Don’t ask for basic info relating to anything that is explained on the website.  It is ok to ask an oblique question related to it (whatever “it” is) – I see that you worked on X a couple years ago, did you consider it from the emerging market perspective?  Would that be an interesting research question in your work?
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