Applying to Graduate School: Connecting with Potential Advisors

Have you taken the GRE? Identified your research interests? Determined whether you’ll be applying to master’s programs, PhD programs, or both?

If not, check here.

If the answer is yes…

It’s that time of year where if you’re planning on sending in formal applications to graduate programs this cycle, you should begin to identify and reach out to professors whose research you are interested in.

This is arguably the most important part of the application process. Identifying an advisor you want to work with, and who also wants to work with you, can earn you admission into a graduate program. In marine science, connecting with an advisor who expresses interest in your admission to the admissions committee is often the most important part of their decision.

Identifying whom you would like to work with can take some time, so start early. The way I approached this was to go through the faculty lists of the marine science departments in schools I was interested in. You could also identify prospective advisors through research papers that you are interested in. Find a few papers you enjoy and search the authors to see if any have active university labs.

Sending the emails is probably the hardest part of the application process. It’s basically like cold-calling other scientists to ask for a job, but it’s over email instead. I was very uncomfortable sending these emails at first, but after hitting the “send” button many times I am now much more at ease in email communication. This kind of experience can absolutely help you come across as more professional in the future

At first though, it can be tricky to figure out what to send. Here’s my format for maximizing your responses:

1. Subject line.

I always used “Prospective PhD Student” in my subject line. It is short and clear about my reason for emailing. It sounds much more professional than “Interested in Your Lab” or “Applying to XYZ School.”

2. Use the correct title.

Almost in every case the potential advisors you’ll be emailing have their PhDs. If you’ve identified a professor of interest, you’ve probably done your research on them. Make sure you address them by Dr. in your email opening, assuming that’s the correct title.  Since I’m a student representative, occasionally advisors will pass along my details prospective students with questions about our program. I’ve received a few emails calling me Dr. Mnich already! I don’t mind, but it is a little awkward to explain they’ve used the incorrect title. Save yourself the hassle and just to one extra quick confirmation of their title before hitting send

3. Talk about you.

My first paragraph was dedicated to filling in the prospective advisor about me. This way they got a sense of who I am and see me as real person. Even if they aren’t taking students, telling them about yourself in the beginning as opposed to the end (when they may have stopped reading) might make them more inclined to forward your info to a lab that has openings that might be a good fit. This happened to me twice!

What to include here:

  • Your graduation year, degree, and majors/minors.
  • Experiences such as TA work, internships, or research.
  • Experiences that may be relevant to their lab, such as field work or proficiency in a specific technology.
  • Your research interests moving forward.
  • Anything else that makes you stand out!

4. Talk about them.

Next you’ll want to make it clear why you reached out to them specifically. Make sure you are clear here about your research interests and how it fits with their research interests. If this is someone you’re serious about working with, you should be familiar with his or her publications. Recall specific papers of theirs that you found particularly interesting, and what about those papers interested you. Ask them questions specific to their research that shows you’ve read their publications.

5. Ask about their openings.

Let them know exactly why you’re emailing them. The phrase I used was always something like “based on the overlap in our research interests, I am interested in the possibility of joining your lab. Are you accepting students for the upcoming application cycle?” Asking a question helps because then they will be more likely to respond, even if to say they don’t have openings.

6. Sign off.

I always finished with “looking forward to hearing from you” so prospective advisors would be more inclined to respond. I followed this with using “best,” “regards,” or similar to sign off. Anything professional here is okay! During the time of Covid-19, I’ve changed my email sign-off to “take care.”  Remember, they want to work with someone professional but also thoughtful and considerate.

My Experience -

I probably sent about 20 emails to prospective advisors, all from different universities. There was only one person I didn’t hear back from, and I later learned that person was no longer allowed by their university to take graduate students due to a culture of bullying in their lab (as an aside, do your due diligence into your prospective advisors and how they treat their students). Despite a high return rate on emails, there were no more than three or four potential advisors I emailed that had funding to take on a PhD student. However, because I detailed my experience and research interests in my original email, several connected me to other potential advisors who they thought would be a good fit. Funding in the sciences can be very limited, especially in certain fields. My niche was highly specific, so it isn’t surprising that few openings were available to me. This is definitely something to consider as you apply.

Last step, and this is very important – for any responses you receive, whether the person is taking students or not, always respond back thanking them for their time in getting back to you. As someone just starting in academia, I can attest to the fact that potential advisors are very busy, and responding to prospective student emails isn’t a requirement, but is generally out of kindness. Make sure they know it is appreciated!


Best of luck with your networking!




My experience has solely been within the field of marine science in the United States. As with all my advice on this platform, the suggestions here are based on that and may not be applicable to other fields or other countries.

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