For every student, there comes a time when you will be searching for professors outside your university for research opportunities, and cold emailing is the only viable option for many. Here, I have compiled some tips about drafting and sending out emails requesting a chance to dip your toe into some exciting research. If you want to know about finding opportunities in the first place, check out this article.
What to Write
Start with your year, branch and college, etc. thus introducing yourself in a few lines. Please do not write about your college rankings here; that data is not relevant to your relationship with him. Mention the broad domain of your interest here in a line or two. If you are in the top ‘something’ of your college, it goes here as well.
Tell him/her about the opportunity you are looking for, the time and duration, and what you want from(anything else than the above, that is). If you are applying through an internship program, let them know here. It is needed because if there is one, it is for taking the weight off the professors for getting the interns through cold emails. You can then orient this mail as something for getting more information about his/her research and guidance than boring him with the internship details like grades, transcripts, and so on. This will show your interest and determination towards the professor.
Write about how have you come to know about the professor’s profile. For instance, he/she might have given a talk that you attended, or a professor at your university might have suggested this one, or it could be as simple that, you found his profile as you were scouring through the university’s website (Don’t frame it as I have here though!). This gives a sense of credibility that you have gone through research interests to find professors rather than just pegging a university and mailing everyone there.
Background and Interests
Here you write about your academic background, the relevant courses you have taken or are doing. You can even write about a course you are expecting to take in the near future. In this part, you are basically trying to convince the professors of how you got interested in the domain and how your previous projects and internships helped you bolster that. Include academic accomplishments, like publishing a paper or a conference here. Do not put any extracurricular achievements, no matter how impressive. Your personal traits are indeed reflected in that, but the professor will experience those when working with him/her, so they have no importance now.
Connect the previous points to the professor in question. Go through his research beforehand. If you are an undergrad, you will most probably understand nothing, which is fine, but the familiarity does help. In this section, you can write to the tune of ‘When I doing this and this, I came across (this and this) and thus your paper on (so and so) caught my interest, and I studied (so and so) sections…’ A couple of papers here should be fine. If your past work hasn’t been related at all, you write about a specific topic you self-studied after having come across it in the research paper. In this section, you aim to convince the professor that you haven’t chosen him/her at random and you have actually given some thought to who you are mailing to.
Past projects and learning outcomes
Most of your project experience will be covered in point 4, but here you might want to mention, in a line or so, about some important project that is not directly related to the professor’s field but might highlight a few skills. For example, if you apply for physics or fluid mechanics, a C or python based coding project can bolster your chances. For first or second years, even LaTeX and MATLAB can be valuable skills. As for the learning outcomes, you can mention here if you are currently studying a textbook or course to improve your domain knowledge. It would be best if you ended the mail with what you are doing currently, as it gives a nice closure to the reader, and it will remain in the reader’s mind for some time. It will also convey to the professor that you are actually striving towards your interests.
At last, don’t forget to attach your CV and academic transcripts. Include only 3-4 most relevant projects and make it so that the resume is no more than a page.
If you are looking for a first-time opportunity or you are switching fields, it’s a good idea to ask them for some remote work so that you both can get familiar with each other before committing to a months-long internship or a thesis.
In the above writing points, do not consider the points’ order to be rigid, particularly with the last few ones. Just be sure to include all of the aspects. If you think that for your points, you can spin it better in another way, go for it. As with everything, you will need a little personal experimenting to see what kind of order works the best for you.
The length of the email is an important issue. The first glance of the reader sets his/her mood for the next few minutes. If you write a long mail without proper formatting, the reader subconsciously gives you half-assed attention. So, it’s a good practice that once you draft your email, you recheck it after a few hours or get a second opinion.
One of the most common doubts is how wide should one apply. In the writing tips section, I said to be specific about your field of interest, but it can go wrong if you cross a line. It might happen that if you constrain your field of interest too much, the professor might not be currently working in that. Or it sends a message that you are following online articles about mailing (like this one) very literally and making an ill-informed choice about your field of interest. Particularly for undergraduates, you are not expected to put out a research proposal or anything. Simply tell the professor about the courses you liked, what aspects of the projects you worked on appealed to you the most, and what are you exploring. Let him/her worry about the rest.
Perhaps the most critical point to take care of, to ensure a reply is the timing of the mail. If you can, talk to some people who have worked at the university before to know the general schedule of the professors there. As a whole, try to avoid the first 1-2 days after a holiday or a weekend. Many busy professors don’t open their professional emails on the weekend to keep some personal time, so your mail might get overlooked amongst the accumulated mails. So a good period would be the middle and end of the week.
As for the time of day, aim so that the professor gets the mail in the noon or early evening. Morning is lecture-time or most important things of the day and after the evening is the personal time. In my personal experience, I had mailed a professor at midnight, and he didn’t reply even after a reminder mail. I sent the second reminder mail at about 2 pm in his country, got a reply within an hour.
Its generally accepted that reminder emails are a necessity for replies. After your initial mail, give it at least 4-5 days before you start sending reminder emails each with a spacing of 3-4 days. It’s not a rule, but I found this schedule to be appropriate.
To cap it all off, you will want to know that this process involves a significant part of luck. So, do not get disheartened with no replies or even rejections.
Hold your chin up and keep Hustling!