How to Email a Potential Supervisor

It’s well known that contacting a potential PhD supervisor before applying to their position can greatly increase your chances of success. Unfortunately, it also works the opposite way.

The good news is that leaving a great impression is much simpler than you would think; it simply comes down to how you structure your first email.

To learn how to email a potential supervisor the correct way, follow our guidelines below.

Guidelines for Your First Email

1. Do Your Research

Before contacting a supervisor, you need to have researched them. Hopefully, you would have already have done this before deciding that they would be suitable for your project. However, if you haven’t, read up and learn about their research.

This is important to confirm that your project is relevant to the supervisor and that they have suitable expertise to support you.

As well as information about their research and recent publications, you can find their email address on their University’s academic profile page. Their email address should also be available in the PhD listing you originally saw the position.

2. Use a Clear Subject Line

Use a short subject line which clearly shows your intention. Supervisors receive countless emails a day from students, other professors, external collaborators and research bodies. Therefore, an unclear subject line will probably go unnoticed in their busy inbox.

Good examples of subject lines include:

  • Enquiry for NERC-funded PhD in Climate Change
  • Prospective Applicant – EPSRC – Material Science PhD

If the University provides a reference number in the PhD listing you found the position, ensure you include it at the end of your subject line.

3. Address Them

Always start your email with “Dear” followed by the supervisor’s surname.

Make sure you use the supervisor’s correct title. Starting an email to a professor with “Dear Dr” rather than “Dear Professor” won’t only annoy them but will imply you have poor attention to detail. Therefore, using the wrong title will immediately set a poor impression and sometimes may even be enough for the supervisor to stop reading your email.

4. Introduce Yourself and State Your Intentions

First, introduce yourself by providing the following information:

  • Your name
  • Your academic qualifications
  • Your level of experience

Second, indicate that you are interested in undertaking a doctoral research project. If you’re emailing regarding a specific project, then provide its title.

If the University isn’t offering projects with pre-defined titles, then instead indicate which specific areas of the research field you are interested in. When expressing your research interests, also discuss why you are interested in having them as your supervisor. In your explanation, include relevant examples of their recent work and relate it back to your research topic. This will show the supervisor that you have thought about the direction of your research and have undertaken detailed research around the topic. It will also show that you’re familiar with their work. This won’t only help build rapport but will also show the supervisor that you believe he will be a good match for you.

After discussing your interests, confirm that you meet the eligibility requirements and move on to discuss your funding situation. If you intend to apply for funding or a scholarship on acceptance into your programme, mention this and list the names of the funding bodies and scholarships you will be applying to.

5. Conclude

Conclude your email by reinforcing your enthusiasm for the position and summarising why you think you’d make a great research student.

In addition to this, you could also suggest a meeting as a way for the two of you to discuss the contents of your email. This isn’t required but does sometimes make it easier for the supervisor if they have a lot to discuss.

6. Thank Them

Thank the supervisor for their time and end your email with “Kind regards” followed by your first and last name in full.

Email Etiquette

Sample email and etiquette for meeting request with supervisor

Attach Supporting Information

Your goal should be to make the exchange as simple as possible for the supervisor. Therefore, attach any supporting information such as your CV if you expect they may ask for it or find it useful. This will save them having to email you back asking for further information should they need it.

Keep It Brief

As mentioned above, supervisors won’t have time to keep going back and forth, therefore, avoid vague statements or being too broad about your interests.

Whilst it’s OK to email several potential supervisors offering similar positions, ensure you tailor each one so it’s relevant to the specific supervisor you’re emailing. If your email is too generic, they’ll likely think you repurposed it from one of your earlier emails to another supervisor and so choose to ignore it.

Lastly, before you hit send, read over your email and confirm it’s free from any grammatical mistakes. As a postgraduate student applying to a PhD position, your email needs to be error-free.

Be Patient With Follow-Ups

Supervisors are extremely busy people. They have classes to teach, research students to supervise and several independent projects to lead. Therefore, don’t be too disheartened if you don’t hear back from them right away.

If you don’t receive a reply after a week, send them a polite follow up. If they still don’t get in contact after another week, they’ve likely either stopped accepting applicants are too overwhelmed to process their inbox. In these cases, it’s best to start looking for alternative supervisors.

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