Throughout the CS PhD application process the question of to cold email or not to cold email caused me great consternation. I talked with my advisors and scoured the web for useful advice and, predictably, found well reasoned arguments for both positions.

Detailed below is my own take on the cold email conundrum. With this approach, I had a 100% response rate. Keep in mind that this could be a fluke – the professors I emailed were incredibly gracious with their time – all I know is that it worked for me so I figured it was worth writing up.

This post is part of my series on getting into CS PhD programs from the perspective of a current (AY: 2020-2021) college senior. You can find the master post here.

Step 0: Try to evade the cold email

Nearly all of my advisors told me that they and their PhD advisors were inundated with cold emails from students all over the world. As such, try your best to see if you can evade the cold email by having one of your professors make an introduction for you. Academia is surprisingly small so it is worth asking around to see if someone could make an introduction on your behalf.

I know this is a post about cold emails, but – if you can – this approach is the best way to get on a grad school professor’s radar because (1) they are far more likely to read an email from a colleague and (2) the professor making the introduction for you probably thinks highly of you and will pass on that assessment in their email.

Luck and privilege play a huge factor in this approach which is why I didn’t make a whole post about this. If you can get an introduction stop reading here. If not, read on!

Step 1: Check the Professor’s website to make sure they want an email

Many professors will have a “prospective students” tab on either their personal or lab website. If none can be found poke around a little bit. Your search will have three outcomes:

  1. The professor says not to email
    1. Your journey ends here. Move on to either another professor to email.
  2. The professor says to email
    1. Great! Take note of any special instructions that the professor may have. E.g., things to include in the email, keywords for the subject line, etc.
  3. The professor doesn’t have any information about perspective students in their entire web presence
    1. This one is hard. I would only email this professor if you can name drop someone in the field who pointed you in their direction. If you found this professor on your own I would not send an email.

Step 2: Write the email

My email writing template was pretty straightforward and inspired by the advice on Dr. AJung Moon’s website. Emailing the professor that you have a 4.0 GPA and are interested in computers isn’t very helpful. Neither of those factors directly translate into a researcher that will mesh well with the professor’s work. You do, however, want to show that you can think, are interested in this professor’s research specifically, and have a background/passion that makes you a good candidate to hire.

The email you write should be short but not terse, broken into multiple paragraphs so it is easy to read, and have a clear statement on what you want from the recipient. Sending a long, rambly email about how much you love the person’s work is nice, but you’re not looking to write fan mail. By the same token, you shouldn’t be making demands of the recipient either.

Here is a high level breakdown on how I formatted the body of cold emails paragraph by paragraph:

  • Paragraph 1: Introduce yourself in one to two sentences. Mention if a colleague of theirs pointed you in their direction.
  • Paragraph 2: Explain your interests and background. Tie this into the work that the professor does.
    • Name drop a recent paper or two that they were first or final author on.
      • Ask a “smart” question about the paper(s) you name dropped (this is to prove that you actually read and understood their papers).
  • Paragraph 3: Make your ask of the professor.
    • E.g., could we have a brief video call so I could learn more about your work.

A few final notes:

  • If the professor has instructions on their website on how to email them that obviously supersedes the information above.
  • Perhaps it was a mistake of mine, but I never attached my CV unless it was requested. It felt too aggressive to me. My thinking was if they liked me they would either (1) ask for my CV or (2) see it when they read my application; the most relevant parts of my CV were in my email anyway.