When I first got interested in research in high school, I remember having a sinking feeling in my stomach. I knew I wanted to do research. But, I didn’t know how to find a research opportunity.
Even worse, I didn’t know who could help guide me on a project! I realized that the only way that I could do research was to reach out and try to ask someone to help me.
The problem – reaching out to professors is hard!
I didn’t know how to write an email that was convincing and that made a researcher want to respond. After sending out hundreds of emails, I finally kicked off a project with a local professor who responded. Along the way, I found out what worked – and what didn’t.
This post comes from my time as a student researcher and leading the Lumiere Research Scholar Program, as a guide to writing that punchy, winning email that gets a professor’s attention.
Emailing Professors: It’s a Numbers Game
I’m going to write below my tested approach to having faculty members respond to outreach emails. But, the reality is that what matters most is the number of people you reach out to.
Many faculty members just won’t have time, so you need to spread out who you reach out to. I recommend reaching out to a minimum of 25 faculty members to get started.
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How to Cold-Email Professors:
Some initial pointers before you begin:
- Be concise. Professors can get several hundred emails in a day and might not have time to go through lengthy emails. Keep your message clear and concise. Making your email easy to read is the best way to entice a professor to spend time reading it. Based on data of online cold outreach, I’d recommend no more 50 to 100 words.
- Show value. It’s important to showcase how you can provide value to the faculty member. Talk about the time you’re willing to commit, the skills that you have, or the way that you think you could contribute.
- Keep it informal. A big mistake many students is making the email too formal. When I was a Ph.D. student at Harvard Business School, I’d get emails that would say “Dear Sir” or “Dear Ma’am” – the reality is that this doesn’t work. Stay informal and direct. I prefer “Hi Professor <>” or Hi <> if the person is a graduate student. Researchers, particularly American researchers, want to be treated like humans!
- Show them you’ve done your research. Talk about why you are interested in their project. What is it about them that matches your interests? You can do this by citing a research paper they’ve written or talking about a topic they have done research on. Most research is publicly available, so do some snooping before you reach out!
- Create a connection. Finally, try to show a connection between you and the researcher. If you come from a similar place, went to a similar school, have a similar past-time (e.g., sports), etc. try to mention that to build a connection. Sometimes it is as simple as saying that you want to become a researcher like them in the future.
3 Cold-Email Examples That Work
Example Email #1: The Aspiring Data Researcher
Subject: Helping your research – Rock Bridge High School Senior
Hi Professor Smith,
This is Stephen – a rising junior at Rock Bridge High School. I recently read your research paper on ‘Open Offices’ in the Harvard Business Review, was fascinated, and wanted to reach out. Would you have 15 minutes to discuss how I could help out your research?
For a bit of background, I’ve spent the past three years working on my skills in python and data analysis. I know that your research involves a lot of quantitative work, so I wanted to see if I could help out with that – or anything else that needs some work!
Long-term, I’m hoping to become a researcher like you. So, I’d love the opportunity to work with a researcher that I admire like yourself!
Example Email #2: The Curious Biology Researcher
Hi Professor Williams,
My name is Stephen, and I am a senior at Rock Bridge High School, with an interest in genetics and biology. I am particularly interested in the molecular biology of stem cells.
Recently I read your 2011 paper on the role of microRNAs in the differentiation of muscle stem cells and became fascinated by your work.
For context, I have previously participated and won 2 state level science competitions, and have experience with conducting independent research for those projects.
If possible, I would love to have the opportunity to work on a long-term project in your lab beginning this summer.
Would you be available to meet to discuss the possibility of joining your lab? I am available Monday, Wednesday, and Fridays 3pm-6pm.
Looking forward to your response,
Example Email #3: The Interested Social Scientist
Hi Professor Johnson,
This is Stephen. I’m an aspiring social entrepreneur, currently in my junior year at Rock Bridge High School. I have previously worked on a research project on “Purchasing Behavior of Persons with Disability,” and have a big interest in social work and volunteering.
I came across your profile on google scholar and after studying your work, realized that we share similar research interests. I found your article on “People with Disability Behavior in UK stores” particularly interesting. Would you be available to have a short conversation on how I could work with you on your research?
I have enclosed my CV in this mail and I would be happy to discuss this further with you, when you can.
How to Format a Cold Email to a Professor
Write a brief introduction
Begin your email with a concise hello – “Hi Dr. (last name).” After that, give a brief introduction of yourself, including your name, year of study, school attended, and academic field of interest.
Describe how you were introduced to the professor’s study. To set your email apart from others, put your initial research to use! Talk about why you are interested in what they do. This could be because it corresponds with your career goals, or because you are passionate about the field that they work in. No matter the reason, be sure to indicate genuine interest in what they do.
Show your interest in helping them in their research
If there is a formal position that they have on their website, you can talk about why you are interested in it. Otherwise, simply describe how excited you would be to help them with their research and that you have availability over the coming months to help them out with their work.
Supplement your interest by stating your availability, as well as the number of hours you can devote to the position. This includes how many hours per week you’re willing to contribute, as well as your availability to meet with them to discuss their study.
Briefly (seriously, briefly!) explain why you would add value to them
This part of the email should show how you can be valuable to them. You can talk about your skills, your available time, or your passion for the subject. You can mention previous research experience or your part-time job/volunteer work in 1-2 sentences.
It’s also beneficial to discuss the attributes you possess that make you a strong candidate. Being a quick learner, compensating for a lack of expertise with motivation, and having a passion for the subject are just a few examples!
I usually don’t include any documents in this initial email (e.g., a CV or resume). But, if you do choose to do so, make sure that your resume is up-to-date and clean.
Make an ask (usually to jump on a call)
Make a single ask in the email. My suggestion is to make the act direct and simply say “Would you be willing to jump on a 20-minute call with me?”
At this point, it’s clear what the next step is for the researcher. If they are interested in what you’ve written, they’ll say yes.
Revise your email – make it clean, quick, and error-free
Review your email for any grammatical or sentence structure errors before sending it out. Double-check the subject line. Your email should be short and to the point, so that it is easily read and demonstrates your intention without taking up too much of the researcher’s time.
Many times, faculty members will not respond the first time that you reach out – that’s okay! Just make sure that you remind them with a quick, casual bump email. This can be as simple as:
Hi Professor Smith,
I wanted to check back on this. Would you be free for a quick 20-minute call?
Conclusion: It Gets Easier.
While cold-emailing can feel unfamiliar and might feel stressful the first few times, once you get the hang of it, it can be an essential tool for getting your foot in the door.
Don’t be disheartened if you don’t immediately get a positive response. Like all things, this will take time and practice. Remember, all it takes is one “yes”!