Karen Kelsky

Founder and President at The Professor Is In

Asking Faculty for a Favor

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Although I have many questions that I could use your help with, the one foremost in my mind right now is: How do I write an email to someone I don't know, asking them for something? Be it a research paper, an interview, or the opportunity to collaborate in their research, I am struggling with how to reach out to people I don't know and ask them for favors. How much do I tell them about myself, so that they are interested in me and want to help? Should I just get to the point? Any recommendations in this regard would be truly appreciated.

I’m glad you asked, because this issue is a bit more fraught than you might think. I say that because of the responses that I get to a long-ago post on my blog, called “How to Write an Email to a Potential Ph.D. Advisor/Professor.” That 2011 post still gets 14,000 hits a month, a rate that exceeds the typical response to my blog posts by a factor of five. It’s not just the level of response, though, that is interesting. It’s also the comments, which fall into three categories: (1) thank you, this is very helpful; (2) please help me write an email; and (3) this is bullshit, why do I have to suck up to professors?

It is of course that third response (which, to be fair, only pops up a couple of times) that I find intriguing. So let me sketch out my argument about these emails and then answer your query specifically.

In my 2011 post, I noted how hugely important that initial email is from a potential Ph.D. student to a potential adviser. And yet many inquirers approach the task without adequate consideration, and come across as flippant and rude. Those emails look something like this (drawn from examples I used to receive when I was a faculty member): "Dear Professor Kelsky, I am a student at X College and I'm thinking about going to graduate school in Y and I'm getting in touch to ask if you can give me any advice or direction about that. What can you tell me about your program and what I’d be doing if I worked with you? Sincerely, Student Z."

That’s what I call an “instant delete” email, because it does not take the time either to adequately introduce the writer, or to show proper consideration for the time and convenience of the professor, of whom the writer is asking a favor — and indeed, potentially, a long-term commitment of support. In its place, I suggest an email that looks something like the following:

"Dear Professor X,
I am a student at Y College with a major in Z. I am a [junior] and will be graduating next May. I have a [4.0] GPA and experience in our college's [summer program in A; internship program in B; Honors College, etc.].
I am planning to attend graduate school in XX, with a focus on XXX. In one of my classes, [“course title”], which was taught by Professor ABC, I had the chance to read your article, [“article title”]. I really enjoyed it, and it gave me many ideas for my future research. I have been exploring graduate programs where I can work on this topic. My specific project will likely focus on Z, and I am particularly interested in exploring the question of ZZ.
I hope you don't mind my getting in touch, but I'd like to inquire whether you are currently accepting graduate students. If you are, would you willing to talk to me a bit more, by email or on the phone, or in person if I can arrange a campus visit, about my graduate school plans? I have explored your department's graduate school website in detail, and it seems like an excellent fit for me because of its emphasis on E and F, but I still have a few specific questions about G and H that I'd like to talk to you about.
I know you're very busy so I appreciate any time you can give me. Thanks very much,
Sincerely,
Student Z”

That email is effective because: (a) It shows you are serious and well qualified; (b) it shows that you have done thorough research and utilized all the free information on the university’s website; (c) it shows that you have specific plans which have yielded specific questions; (d) it shows you are familiar with the professor's work; and (e) it shows that you respect the professor's time.

All of those attributes exponentially increase your chances of getting a timely, thorough, and friendly response, and potentially building the kind of connection that leads to a strong mentoring relationship.

As I said, most readers who commented on that 2011 blog post have found this advice enormously helpful, and have asked how to frame more specific queries (please note that I no longer respond to comments on that thread due to volume). But every so often someone responds with fury. Here is one example: “Good job demonstrating to students how to suck up to their ‘superiors’ (and I use the word very, very lightly) by providing an example of how to properly be a subservient schmuck and schmooze a highly over-inflated, narcissistic ego …. There are people starving and dying out there, and we are worried how to properly impress the likes of you? You need to seriously examine the implications of this. In other words — get over yourself.”

Now, of course, that comment is basic Internet trolling and not necessarily significant, but I think the nature of the criticism does help to highlight the issues involved in properly reaching out to a faculty member you don’t know.

Whenever you want to ask someone for a favor — whether in the academy or outside of it — you have to put yourself in the shoes of the professors. How does your request look to them, and why should they feel compelled to take their valuable time to agree to it? Remember: These people are receiving many such requests all the time, and can’t possibly accommodate all of them. So you must take the time to show that you are worth their time — not because the professor has an “overinflated ego,” but because he or she is very busy and can only respond to a small fraction of the requests received. While that might infuriate some readers, it is indeed true that when you are seeking a favor, you have to impress the person of whom you are requesting it. Doing so is not being subservient or “schmoozing,” it is acknowledging the basic terms of the requested exchange: Appropriate effort from you elicits desired effort from them.

In short, emails requesting a favor should:

  • Be brief, so as not to require too much time to read.
  • Provide basic self-introductory information so the reader quickly and accurately knows your current status.
  • Demonstrate that you are aware of the reader’s work and circumstances.
  • Show that you have thoroughly utilized other avenues for help.
  • Make only one reasonable request that is delimited in time and scope.

The key here is balance. You need to provide enough information that the receiver can rest assured that you are a good investment of their time and effort, while also showing your respect for their time and energy by keeping your inquiry concise and to the point. If you use a version of the template I’ve provided, and make sure that no paragraph exceeds a few sentences, you should be in good shape.

Dear Readers: Have a question about the academic job market and/or professionalization? Send it to The Professor Is In! Karen welcomes any and all questions related to the job market, preparing for the job market while in graduate school, coping with the adjunct struggle, and assistant professorhood. Send questions to gettenure@gmail.com.

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