How to Contact a Prospective PhD Advisor
In our program individual faculty play a huge role in determining which students are accepted into the PhD program. Students are essentially accepted into the lab of a specific faculty member, and the faculty are looking for students who have the knowledge, skills, and interests to succeed in their labs. Always check the lab website for information regarding the program of research. Sometimes labs will also have information regarding whether they are accepting students and policies regarding contact prior to reviewing applications. In the event that websites do not have the information you are looking for, you may wish to consider emailing faculty directly.
There are several reason to do this.
First: You can find out whether they are actually planning to take new students. You don't want to spend money and time applying to a given program only to find out that the one faculty member of interest isn't taking students this year (or is about to move to another university, take a job in industry, etc.). Information about this may be on the program's website or the faculty member's website, but websites are sometimes out of date, so it's worth double-checking with an email.
Second: This email will get you "on the radar" of the faculty. Most PhD programs get hundreds of applicants, and faculty are much more likely to take a close look at your application if you've contacted them in advance.
Third: You also might get other useful information. For example, a professor might write back saying something like "I'm not taking any new students, but we've just hired a new faculty member in the same area, and you might consider working with her." Or, the professor might say something like "When you apply, make sure that you check the XXX box, which will make you eligible for a fellowship that is specifically for people from your background." Or, if the professor accepts students through multiple programs (e.g., Psychology and Cognitive Science), you might get information about which one to apply to or whether to apply to both programs.
Fourth: You might learn the most current direction of a professor's research. While professors usually have multiple interests, they might have a current priority area.
We recommend a subject heading such as "Inquiry from potential graduate applicant." For the main body of the email, your goals are to (a) introduce yourself, (b) inquire about whether they are taking students, (c) make it clear why you are interested in that particular faculty member, and (d) get any advice they might offer. Here's an example:
Dear Dr. XXX,
I'm in my final year as a Psychology/Cognitive Science major at XXXX, where I have been working in the lab of Dr. XXX XXX. My research has focused on episodic memory distortion and I've used psychophysical and behavioral methods (see attached CV). I'm planning to apply to PhD programs this Fall, and I'm very interested in the possibility of working in your lab at Tufts. I read your recent paper on XXX, and I found your approach to be very exciting.
I was hoping you might tell me whether you are planning to take new students in your lab in Fall 2021. I'd also be interested in any other information or advice you have.
[Possibly add a few more lines here about your background and interests.]
If you're a member of an underrepresented/disadvantaged group, you can make this clear in your email or CV if you are comfortable doing so. We recognize that this can sometimes be a sensitive issue, but there are often special funding opportunities for students with particular underrepresented identities, and most faculty are especially eager to recruit students from underrepresented/disadvantaged groups. Usually, this information can be provided indirectly (e.g., by listing scholarships you've received or programs that you've participated in, such as the McNair Scholars), but it can be helpful if you make this information explicit to your prospective faculty mentor and program.
No matter what your situation, we recommend having your faculty mentor(s) take a look at a draft of the email and your CV before you send them. Grad students and postdocs can also be helpful, but they may not really know what is appropriate given that they haven't been on the receiving end of these emails.
Most importantly, don't be afraid to send the email. The worst thing that will happen is that you don't get a reply. The best thing that can happen is that the e-mail leads to a conversation that helps you get accepted into the program of your dreams.
You may get a brief response that says something like "Yes, I'm taking students, and I encourage you to apply" or "I'm always looking for qualified students." This indicates that the faculty member will likely look at applications, and you don't need to follow-up.
If you're lucky, you may get a more detailed response that will lead to a series of email exchanges and perhaps an invitation to chat (usually on Skype or something similar). This will be more likely if you say something about what you've done and why you are interested in this lab.
You may get a response like "I'm not taking new students this year" or "I probably won't take new students this year". Or you might get something like "Given your background and interests, I don't think you'd be a good fit for my lab." In these cases, it is probably not worth putting your resources into applying if you have that specific advisor in mind.
Finally, you simply may not get a reply. In that case, no information is no information. There are many reasons why faculty may not respond, and it is not worth trying to figure out why this might be. If you don't get a response and you really want to work with the person, you may still want to apply.
You really don't have much to lose by emailing faculty, and you have a lot to gain.