Two Kinds of Information; Two Sources of Information

Before requesting information from a graduate school, consider the nature of the information you seek — is it administrative or academic? The Office of Graduate Admissions at a graduate school is an administrative office that receives application materials and sorts/redistributes them to academic departments where the actual admission decisions are made — by professors. The Office of Graduate Admissions may have answers you seek related to general administrative matters, such as the application process, deadlines, and test score submission — although most of this information is available on the admissions pages of a graduate school’s website. That said, the Office of Graduate Admissions probably will not have answers to academic/research-related questions, such as what are the research interests and expertise of the faculty within an academic department or what the application procedures are for teaching/research assistantships within an academic department. Answers to academic/research-related questions are found either on the academic department’s website (where faculty often post their research) or by contacting the individual faculty members directly — by e-mail.

Asking the Right Questions of Faculty

Before contacting graduate school faculty by e-mail, make sure that

  1. Your question is academic/research related
  2. The answers you seek are not already available on the academic department’s website.

Graduate school faculty are first and foremost teachers and researchers. And, they are quite busy with their teaching and research responsibilities, which is why applicants should avoid asking them administrative-related application questions, such as “What’s the admissions deadline?” or “Do you require the GRE test scores in the admission process?” These questions — if the answers truly cannot be found on a graduate school admissions website — should be asked of administrative staff in the Office of Graduate Admissions. Since graduate school faculty are first and foremost teachers and researchers, it’s more appropriate to ask them questions that are academic/research related. And the questions asked should reveal a level of understanding based on information available on the academic department’s website. Hence, rather than e-mailing a graduate school professor to ask “What are your research interests?” it would be more appropriate to first read about the professor’s research interests on the academic department website and then to ask “I have read your research on dispersion and spatial distribution of epiphytic and lithophytic orchid species and the implications for the theory of genetic drift. I’m interested in investigating the relationships between insular and mainland plant species in the Antilles and northern South America. If I’m admitted to Florida International University, would you be willing to support my research interests as they relate to tropical ecology and conservation? Also, I’m interested in knowing whether or not your department offers teaching/research assistantships and how I can apply.”

The Importance of Contacting Faculty

There are at least two goals in making contact with graduate school faculty prior to applying:

  1. To gather necessary information
  2. To create an identity for yourself as an applicant.

The first goal should be self-explanatory. The second goal relates to the reality that graduate school faculty make admissions decisions. So, any correspondence you have with departmental faculty during the admission process is an opportunity for faculty (who make admission decisions) to form an impression about you. If you ask academic/research-related questions that reveal you have already investigated faculty research expertise, then the faculty member probably will have formed a favorable impression of you.

Sample E-mail Message to a Graduate School Professor

Dear Dr. Samuelson,

I am writing to you regarding my interest in your research and the graduate program at Florida International University. This spring I will graduate from the University of Maine at Farmington, and I plan to enter into a doctoral program in the fall of 2006. I am interested in plant evolution and island biogeography, and I was hoping that you might have available space in your lab for another student. I am also interested in the opportunities for receiving financial aid at FIU in the form of research or teaching assistantships.

My research experience with plant ecology involves two projects. The first project is a survey of invasive, woody plant species in Farmington, Maine. I have been researching this topic for two years with Dr. Drew Barton, and this fall I will begin writing the manuscript that will be submitted for publication. I am currently approaching the same stage with the second project. This past summer I participated in a National Science Foundation/Research Experience for Undergraduates internship in the Caribbean National Forest of Puerto Rico. I worked with Dr. Janice D. Riekert and investigated the dispersion and spatial distribution of eight epiphytic and lithophytic orchid species. My findings suggest that genetic drift is occurring in these species and support the theory that genetic drift, in conjunction with natural selection, explains the extreme diversity seen within the orchid family. I am presently working on this manuscript and will submit it by October.

My core interest is studying tropical ecology and conservation. More specifically, my curiosity and desired future path revolve around exploring the origin, evolution, and biogeography of tropical plants. I am interested in studying the evolution of plant species among tropical islands, and also investigating the relationships of insular and mainland plant species. Ideally, I would like to carry out my research in the Antilles and northern South America. The underlying goal of my research would be to contribute to the knowledge of plant evolution and biogeography, and ultimately to apply the acquired information toward conservation issues.

Thank you for considering my interest in FIU and your research. I look forward to engaging you in a discussion concerning the possibilities for matriculation and research.

Sincerely, Wendy Carson

Another Sample E-mail Message to a Graduate School Professor

Dear Dr. Saada,

I am a third-year student at the University of Maine at Farmington (UMF), and I am interested in applying for admission to the Institute of French Studies at New York University. I am contacting you first, and not the department chair, because of your specialization in the imperial activities of France. I have a true interest in the history of the colonization of North Africa by the French. More specifically, I am intrigued by the linguistic policies of Algeria and Morocco, relating to the following questions: What is the relationship between Arabic, the Berber languages, and French in North Africa? Is there a suppression of Berber languages? Also, what has been the effect on the Maghrebin population of having French in their governments for so long a time? My interests are not exactly limited to sociolinguistics; I am also attracted to the field of Post-Colonial Literature.

Regarding my experience in this field, I have read a few books on the subject (including Le Blanc d’Algerie by Assia Djebar, and Les Amants Desunis by Anouar Benmalek) after a short friendship with some Algerians and a few Moroccans when I spent a semester in Le Mans, France. I have kept in contact with these friends, and I often speak with them of the “Hot Years” in Algeria. They have taught me a great deal about Kabylia, their homeland in the mountains of Algeria. In addition to what I have learned through the friendship, I am taking a course in post-colonial literature and next fall will take a course in the history of European imperialism in Africa.

I’m hoping you might be able to ascertain whether or not my research interests parallel those of the faculty at the Institute of French Studies. I am undertaking an independent thesis project next fall to explore the aforementioned questions and am now in the process of compiling the reading list for faculty approval. Any suggestions relating to authors or specific works would be much appreciated.

Lastly, I will be in New York the week of February 20 to 24. Would it be possible to meet with you, even if perhaps for only twenty minutes? If you do anticipate having time during the week, please feel welcome to suggest dates and times; I will arrange my schedule accordingly. I also welcome the opportunity to perhaps sit in on one of your classes. Thank you for considering my interest in attending the Institute of French Studies at NYU beginning in Fall 2007.

Sincerely, Danielle Miller

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