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Coming from the other side, one thing people are told early in their careers (or perhaps by their parents) is "it's often 'who' you know, not 'what' you know." Networking is very important. So for some of these inquiring students, they're genuinely reaching out because they enjoy your research or they have similar interests and might want to work with you. Prospective grad students should want to go to a program with [some] faculty with similar interests, right? So this is as much a way for them to feel out a potential fit before spending $100 in application fees just to be rejected. Adjacently, they're hoping you might have some sway on/to the adcom, and can get an 'in' as was supposed. And let's say the admission comes down to two choices, both equal in GRE scores, GPA/transcript, and writing sample, but one is a person you've heard from and the other isn't? Who might you choose, particularly if your interactions with the one person were positive? This lends some credence to reaching out.

Students come in all sorts of ways, and one way to get around the world is by being proactive and asking for opportunities. I've done my fair share of this and it works. If you have strong prospective students who are proactively reaching out for more information, outside of the "time-suck," which really is up to you to control, what's the downside? It might get them to your program other another, and that's a good thing, right? (So long as they're not incessant or overstepping, I guess.)

Alternatively, if you don't feel you're obligated to help your program attract promising prospective grad students (?), perhaps your program could designate someone to field these questions. The DGS, for example. I know that's just redirecting the burden to someone else, but at the end of the day that's probably the 'right' person for questions about the program. (Though I am a big fan of FAQs, as well.)


I sent about 7-8 such e-mails when I was applying to graduate school, and the responses varied. But to answer your question, those who appear to be similarly situated to you would usually politely reply with two or three lines saying something like, 'thanks for your message; I think your project sounds interesting, however, I am not on the admissions committee this year, and so I do not have any say in your chances." That was fine with me. Other times I got longer replies. Sometimes I got no replies. I wasn't writing these to get an "in" either. I did an MA in Europe, and this sort of thing is expected, I think, namely reaching out to potential supervisors.

The responses I got helped me not at all

Why not just write out a paragraph that you then copy and paste in response to everyone who emails? As someone who did this when applying to grad programs, I can tell you that if they’re emailing you, they’re emailing dozens, if not hundreds, of other faculty elsewhere. They lose nothing by receiving boilerplate from you.

a philosopher

If you're not the director of graduate studies, can't you mostly just give a short, polite reply which points the student to that person (who can best answer their questions anyway)? If you are the DGS, then it seems to be part of the job to answer such emails (hopefully as efficiently as possible).

I also don't see the harm in pointing students to the department webpage, if their questions are answered there.

Polite and supportive emails don't need to be long and in-depth, or (say) thoroughly engage every point and question in a student email. They just need to be returned quickly and written with some awareness that you're talking to someone with feelings.

elisa freschi

I wrote some months ago a post targeting especially students from outside Europe and NA (and warning them to avoid bragging and 'not doing one's homeworks', i.e., asking questions to which answers are easily available), and since then I send it with a few accompanying words to everyone sending me a generic inquiry email. 3/4 of them just answer politely (or don't answer at all) and disappears. Those who remain send me more detailed descriptions of their projects and the interaction starts becoming interesting.

Here is the link to the post: http://elisafreschi.com/2019/09/13/academic-etiquette-for-prospective-students-from-outside-europe-writing-to-european-professors/


I would reply with a link to the graduate student page, tell them that most information is avaialable there (and include a lot of information, and FAQ page) and say that if there is an urgent matter that is not answered there they can contact the DGS. You might also add something about how out of fairness concerns, you do not have extended conversations with students before admissions.

Another answer, of course, is given that there are 5-6 of these a year, you can just answer them. I don't know what they are asking, but I guess it would surprise me that it would take hours of time to answer these emails. I get emails from prospective grad students who say they have similar interests and want to work with me. I think it takes 2 minutes to respond. If they are asking specific philosophical questions about your work, something like, "Alas this is an incredibly busy time for me and I cannot afford to engage in philosophical discussion at the moment. However, if you are admitted and come to our program, I would enjoy having these conversations in person."

Not sure if students are looking for an "in." Maybe in a weak sense of they've heard doing this "couldn't hurt and might help." But I don't think that's a bad thing. Students who are willing to do this often have other skills that lead to success in grad school.

Overseas TT

Here's a data point that might be useful for some cases: there's a widespread misconception in Europe that establishing a prior connection with a faculty member is "expected" in PhD programs. This is probably a result of the fact that many European PhD positions are specific to a particular project, and they are treated much more like job applications; part of what it takes to be accepted to a PhD program is to show that you have a very particular kind of "fit".

So I think that in the case of some European applicants it might be not a way of trying to get an in but the result of misunderstanding what a PhD is about in North America. This probably doesn't explain all or even most cases, but I had to explain to several international students that when they are applying to a North American PhD program, they don't have to demonstrate their usefulness for any particular professor's most recent research.


I'm surprised that it seems like many people don't see it as a problem. Quite a few application tips/guides I've read recommend that students contact professors because "it might help but it won't hurt". I've always found this problematic because 1) it increases professors' workload in the way OP describes; 2) because of 1, profs are probably less willing to answer questions that are genuine and serious; 3) if it "works" & actually increases people's chances, then it results in a system that rewards students who are confident, comfortable with academia, and comfortable asking favours of strangers.

That said, I also think students shouldn't be blamed if this is the advice they're getting. So... try not to give this advice?

(All of above is more in response to the comments than to OP but I think the problem raised by OP is not as simple as "just tell them this".)


X I think not only in academia, but in the world, there will always be advantages to people who are confident and comfortable asking favors of strangers. I just think this is part of life. And I say this as someone who is very much not even remotely comfortable with any of that. Still, I think those who are not comfortable with this will act in their best interest to get as comfortable as they can with it, even if it still isn't all that comfortable.

I'm really not worried about increasing the workload. I just don't think it increases the workload very much.

I don't tell students to do this, unprompted. If a student asks me, I shrug and say it doesn't matter much either way, but it might provide a small advantage in certain circumstances (I do think if you heard from a student you will pay closer attention to the application, and that this usually helps rather than hurts.) I am going to give advice to my students that I think is true.


I agree with OverseasTT. In at least parts of Australasia, too, it is important that a student ask potential advisors for PhD theses whether they would be interested in their project. To do so, the student may email the potential advisor explaining how the student's project depends upon the academic staff's expertise and current research interests.

Perhaps this is just to say that graduate students should really take a close look at elisa freschi's fine post, which is hyperlinked above.

Patricia St John Tager

I get many, many emails from prospective students. As Chair & Professor of a graduate program, I respond to each and everyone of them, giving details about the program that are not included in the website or are new and not yet posted. Nearly no prospective students reply - not even just to say "thanks". As someone else wrote, it is time-consuming to reply.
My question is -- why don't the majority of them reply?

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