Contacting Prospective Graduate Supervisors

Contacting Prospective Graduate Supervisors

One of the most important steps you can take is to make personal contact with your prospective supervisor prior to applying. As long as the contact is made for legitimate reasons, then establishing some pre-application correspondence can be one of the most important things you do to enhance your prospects of being accepted into a program. So long as your attempt to make contact comes before the applications, then it will likely be seen as a very sensible move on your part. It comes after you have sent your application and before the selections have been made, it is more likely to be seen as manipulative.

Although some faculty find these contacts to be a nuisance, there are at least three good reasons to make contact anyway. First, this group of faculty is such a minority that there is a good chance that none of your prospective supervisors belong to it. Second, even if one of them did, you would not know. Third, it is rare that pre-application contact actually hurts anyone’s chances of being accepted.

This pre-application contact is not only important for you, but for prospective supervisors, as well. They know that they will have to give a new graduate student a good deal of attention over the next few years. In addition to certain qualities that anyone would want their graduate students to possess, many people’s criteria also include other “special” qualities, particularly whether they will like a prospective student. These criteria make perfect sense when one considers that the student/supervisor relationship usually lasts for a few years, and no one wants to spend a few years working with someone he/she doesn’t like.

The opportunity to develop your own impression of the prospective supervisor is equally important to you. Not only do you want to work for someone you like, you want to be on guard for signs of potential exploitation. You do not want to become someone’s lab employee, working as a graduate student merely because you fill a specific role in a research “production line.” But you should also remember that the relationship you have with your supervisor does not exist to benefit only you. This is a tradeoff; you help your supervisor to conduct research, or whatever scholarly, literary, or artistic work is involved in the discipline, and in the process of doing so, s/he helps you to develop your skills and expertise.

Remember, you want to make your name the one that is noticed by your prospective supervisor. Most other students who apply to work with the same individual will simply send the required application materials to the program; they will be relying only on how they look on paper. You will be far ahead of the competition by giving your prospective supervisor a reason to remember you, before they even get to see your application file, by picking up the phone and calling.

The best way to contact your prospective supervisors is with an in-person visit. This will first require an initial contact from a distance in order to make arrangements for such a meeting.

If you make your initial contact by phone, be prepared to quickly say who you are and why you are calling, and then immediately ask whether you are calling at a convenient time. A better approach is to send an e-mail message introducing yourself and indicating that you will be calling in a few days, or else asking when it would be a good time to call. Here are some questions you should be prepared to answer:

  • What do you know about this prospective supervisor, and how have you learned this information?
  • Why do you think it is a good idea for you to have this person supervise your graduate work?
  • Where do you think you will fit in best, and why?
  • How is this person going to benefit from having you as a student?
  • What are your short-term and long-term education, research, and career goals?
  • Have you applied for any scholarships or fellowships?
  • What other programs have you applied to?

In most cases, it is inappropriate to send a copy of all of your application materials directly to your prospective supervisor. It is a good idea, however, to send a copy of your transcripts. This can help the prospective supervisor get an overview of your background. You should also attach a copy of your c.v. and a copy of any published papers or abstracts from conference presentations on which you are an author. At this point in time, your main objective is simply to let the prospective supervisor know that your application will be forthcoming, that you hope s/he will look over your enclosures, and that you will call or e-mail in a few days to discuss matters further. 

You should make a phone call at some point. Speaking to each other will provide both of you an opportunity to get a better idea of what the other person is like. One of the first things you should ask is whether they intend to take on a new graduate student this year. Also, if you think that your application might be screened out by the admissions committee because of weak grades or poor scores on a standardized test, then you must alert your prospective supervisor to this possibility. Simply inform the prospective supervisor that your application is at risk of early rejection for whatever reason, then she/he can usually tell the admissions committee that he/she still wants to consider you as a possible graduate student and look over your file. This is where your prospective graduate supervisor often begins working to get you admitted. Many students are accepted primarily on the basis of a faculty member stating that she wants to supervise the student.

Source: “Graduate School: Winning Strategies for Getting in With or Without Excellent Grades,” Dave G. Mumby, Ph.D., 1997