Tips for Grads: Connecting with professors over email

By Emily Azevedo-Casey, PhD student

During the master’s student panel at New Graduate Student Welcome on August 30, a new master’s student posed a question that I think is relevant to expand on for all graduate students: “What is the best way to connect with professors you want to work with?”

Panelist, Victoria Foster from Population Health Sciences, recommended sending a thoughtful email. Panel facilitator, Dr. Nadine Connor expanded on that by mentioning it’s okay to send a follow-up email if you don’t hear back because it shows persistence, a major skill needed to survive and thrive in your graduate studies. Building off their answers and drawing from what has worked in my own academic journey, below are three tips for emailing professors with whom you are interested to connect about research opportunities, mentorship, and more.

Do your research. Before reaching out, thoroughly research the professor’s work, research interests, and recent publications. You can do this by checking out their Google Scholar account or UW-Madison webpage. Researching their work and interests shows that you are genuinely interested in their field and have taken the time to understand their contributions. What about their work resonates with you? Why does this make you want to work with them?

Craft a thoughtful email. When composing your email or message, be concise and professional. Clearly state your purpose for contacting them in the first one or two sentences, like seeking mentorship, expressing your interest in their research, or inquiring about potential opportunities. Respect their time by keeping your message brief and focused. Proofread your email for any typos or errors, and use a polite and respectful tone. Try asking a trusted friend or current mentor for feedback to ease any nerves before sending.

Demonstrate your value. Professors are more likely to engage with students who can bring something valuable to the table. Highlight your relevant skills, experiences, and qualifications that make you a strong candidate for collaboration or mentorship. Be specific about how your background aligns with their work and how you can contribute to their research or academic community. Don’t forget to express your willingness to learn and grow under their guidance.

Remember, building a relationship with a professor takes time and patience. If your initial contact doesn’t receive a response, don’t be discouraged and avoid taking it personally. Professors are often busy, so it’s okay to send a polite follow-up message after about two weeks. Persistence, combined with professionalism and genuine interest, can lead to meaningful connections with professors who can significantly impact your academic and professional journey. Finally, if cold emailing isn’t your thing, try taking a class with the professor of interest or be open to networking at departmental events or other conferences.

Tips for Grads is a professional and academic advice column written by graduate students for graduate students at UW­–Madison. It is published in the student newsletter, GradConnections Weekly.