grad school search- cold emails

Inspired by fellow twitter user @itatiVCS‘s #GradSchoolSearch blog series, I’ve decided to attempt documenting my grad school search process! Coming from a small liberal arts college (even an elite one!), it still took me doing summer research experiences at R1s and mentorship there to understand the hidden workings of admissions for ecology and evolutionary biology (EEB) PhD programs.

For those who aren’t well-versed, EEB PhD programs mostly are not umbrella programs, where you’re admitted to a department and after some amount of rotations in your first year, you choose who your primary PhD advisor will be. Cell and molecular biology programs tend to be like that.

Instead in EEB, you generally specify who you’d like to be your primary PhD advisor in your application. Before you do this, it is “highly encouraged” you contact your prospective advisors and seek their encouragement of your application. From what I’ve heard, without this pre-application contact, you probably won’t be admitted.

So how do you get in touch with some scary PIs (principal investigators) from different institutions that probably haven’t even heard of you before?!? Dr. Jacquelyn Gill has an awesome blog post on how to nail that inquiry email. My two cents is that in every cold email/cover letter I send, I try to remember these things:

  • Show you put in a little research on the PI. Peruse their website, take a look at their papers, and try to identify the intersection of your interests and their work. You can name drop a paper you particularly liked in the email.
  • The cold email is not only for saying why the PI would be such a great fit for you, but what skills and expertise you have to offer to the lab, and why it’s a no brainer they should admit you to their lab.

Now, with that said, PIs are generally busy and certain times of the year (summer during conference and field work season, beginnings and endings of semester, etc.) your email might get buried in their inbox. Don’t be afraid to send a reminder email in two-ish weeks.

This clearly isn’t a perfect practice, as it’s an insider knowledge type thing about knowing how integral emailing is in the first place, and then whether you get a response or not. However, I’m hoping to make a small contribution towards making EEB academia more inclusive and equitable by documenting the insider knowledge ins and outs to the admissions process that I’ve picked up as I go along with this potential blog series. Thanks for reading!

P.S. if you are applying to grad school this admissions cycle in EEB and are in need of some mentoring, check out EEB Mentor Match!

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