The Dos and Don'ts of Contacting a PhD Supervisor |
A message in a bottle washed up on a beach
Posted on 2 Dec '21

The Dos and Don'ts of Contacting a PhD Supervisor

The first contact you make with a possible supervisor will be one of the most important parts of your PhD application. This is even more true now, as disruptions caused by the coronavirus make it important to clarify expectations and processes for PhD work.

So what's the etiquette for actually getting in touch with a supervisor? How much information should you provide about yourself? Do you attach a research proposal? And will supervisors even want you to contact them?

We've covered the general process for contacting a prospective PhD supervisor elsewhere on FindAPhD, but I thought it would be helpful to quickly summarise some of the 'golden rules' here on the blog.

Do check how (and if) they want to be contacted

So, do supervisors actually want prospective students to email them?

Often, the answer is "yes" and some universities and education systems will actually prefer students to make contact with a supervisor before they apply for a PhD. But the opposite can also be true, particularly if the university prefers to deal with the formal details of PhD admission and then match students with supervisors.

It isn't hard to check though.

If you want to discuss your own PhD idea, check the academic's page on the university website (google "their name" + "university name"). Chances are it will say whether they're interested in hearing from prospective students.

If you're applying for an advertised project like the ones here on FindAPhD, check the email enquiry option – and feel free to use it!

Do research their current research interests and activities

They key word here is 'current'. Your prospective supervisor might have literally written the book on your research area but their own interests might have moved on since it was published.

You want to pitch your topic in a way that interests them now and, ideally, compliments the work they're doing at the minute (without duplicating it, of course!).

Do stick to email for that first contact

Twitter can be a great resource for PhD students (and not just for procrastination). One way to use it is to take a look at discussions happening around your research area; some academics are very active on Twitter and happy to chat about their work.

This can be a great way of researching a supervisor's current interests (see above) but it's still best to contact them using their official email. PhD supervision is a formal process and politely introducing yourself to someone's inbox will always look more professional than 'sliding into their DMs'.

Do keep it brief for now

Save the detail for the discussion that follows.

Do give them something to reply about

Emails are more likely to be answered if they include something to answer. This could be as simple as asking if the academic is currently accepting expressions of interest from PhD students.

A broader message that simply introduces yourself and leaves no obvious next step will take longer to answer and might be 'left for later'. One with an obvious (and simple) question makes it easier for the recipient to respond quickly and helpfully, getting the conversation started.

Don't start by asking for funding

Few successful relationships in life begin with a request for money and PhD supervision is no different.

You might be interested in working with this supervisor because you know they're advertising a funded PhD. Or you might want to get their advice on funding your (hopefully!) great project idea. Either way, this is the wrong place to start your conversation with them.

Put bluntly, funding isn't interesting and the fact that you need it isn't surprising. Instead you want to 'sell' yourself and get 'buy-in' for your ideas. Do that well and those may not just be metaphors.

Don't attach your full research proposal to the first email

It can be tempting to include your (draft) PhD proposal along with an email to a supervisor 'just in case'. After all, it's the best explanation of what you plan to do and they might even have time to read it and give feedback. And if they don't, well, it's no harm done. . . right?

Sadly, this is wishful thinking on a couple of levels.

The chances of a busy academic having time to read through an unsolicited research proposal are pretty low. (And there aren't any non-busy academics.) Messages with attachments coming from unknown senders may also fall foul of your recipients' email security, or just look a little 'spammy'.

Don't resort to hyperbole and superlatives

You want to engage your supervisor's interest and impress them with your ideas, enthusiasm and relevant experience. But you also want them to take you seriously.

A prospective PhD student who claims to be the most passionate about their field (superlative) probably won't be the most convincing. And one who seeks to change an intellectual paradigm during a three-year PhD (hyperbole) will look like they don't actually know what a PhD is.

Keep it realistic. And remember that there's further conversation and potentially a PhD interview to come.

Don't be weird

Dear Professor Smith,

I'm currently completing my Masters in eighteenth-century literature and considering a PhD project exploring the representation of agricultural spaces in local newspapers during the 1700s. I know your own work is interested in rural readerships during this period and I wondered if I could ask you about potentially supervising my doctorate?

Also, I was sorry to read on Twitter that your cat was sick on your new shoes last Tuesday. I hope he's feeling better now. At least your team won at the weekend and they've finally fixed that pothole outside your house.



. . .Hopefully you can see where this 'email' goes wrong. There's nothing wrong with researching the supervisor you're contacting (as above) but you should probably stick to academic matters for now.

Don't expect a reply instantly (or worry too much if there isn't one)

This is especially true now, as universities and their staff will be busy adapting teaching and research in response to the coronavirus outbreak.

I'm certain that following the advice in this blog will improve your chances of getting a reply from a potential PhD supervisor.* But it doesn't guarantee it. And not hearing back doesn't necessarily mean you did anything wrong, or that there's anything wrong with your PhD ideas.

The truth is that academics are busy and may not be able to respond to all of the emails they get from prospective PhD students. If you don't hear back, try a follow-up email after a week or so.

*If you have more luck pairing a demand for money with comments about someone's pet, let me know.

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Last Updated: 02 December 2021