Your initial email communication is your first impression and should be managed carefully. Address all communications formally and you may want someone to proof-read before you send it. That means:
1. Address everyone by their proper title
- Bad: “Hi Rich…” or, “Hey” or just launching into the message
- Good: “Dr. McLaughlin,” or “Professor McLaughlin,”
2. Be specific.
- Bad: “I am very interested in your research on X. It is very interesting. The more I read about it, the more I am interested in it. It seems very interesting and important.”
- Good: “I recently read a collection of your papers on X. It was very interesting to me as I saw connections with the topics I have been studying, such as Y.”
3. Be succinct! Omit needless words.
4. Stay on topic/avoid excessive personal anecdotes:
- Bad: “After my house burned down and I lost everything, I sat back and thought about what I really wanted in life and discovered it was to work in your lab.”
- Bad: writing a wall of text (e.g., one giant paragraph with no line breaks)
- Good: “I was fortunate to learn about the field of human factors when we had a special topics course in Ergonomics at my university. For that class, I did [describe project] which lead me to your work on X.”
5. Avoid inadvertently selfish language
- Bad: “Your lab would help me in my interests and my career. It would be the best thing for me.”
- Good: “I have experience in multiple statistical programs, including SPSS and MATlab. As a research assistant in Dr. X’s lab, I have experience with data entry, cleaning data, and analysis. Although I have not yet gotten to run participants through a study protocol, I have been allowed to observe the graduate students in that task.”
6. Proofread for grammar and typos
- Bad: your vs you’re, any misspelled words, and so on.
7. Avoid carelessness: Sending an email to Dr. A but writing your emails addressed to Dr. B.
Below is a sample “approach email” to the professor you are considering as an advisor. Yours will differ, but this is an example of the level of formality and what to include.
Dear Dr. FutureAdvisor,
I am a senior psychology major at My University and interested in pursuing a Ph.D. in Human Factors Psychology after graduation. I came across your research when I was collecting articles for a literature review on user trust in automated systems and am interested in applying to your lab to work on similar topics.
In the past two years, I have worked as a research assistant in a lab here at My University and spent a summer in an NSF REU program at Bigger University. In the MU1 lab, I worked with Dr. So Andso on research into motivation changes across the lifespan. I learned to enter and clean data for analysis with SPSS and SAS, follow a research protocol to run participants, and write SPSS syntax. One specific project I worked on was investigating whether people over 65 reported different motivations for performance and whether they responded differently than younger adults to reinforcement schedules on an implicit learning task. This gave me an interest in aging but more generally an interest in individual differences.
I am excited by the prospect of continuing in a research program after graduation and believe I would be a good fit for your lab. Please let me know if you will be accepting applications this year.
Thank you for your time,
The optimal time for sending this email is the fall semester of your senior year. This gives you time to communicate, perhaps plan a visit, and let the faculty member know you’ll be applying to their program.