A common question many graduate school applicants ask is whether they should contact professors who work at the graduate programs to which they have applied. If you are thinking about contacting such a professor, carefully consider your reasons.
Why Applicants Contact Professors
Why contact professors? Sometimes applicants email faculty because they seek an edge over other applicants. They hope that making contact is an “in” to the program. This is a bad reason. Your intentions are probably more transparent than you think. If your desire to call or email a professor is simply about letting him or her know your name, don't. Sometimes students believe that making contact will make them memorable. That is not the right reason to make contact. Memorable is not always good.
Other applicants seek information about the program. This is an acceptable reason to make contact if (and only if) the applicant has thoroughly researched the program. Making contact to ask a question whose answer is prominently delayed on the website will not earn you points. In addition, direct questions about the program to the graduate admissions department and/or the program director rather than individual faculty.
A third reason applicants might consider contacting professors is to express interest and learn about a professor's work. In this case, contact is acceptable if the interest is genuine and the applicant has done his or her homework and is well read on the professor's work.
Professors' Take on Applicant Email
Notice the above heading: Most professors prefer to be contacted by email, not phone. Cold calling a professor is not likely to result in a conversation that will help your application. Some professors view phone calls negatively (and, by extension, the applicant negatively). Do not initiate contact by phone. E-mail is the best option. It gives the professor time to think about your request and respond accordingly.
As for whether to contact professors at all: Professors have mixed reactions to contact with applicants. Professors vary with regard to the level of contact they have with applicants. Some eagerly engage potential students and others do not. Some professors view contact with applicants as neutral at best. Some professors report that they dislike contact with applicants so much so that it negatively colors their views. They may view it as an attempt to ingratiate. This is especially true when applicants ask poor questions. When communication is centered around applicants and the likelihood of their acceptance (e.g., reporting GRE scores, GPA, etc.), many professors suspect that the applicant will need hand-holding throughout graduate school. Yet some professors welcome applicant queries. The challenge is determining whether and when to make appropriate contact.
When to Make Contact
Make contact if you have a real reason. If you have a well thought out and relevant question. If you are going to ask a faculty member about his/her research make sure that you know what you're asking. Read everything about their research and interests. Some incoming students make their initial contact with advisors by email as they submit their application. The takeaway message is to take care in deciding whether to email faculty and ensure that it is for a good reason. If you choose to send an email, follow these tips.
You May or May Not Receive an Answer
Not all professors answer email from applicants - often it is simply because their inbox is overflowing. Remember that if you hear nothing it does not mean that your chances for graduate school are squelched. Professors who do not make contact with potential students often because they are busy working on their own research with current students. If you receive an answer thank them concisely. Most professors are busy and will not want to get into an extended e-mail session with the potential applicant. Unless you have something new to add to each e-mail do not reply beyond sending a brief thank you.