How to contact potential supervisors (or anybody else for that matter)

Usually, some students immediately rush to contact a couple of potential supervisors as soon as we post the list of thesis supervisors — like they are on sale and only available while supplies last. Did we mention that it is best to first develop a proposal and then try to find the best match for a supervisor?

Unfortunately, this sometimes leads to rather upset supervisors, who all know where I live and sometimes feel the urgent need to come by and express in emphatic terms that I need to “train my students to communicate better” (real words by a real person who is not me). Personally, I don’t think that this should be necessary for graduate students who have been emailing all their life.

Unfortunately, good email communication skills are not evenly distributed, so we want to at least provide some basic pointers on common mistakes that should be avoided when contacting supervisors. All of these are valid not just for the first email you write to a potential supervisor, though you know what they say about first impressions. Each advice also applies to other situations, like contacting future employers. Finally, all items are based on real email conversations that have happened to me or another faculty member during previous academic years. (All except one, that is. Feel free to guess which one!)

This post has the potential to offend those of you who know how to communicate, so let me state upfront: most of you are doing very nicely on all of the points below. If you are in this category, this post is for your entertainment. You are invited to roll your eyes, “tsk, tsk”, or occasionally mumble things about “today’s youth!”

Should you, however, find that you were not aware of any one of these rules, please adopt them for all communication with your future supervisor, and consider also applying it for future communication with other professional contacts. They have the dual benefit of increasing your chances of being taken seriously while reducing the level of frustration that some of the recipients are feeling.

Here we go:

Put some thought into selecting a supervisor that fits your topic. The list of supervisors indicates the rough topic areas that each supervisor is willing to supervise. If a topic is not on that list or closely related to a topic on that list, there is a decent chance that this person is not right for you. If you have a hunch that he or she will be able to help you anyway, you should indicate your awareness that this may not be their cup of tea when you approach them. If you contact a supervisor to request advice on a topic that she or he is not working on and has never published on in the past, the supervisor will automatically think that you have not been paying any attention and are probably clueless. It is up to you to show awareness of a person’s work if you want them to work for you. This brings me directly to…

Don’t use the shotgun method of contacting a bunch of supervisors simultaneously. You are not under time pressure at present and can approach supervisors one-by-one, starting with the candidate that is your best option. Approach a supervisor, have a conversation and if it does not work out, move on to the next likely target. Please also understand that supervisors are not competing for your business. While we pay our supervisors very acceptable rates[citation needed], a good supervision virtually always costs more time than is compensated. A supervision is more like a good partnership. Do not walk into a potential supervisor’s office and ask “give me a reason to pick you as a supervisor.” Should you decide not to select a person that you had approached as a potential supervisor, take a moment to notify them and to thank them if they have given you any of their time.

When you write to supervisors, put something informative in the subject line, perhaps something along the lines of “thesis supervision .” The first decision any recipient of an email has to make is whether to open it at all. If you send me a message with a useless subject line like “hi” or “question,” I may sigh, but I will probably still open the message because I know all of you. If somebody I don’t know writes me a message with a blank subject line, the chances of this message every being opened is virtually nil even if my spam filter does not kill their message before it reaches my eyeballs.

Moreover, please address the supervisor in a professional tone. “Hey!” is insufficient as a greeting for anybody who has not spent prolonged time with you in a bar. (This is not the most outrageous example I have seen recently.) A normal greeting would be “Dear <last name="">.”</last>

If you are not sure of the title of a person, following these simple rules:

  • post-docs, assistant and associate professor would have a Ph.D. and can be safely addressed as “Dr.”
  • people who are full professors, chairs, deans and rectors of universities can all be safely addressed as “Prof.”
  • people who don’t have a Ph.D. yet (e.g. Ph.D. fellows on the supervisor list) should be addressed with Mr. or Ms. Please be aware that Ms. stands for both Miss and Mrs. so you don’t have to turn all old-fashioned and worry about the marriage status of women.

If you are not sure about the academic rank of a person, google her or him, it’ll be 10 seconds well spent. (While you are there, check out their work.)

Alternatively, err on the side of caution. People rarely complain about being addressed with a higher title than is actually theirs. Obviously, this has limits. If you address me as “your excellency,” I think you are a friendly internet-person with a $16m business proposal that I simply must hear about.

Conclude a message with a greeting and your name, e.g. “Best regards, Jane Fonda”. Reserve “Later, dude!” for a time when you know the recipient better (ideally after the person has submitted your grade).

The content of your message should be short and informative. All people on the supervision list volunteered to supervise MPP students, so you don’t have to explain the role of the Master thesis or the nature of the MPP program, they know. Instead, you can move on to providing them with some details on the topic and asking them if they are interested in supervising. If possible, do not go into too much detail: A message that provides a potential supervisor with the research question and perhaps a hint about the method and data to be used in a thesis is probably already enough to determine whether the supervisor can/wants to supervise this thesis. If you have more information (like, say, a thesis proposal), it’s nice to attach this while keeping the message clear and short.

Real-life example of how not to do it: “hi, can you be my supervisor? bye”. Yes, this was the complete message. No subject line, no greeting, no information about what is supposed to be supervised, and no signature.

Punctuation, capitalization, proper spelling and grammar. ‘nuff said.

Be respectful of people’s time, especially when they are not your supervisor. Last year, several faculty members have been contacted with messages along the lines of “even though I have actually picked somebody else as my supervisor, I would still like to request that you meet with me for an hour to discuss my thesis plans.” Needless to say, they are not under any obligation to do so. If you need to request the expertise of somebody whom the school is not paying to supervise you, make sure that your email explains why you need them, and put some thought into why this would be interesting for them. If they don’t respond or refuse, remain polite. If they do agree to assist, do not forget to thank them! Depending on how much time they have invested, there are several degrees of thanks to consider. Somebody who invests an hour with you to discuss your thesis should rate at least a follow-up email thanking them for their time. If you take their advice, it is also nice to acknowledge this in your thesis and to send them an electronic copy when it is done. If somebody is very helpful (more than pointing you to a nice data set, less than introducing you to the love of your life), you can also give them chocolates, wine or another little gift in recognition of the voluntary work they have done for you. If the person is also somebody who still has to grade you in anything, it is customary to give a gift only after they have submitted their last grade for you so it does not look like a bribe.

Real-life example of how not to do it: I received the following question together with an actual assignment last December, regarding a course that I was in no way involved in: “Sorry for [sic] bother you, but could you please tell me how to solve this question?(you may find the question in the attachment).”

Be respectful of your supervisor’s time, as well. Your supervisor works for you, so handling a supervisor is an exercise in delegating work. (The first such exercise for most of you.) If you would like a meeting, ask well in advance and provide multiple times and dates that suit you, so you don’t get into a conversation where you send one date that doesn’t work, and another date that doesn’t work, and a third…

If you would like feedback on something, send the appropriate item and some indication as to what feedback you need with enough time for the supervisor to actually complete the task. If you need to hear from them by a certain time, indicate this in your message in a respectful way.

Real-life example of how not to do it: I have gotten “requests” for feedback with the words “I need this tomorrow afternoon.” Obviously, this should have been “attached is chapter X. Would it be possible for you to comment on it by tomorrow afternoon?”

Another example from a colleague, receiving an email from a student she had never heard of, with a learning agreement attached: “hey! please sign and return this a.s.a.p.”

Make sure you actually need to ask your supervisor before you submit a request. We get a lot of requests that could be solved without us. You are looking for a journal article or a data set that we published? Have you tried our online profile and publication list? Google? A nice side-benefit: finding it yourself is almost always quicker than waiting on a professor.

Finally, your supervisor is there for your thesis, he or she is not a one-person career advisor and/or psychological support center. In September 2013, we got an evaluation for a supervisor from a student who graduated with a nice thesis and adequately high grades: in the evaluation, the student complained that the supervisor had not done enough career advice.

If you send documents, make sure you send them in a common format. The best bet for printed documents is to send a PDF, the second best is a Word file in the older format (.doc). Open/Libre/NeoOffice documents and newer Word documents (.docx) cannot be opened by everyone. For data, text files in comma- or tab-separated values format (.csv, .tsv, .txt) are read almost universally, with old-style Excel documents (.xls) a close second place. If you are not sure, ask your supervisor.

A stunning new addition based on recent events: please do not try to hug your supervisor, or in any other way physically approach or endear them. [Feel free to imagine the scene that caused me to write this.] In the same vein, do not communicate value judgments on your supervisor’s appearance, whether they are positive or negative. Finally, do not provide unsolicited tips on any situations that you think might be relevant to them (à la “I know a good cure for hair loss”).

Hopefully, most of these items made you chuckle — secure in your knowledge that you would never have made this mistake yourself. If not, you know what to do when you start looking for a supervisor. (Did we mention that this is supposed to happen after you have a draft thesis proposal?)

Lutz F. Krebs's Picture

About Lutz F. Krebs

I'm a political scientist with a focus on international relations and conflict research. I serve as academic program director for the master of science in Public Policy & Human Development at Maastricht Graduate School of Governance and United Nations University MERIT.

Maastricht, the Netherlands http://lutzkrebs.net
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