How and why should I contact current students and professors?

At some point during your search for the right graduate program, you may want to get in touch with current students and professors in the program or programs that interest you. Though this may seem intimidating at first, it need not be. In fact, many graduate students and professors are excited to talk about their research.

Making First Contact

A good first point of contact is e-mail.

Start by searching the university’s website to find professors with research interests that match yours. If there are no research interests listed, contact the head of the department and ask him or her if there are any professors who research and teach in your particular area of interest. You can also ask the department head to send you (either through e-mail or through old-fashioned snail mail) literature or other information on the department. This will provide a valuable resource for comparison when you make the final decision regarding the institution you will attend.

Then, when you have the e-mail address of the professor(s) you wish to contact, send a short e-mail message.

Introduce yourself, briefly describe your educational background, mention why you chose to e-mail this particular professor, and ask any basic questions you might have. Include your contact information in the body of the e-mail.

The same procedure works for contacting current graduate students, as well. Don’t forget to find out from your undergraduate institution if there are any alumni in the graduate program that interests you, and be sure to contact them, too.

Following Up
Once you’ve made first contact, start collecting responses. Read through what you have been sent by students and professors and start to formulate more specific questions. Go on the university’s website again and see if you can find the answers. You may discover that you have even more questions now that you have more specific information

This is the ideal time to follow up with the people who returned your e-mail. Depending on the preference of the person you’ll be contacting, either send another e-mail or pick up the phone and call. If you do make a phone call, be certain to politely introduce yourself and mention that you have already been in e-mail correspondence.

Don’t Be Shy
Remember, you are contacting these people to find out exactly what you need to know to make the best decision for your education. Tailor your questions to the person with whom you’re speaking. Ask professors about academic issues, specific information regarding student involvement in research, and the expectations professors hold for their research and teaching assistants. Ask students about their involvement in the research process as well, but don’t forget to ask them about campus life, too. Find out specifics regarding the cost of living, the students’ social lives, the level of encouragement they get from professors, and anything else you might want to know about the university. In particular, ask current minority students about their comfort level on campus. Are they in a department with many other students from under-represented groups, or are they the only one? Consider the answer to this question carefully. Mull over how comfortable you are being the only minority student in a program. Ask about how well they are mentored by faculty as this can have a huge impact on the graduate experience for all students. Are they given a lot of guidance or are they left to figure everything out on their own? Remember, graduate school is stressful (yet very rewarding!) enough, and chances are your academics will be better in a situation in which you feel at home. While you are speaking with them, you may also want to ask if they get any extra funding – many scholarships and fellowships are earmarked specifically for underrepresented students. If so, ask about the process to obtain this extra funding.

Keep In Touch

Regardless of how deep into the graduate search process you are when you decide to make contact with current students and professors, it is a good idea to keep in touch. Send a thank-you e-mail to anyone who provided you with helpful information. In it, mention not only that you are grateful for their decision to take the time to assist you, but also that you would like to contact them in the future. This opens the door for you to get more answers later. After all, when you’re looking into something that will be your main focus for a number of years, there’s no such thing as too much good information.