Tis the season to send those anxiety-inducing emails out to your science heroes!
I've gotten a lot of questions recently about the best way to reach out to potential advisors, so I thought it might be helpful to publicly post the advice I've been giving out here.
Building rapport with a potential advisor is key, at least in the field of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. What does rapport mean? Basically you want to have a conversation going with someone, which allows you to get a sense of each other and how compatible your research interests are. If a faculty member is interested in you as a student, this greatly increases your chances of being accepted to their department's grad program. It is pretty rare to come across a program where you don't need to have a faculty member willing to vouch for you during the application review process.
First thing's first: how do you find a potential advisor? I recommend starting your search several months before application/fellowship deadlines (so for most grad school deadlines, ideally in the summer or early fall). There are lots of ways to go about this, including contacting authors of papers you find interesting; networking at conferences and on social media (both with potential advisors, and with graduate students/postdocs/faculty who may have recommendations for good advisors for you); and attending seminar series that include invited external faculty. I highly recommend signing up to meet with invited seminar speakers - this is a great way to network, and I have several friends who have found PhD or postdoc advisors this way!
Once you've found a few people you'd be interested in working with, check out their website. Often, faculty will state on their website whether they are accepting/have funding for graduate students or postdocs, whether they have expectations for their labmembers, and how they prefer to be contacted (usually by email). You can check out who is in their lab, and who their alums are. Something that I paid a lot of attention to was whether potential advisors had women of color in their labs. Their website may also mention whether they have other interests/activities that are important to you (i.e., equity, inclusion, and justice work).
Okay, now you're ready to send those "cold emails." I had to learn the hard way what works and what doesn't, and I've gotten advice myself from people ranging from other graduate students/postdocs and my grad school mentors. I'm not proclaiming to be an expert, and each context will be different, but in general this is what has worked well for me:
Send a brief email, at least a couple of months before the application (or fellowship) deadline. These email should be no more than 3 very short paragraphs (2-3 sentences each). I recommend attaching your CV to the email. Here is an example structure for a cold email:
If you know someone who knows them, ask that person to reach out on your behalf. For instance, if your current advisor or a professor you know has worked with them in the past, or if you have a friend in their lab, ask them to send a heads up email. Something like "My student (or friend) is interested in working with you and will be reaching out" can be really helpful for getting a response.
If you don't hear back, follow up 1-2 weeks later. And again 1-2 weeks after that. Academics are extremely busy under normal circumstances, and much more now as many are conducting online (or hybrid online/F2F) courses for the first time, in addition to managing all of the new issues that have arisen due to the pandemic. Don't take a lack of response personally, and follow up at least two times before throwing in the towel. This is also why you want to start reaching out well in advance of any deadlines.
If you still don't hear back, consider reaching out to a student or postdoc in their lab, if you haven't yet. You can send a similar cold email as above, potentially just including the first paragraph, not attaching your CV, and asking if they are aware of whether the faculty member is accepting students/postdocs, what it's like to work with the faculty member, and what is the best way to reach the faculty member.
Sidenote: When I was reaching out to faculty for grad school, I straight up didn't ever get a response from a few of them. Sometimes you just won't. This is why it's good to have a list of maybe 5-6 people you are reaching out to, to increase the odds of finding people that you can connect with.
If/when they respond, set an appointment for a call, and arrive prepared. Be sure you are prepared with at least a few ideas of potential projects, based on the research that their lab has been doing recently. Also arrive with a few questions, such as "What do you see as the future direction of your lab?" "Which research questions do you currently find most interesting?" "Would you be willing to look over my application materials? How far in advance would you like me to send them to you?" If you are interested in teaching as a graduate student, you can ask them about what types of classes their students have taught before. Importantly, you don't need to know all the answers! These meetings are generally pretty casual conversations, not formal job interviews or "tests" of your knowledge. That said, if they ask you a question you don't know the answer to, it is much better to say "I don't know" than to guess or make up an answer.
Ask them if you can reach out to their students. This is a great litmus test - if someone is willing to put you in touch with their students, that usually means that they have good relationships with their students.
I hope this is helpful! Fall is an exciting time, full of hope for a new academic year with new teaching and research opportunities. Give yourself permission to spend time thinking about what you'd like to see happen in your career as a grad student or postdoc, and to feel excitement about what could be on your horizon. If you have other tips or questions, feel free to comment below or reach out to me via email or twitter.