How to cold call an academic if you’re a student

Academics receive a lot of unsolicited contact (cold calls) from students of all education stages, seeking advice or opportunities. I try to reply to most, but often I can’t – because it’s unclear what the student is asking and why they are contacting me.

Note, here I’m talking about students at other institutions that I’ve never met or have no prior connection with, not my existing students or students enrolled at the institution where I teach.

Here are a few tips for students wanting to cold call an academic:

  • Use email. Don’t DM them on social media. Academics, especially females, get a lot of harassing and nuisance DMs, especially from unknown males. Most of us use settings to filter DMs from unknown people and are unlikely to respond.
  • Be specific about why you are contacting them. Don’t ask open questions and don’t seek general comment on complex topics ‘out of interest’. I’ve received many cold calls that I simply can’t/don’t have time to respond to, eg Should I pursue a research career? Can you explain insect declines to me, just because I’m interested? If you are seeking an expert’s general comments for a specific purpose, eg writing a news story, explain this to the academic and provide links to the platform your story will appear on.
  • Don’t cold call an academic to ask for personalised career advice, eg should I do a PhD? If you want to discuss your career options, it would be more useful to talk to a mentor/lecturer/teacher/friend who knows something about your background.
  • Don’t email an academic asking them to do your homework/assignment/thesis for you. I’ve received emails from random students (from school to postgrad level) essentially asking me to summarise the latest research on a topic they need to write on, or to tell them what the latest papers on a particular topic are. Learn how to do research! It’s a valuable skill.

Cold calling a potential supervisor for postgrad projects

If you are looking for postgraduate opportunities, you will have the most success if you spend some time to identify the best potential supervisor that matches your interest and expertise. Don’t bulk email multiple random professors with the same letter.

Some things to think about when cold calling a potential supervisor:

  • What topic are you interested in researching? Spend some time thinking about what sort of project you would like to do. You don’t need to have a specific research question ready, but think about what you are interested in – a study species, a particular study system (eg deserts, rainforests, farms), the types of questions you’re interested in (eg how does farming affect biodiversity? Why are some plant species found only on mountain tops?). Do you want to do lots of field work, work in a lab, or work on modelling and analysing existing data?
  • Once you’ve settled on some institutions you would like to study at, search the relevant department webpages to find academics that work on the topics you’re interested in.
  • Check Google Scholar to look at a potential supervisor’s recent publications. Many academics change topic directions over time and departmental webpages are often out of date, so it helps to check what they’ve been publishing about recently to see if it matches your interests.
  • If you want to apply for a scholarship at a particular institution, especially in another country, look at the institution’s website first to find details of their scholarship system. Check that you meet eligibility criteria before contacting a potential supervisor.
  • In most cases, academics can’t simply give you a scholarship when you email them. There are formal application rounds at certain times of the year and a committee decide if applications are successful, not your potential supervisor. So the purpose of your email is to introduce yourself and your skills/experience, describe your research interests, and ask if they would be interested in supervising you. Attach a current CV and a copy of your academic transcripts if you can. You don’t need to write a formal ‘job application’ letter.
  • Sign off your email with the name you prefer to be called. This makes it easier for the academic to reply to you appropriately.

For reference, here are a few things a potential grad student needs to have to be competitive for a scholarship (at least at Australian institutions). Individual academics may also look for other specific attributes, depending on the project or discipline.

  • A relevant degree, usually with first class Honours. If the degree was completed some time ago or in a different academic system, other postgraduate experience or professional experience in the discipline may be acceptable
  • Demonstrated research experience in the discipline (eg undergrad project, Honours, summer scholarship, volunteer work).
  • Demonstrated discipline-relevant writing skills (eg a thesis) and preferably a discipline-relevant publication (doesn’t need to be as first author)

Also check out this good post from The Thesis Whisperer about cold calling academics as a researcher or member of the public.

© Manu Saunders 2022

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