Dos and Don'ts : How to write good email to a Professor ?

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Frustrated with emailing Profs & getting Nos ?

Ever emailed a Professor to request project or internship and got rejection ? or didn't even get a reply ? I am pretty sure yes. This is a very common experience for college students and nobody really knows for sure what actually works and what do not. But, certainly we can do some basic things right to maximize probability of positive reply. Here's a list of Dos and Don'ts to to help you land your dream internship (foreign?) or project of interest. So, here we go:

Before You Email Anyone:

  1. Choose the person you are going to email wisely. Take your time. Visit their lab website and see what they are working on. Think honestly if you would like to work on similar project. Don't follow the herd while choosing your project topic, never a good idea! If he/she is a faculty of your own institute, ask seniors who have worked with him about their experience. If not, then at least try to make some idea about what the person is like from their website content, writing style etc.
  2. After you have selected few potential Profs to mail based on your topics of interest, it is very important to think how you might be useful to them. Honestly, not all profs are Saint-like! Some of them may take up a student just to help them build research/technical skills. But, many of them do not care about anything that is not going significantly help with their work. So, think about this from the prof's perspective. Do you have some project-idea that  you think might interest the prof ? Are you proficient in some particular skill e.g. programming or some specific field so that the prof can take advcantage of you ? Remember, a prof who works in machine learning will always take someone who at least knows the basics rather than someone who knows nothing and just showed up. Saves a lot of polishing on the supervisor's part. 
  3. Also, check the profs availability and if  he/she has already given too many people projects and cannot take any more students.
  4.  Fine. You should ideally have some option decided by now. If not, then it is not yet time to go to a prof and you need to explore and polish your skills on your own. If you are lucky enough to get some match in your mind then let's jump to the approaching part.

Dos:

  1. Choose your title wisely. It is always better to ask for an appointment instead of asking for a project directly, especially if the prof is at your campus. A simple "Request for Appointment" works much better than "Request for project on Iron Man Armour Mark 85". 
  2. If the prof is from some other university or foreign university first check if he has mentioned any process of contacting him on his website. Some, refers to contact their secretary, students insteasd of directly mailing them. Since, you cannot ask for an appointment in this case the best way to start the conversation is a mail like "Query Regarding your NIPS2018/PNAS2017 paper".
  3. Be respectful. You might think "Respected Sir", "Yours Sincerely" these are old fashioned but your are wrong. Nothing impresses a person more than flattery. But do not get too worshippy ! A sentence like "I couldn't wait but email you to discuss about your marvellous paper which has opened my eyes" appears really creepy. Use medium length sentences with a balance between respect and simplicity.
  4. Start with a brief description about yourself which must include your name, your institute, your department and year. You may want to include your CGPA/CPI as an indicator of your hard work but don't make it look like some Nobel prize like achievement. 
  5. In an email titled "Query regarding ..." be sure to have a valid query in mind that is not conceptually wrong and is not solvable by google search (Yeah, you can smell honest time investment there!). In a mail "Requestin Appointment" mention that the prof's work has got you very interested and you have some questions and ideas to discuss and if he/she can take out of their busy schedule you will be very grateful.
  6. Build up the discussion. Do not jump into internship request on the second email. Keep the prof involved. Show him through your questions and reasonings that youcan be a valuable person to work with.
  7. The opporutnity to finally ask for an internship will come naturally when you set up the exchanges nicely. For profs on campus it will be most likely like this: You shall go to the appointment, you will discuss the topic with the prof. He/she will give you some preliminary work/ reading project to do. And you are on the go. For foreign profs it will take a bit longer. SO, my suggestion is if you want an intern in Summer '20, start the approaching process as early as Summer '19 .  
 

Don'ts:

  1. Do not get disheartened if some prof do not reply to your email. But, make sure your mail reached him. If you are using trackers then sometime it can land in the spam. Also, some profs filter out phrases like "request for internship" so avoid them in the title. If you are unsure you can send another email after waiting adequate amount of time (next point).
  2. Do not annoy the prof. He/she might b busy and may reply a day or three later. Do not keep sending the same email repeatedly. Add some lines at the start like "Respected Sir, I was unsure if my previous email reached you or not". 
  3. Do not Mass Email. It sends a very bad image of both you and your institute to the world. At all cost avoid it. It is also a good idea to address the first email with the Prof's surname i.e. "Respected Prof. XYZ" .
  4. Do not hurry, as you might have already guessed after reading the previous points.
  5. Do not write mails which are like epics. Nobody has time to read them. But be sure to write enough so that the prof does not think you wrote it in a jiffy. Ideally a three paragraph mail (each with 4 to 10 lines) should do good.
  6. Since, you might mail multiple profs do not cross text. Cross texting has same effect as Mass Mailing. So, avoid at all costs.  
  7. Do not send the mail during night at the prof's timezone or when he/she is on vacation. It may get buried under many emails. Send it during office hours, preferably 10-11 AM.
So, here is a comprehensive discussion on how to approach your prof. Believe me it is no less difficult than approaching your crush :-p Even after following all these steps you may get rejections after rejections or you might get lucky on the first one. But, be sure to follow these steps to maximize your probablitiy of getting lucky.

If you would like any more clarification or have questions be sure to ask them in the comments. Also, you can suggest me if you have any more points to add. I would very much like to read your apping experience, put them in the comments below :-)

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