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6 Tips for Contacting a Potential Adviser at a U.S. Graduate School

International graduate students should contact only one professor within a program and try to meet at an international conference. 

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International graduate students should prepare to meet potential advisers by compiling a list of questions and reflecting on their academic interests and goals.

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It is crucial for international students to choose a suitable adviser when applying for graduate school in the U.S. A certain degree of conversation or mentorship needs to be established even before the student arrives on campus.

Here are a few tips to help international graduate school applicants more effectively communicate with potential advisers in the U.S. during the application process.

1. Understand your own strengths and weaknesses: Before contacting any professor, the applicant should have a clear understanding of his or her own strengths. She or he may consider research interests and experiences, publications, current GPA, language proficiency and TOFEL score, GRE score or internship experiences. Applicants can adjust their goals and decide who is the most appropriate person to contact in the early stages of applying to programs.

2. Set your goals: Sometimes it is difficult to choose between the reputations of the university, the department or lab and the adviser. The applicant might have to establish which of the above three is most significant, and which could be compromised.
Deciding this early on means it will be less painful to make a decision when an applicant receives multiple offers.

[Here are tips on choosing a U.S. graduate school.]

3. Record which professors you contact: When deciding which professors to contact, international applicants should consider the professor’s research interests and research activities, if the professor has sufficient research funds, how many graduate students the professor currently has, what kind of jobs his or her students could take after graduation and if the professor collaborates with other institutes or enterprises.

Remember, it is ethical to contact only one professor within a department. The applicant should only contact a second professor from the same department if the first person rejects him or her. Again, this might be a huge project so it may be a good idea to make a spreadsheet of who you contacted in which schools and departments.

4. Have a strategy for your initial contact: Avoid using a generic email subject line like "seeking Ph.D. position," as it may sound too impersonal and show a lack of genuine interest. Make the subject line more detailed by including the name of the field, department or professor. As an international applicant, it is essential to introduce your institution and highlight your research experiences as well as your level of English language proficiency.

[Here are the questions international students should ask professors.]

Be aware that an unusual email address from another country could likely be categorized as trash by a U.S. email server. If the professor does not reply, it does not necessarily mean he or she is not interested in the applicant. The applicant can resend the message via another email – usually Hotmail and Gmail are safer than other addresses.

5. Take advantage of international conferences: International conferences are one of the best places to meet potential supervisors in person and draw their attention. It is a much more effective way than email or Skype.

A year or two before completing U.S. graduate school applications, pay some attention to the professor’s schedule. Then before meeting the professor at the conference, be fully prepared with a list of questions and to introduce yourself in precise terms, explaining your interest in the professor's research area and research plan.

[Find out how international students can gauge graduate school chances.] 

6. Do not bring advisers gifts: If everything goes smoothly, the applicant, now a new graduate student, is ready to work with the adviser for the next few years. In many cultures it is most common to bring gifts to an adviser.

Be careful if you decide do this in the U.S. First of all, many universities have specific policies that state professors are not supposed to receive expensive gifts from students.

Second, from the point of view of the professor, it would very uncomfortable to receive a gift from someone he or she barely knows, so refrain from gift-giving. On the other hand, after years of working together, exchanging small, less expensive gifts is acceptable.