So you want to email a PI
It’s that time of the year again, people are gearing up to apply for graduate school and with it a flurry of things to get done. Graduate school isn’t for everyone, but if you’re planning on making the jump, now is the time to lock in the schools you want to attend. More important than the school is the lab you want to work, you have looked into the labs at your dream school… right? Finding a good PI (primary investigator or the boss of the lab) is, in my opinion, even more important than getting into that dream school of yours. So buckle up and we’re going to talk about how we find the perfect lab.
Now before we dive into this, I can only speak for the STEM group, so keep that in mind. I have my BS and MS in mechanical engineering and I’m starting my fourth (wow!) year in my PhD program focusing on neuroengineering. Over the course of my masters and PhD, I’ve mentored a lot of students. Some of them went into MS, PhD, or even MD programs and for the MS and PhD side there is one thing that is incredibly important, the lab you want to work in. I am not exaggerating when I say that the lab you do your research in can make or break your time in the program. So while we’re not quite at the open application phase (for most schools yet anyway), it’s important to do some homework!
This wouldn’t be the first time I’ve talked about finding the right lab for you (here)(here). This, I believe anyway, will be the first time I talk explicitly on reaching out to a PI. Now this applies to any professional email you send, but we’re focusing specifically on the etiquette of email to a potential lab. The way you email your prospective PI can mean the difference between being ignored or a response. So let’s start at the beginning, since that’s probably for the best.
If you’re reading this, chances are you’re just starting out and have no idea what a PI even does, or if you do you probably don’t know too many. The job of a PI is to decide what type of research the lab will focus on, make sure to “hire” the right people, and to make the money that will fund the research (IE funding proposals). There is also a lot of making connections, meeting with other PI’s, collaborations, conferences, talks, etc. On top of all that, most schools require the PI to teach. Which means not only are they incredibly busy, but they get an outrageous amount of email.
My main PI, who is a big name in the brain-machine interface field, gets a few hundred emails on average in a day. Trust me, I’ve seen the poor guys inbox, I didn’t know the unread icon could count that high. It’s mind blowing that he even responds to any emails and because of that on occasion even my emails will not get a response or he will completely miss the email all together. It happens, a lot.
For you that means a high barrier to most PI’s time that you need to overcome. Now here’s the good news, in most cases no one in higher degree programs cares about your grades. Seriously, while the school itself cares, your prospective PI is more concerned with your experience and your enthusiasm. If you want to work in a lab the easiest way to show your enthusiasm is to reach out to the PI before you apply. This will ensure that your application will at least get noticed by them. That doesn’t guarantee you a spot, but it does mean that your dream school may still be an option even if your grades are less than stellar if you have a good idea about what you want to do and a real interest in the research your prospective PI does.
Let’s talk about the anatomy of a good email to a PI. Now I’ll preface this with the fact that I am certainly not a PI (yet anyway) and most PI’s have their own style about how to handle emails. However, most of the time if you follow a few basic steps you will get a response… eventually. I will acknowledge that not every PI will respond to your emails, but in most cases if you are interested and show that, a PI will respond. They may even help you find a program if there lab isn’t taking anyone (which happens from time to time).
Okay, let’s start the most important part of the email, the subject line. A good subject line will be descriptive enough to catch a PI’s attention and let them know what you want. Now you shouldn’t have a subject line like: “I REALLY WANT TO WORK IN YOUR LAB!!” But at the same time, you shouldn’t be cryptic about what you’re doing so another bad example would be a subject line of “A few questions” or something like that. For me a good mix of PLEASE TAKE ME NOW and hey… I have a question… would be a subject line such as: “Opportunities for grad students in your lab” or maybe “Graduate research in your lab” something to that effect. This let’s the PI know before they open it what the heck the email will be about. More importantly, if your prospective PI is looking for someone, it will catch their attention.
So now you have this imaginary PI’s attention, what next?
Remember to be polite. Some people will call professors by their first names and that’s fine if you know the professor, if you don’t use their title. Trust me when I say a PhD is a hard thing to get, at least be respectful that they got that far. Always call someone Dr. (if they have a doctorate) before you start using first names. In fact, unless they tell you otherwise, it’s probably a good idea just to keep things formal like that. I still call my Co-PI by Dr. XXX and not his first name, but my main-PI we call by a nickname he likes to use. The difference is my main-PI specifically said to call him that, my Co-PI has not. I’ve known my Co-PI for years now and to me he’s still Dr. LastName. that part is up to you, but in ANY case when you start talking to someone you don’t even know, ALWAYS use their title, you could say professor, but you can’t go wrong with calling them doctor (assuming they are one).
Let’s talk about length and content of the email. You want to show in the email that you know what the lab does, but tying that in what you want to do or your field of interest (if you haven’t narrowed it down yet) is equally important. All that could be done in a small paragraph or a full essay on why they should want to work with you. I advise you to stay on the shorter side for several reasons. The main reason is obvious, a PI is busy so getting directly to the point will save them time and will more than likely get you a response. A long detailed email isn’t a bad thing, but it makes more work for a PI and if they are in a hurry, chances are they are going to read and respond to a shorter email over a longer one.
I suggest focusing on one aspect of the research they do and why you find it interesting. Grad schools typically will require a statement of purpose and/or a personal statement. Those two things have overlap, but are different. Think of your email as a personal statement more than a statement of purpose (which I guess we should talk about writing those too eventually!). I would distill it down to a sentence or two about their work and a sentence or two about what you want to learn. A paragraph or two for the whole email should be what you’re aiming for.
You can also take the time to attach your CV. In engineering/biology/science/etc. fields the more common format for a CV, from my experience anyway, is the NIH biosketch (short for biographical sketch). Thankfully there is a tool that will generate your biosketch for you (here)! It’s super easy to use, just plug in the information and the biosketch generator will give you everything in the proper format and will let you know if you’re over the two page limit that NIH uses. I think it’s an ideal way to pass on your information to a PI (in STEM fields anyway) because they will more than likely need it anyway if/when you start in their lab. More importantly, they will be familiar with the format so they can quickly see what you’ve done. If you’re a non-traditional student, someone who’s worked in industry, done research, etc. tailor your biosketch and list of publications to the lab you’re aiming to apply to.
Remember for your biosketch it’s okay to brag about outreach etc. in the synergistic activities section. There you would have up to 5 things (no lists of lists FYI) of things you’ve done that this PI should know about. Have you won an award for your science? Toss it in that section! Mentor students? Toss it in that section! Science outreach of any kind? Throw it in there! That section is a catch all for your professional activities so don’t be afraid to list anything you’ve done here. Passing on this information will help your prospective PI get a feel for who you are and what you’ve done. If it’s not a very long biosketch don’t sweat it, you’re just starting out after all, your prospective PI will understand that. The important thing is that you knew enough to do this step and that will more than likely impress a PI.
If you want some bonus points, if they respond or help you in anyway send a thank you. It’s just a polite thing to do and while it won’t benefit you in any real way, it will let the person know their time was appreciated and I like to think the positive feedback helps the PI stay responsive to emails. So while it may not help you, you may be helping the next person and there’s nothing wrong with that. I always make sure to say thanks and while that may not be needed, it’s just a polite thing to do.
So let’s look at an example of what an email would look like using my suggestions. Notice I didn’t say good email, emails are very person specific so a good email will take into consideration the person you’re reaching out to. Thus I don’t consider an example email a “good” email because I’m writing it to myself basically. Remember this is just an example so don’t copy and paste, it doesn’t work like that. Take the time to write your own, this is just an example and not a great one at that.
Openings in your lab
Hi Dr. LastName
My name is example, I’m a LEVEL 100 Undergrad at the University of template and I’m interested in black hole powered robots. I recently read a paper from your lab on how spinning a miniature black hole could power a robot for ten million years. When I was young I experienced something (insert experience here) that really inspired me and I’ve been interested in black hole robots ever since. Your lab does cutting edge black hole robotic research and I would like to apply to work in your lab. Are you currently looking for (MS/PhD) students and would you be available to speak with me more about it?
In the example above I said my love of black hole powered robots came from some childhood experience. You don’t always need a defining moment in your life to research something, but it helps to be able to tie it back to a particular reason. Maybe you’re just fascinated with the complexity of black hole robots, that’s fine too, just make sure you explain why you’re interested. This isn’t a perfect email, but it’s to the point. You can attach your CV to this kind of email and you’re more likely to get a response than if you wrote an incredibly long email explaining in detail that your father was nearly sucked into a black hole during an accident at the black hole robot factory and that’s where your love of research came from.
I sent an email structured very similarly to a few different places and it’s how I ended up in the lab I’m working in now. Actually that’s a long story (here), but the point is that I’ve gone through this process and I settled on this format after knowing several different PI’s and hearing about what gets their attention in an email. I’ve also helped a lot of people find the right lab for them, so while everyone is different this approach has worked for me.
The last piece of advice I can give is simple. If you don’t hear back after about a week, email again. It never hurts to try a second time. After two or three emails though, I would move on because chances are you won’t get a response. That happens, but don’t let it deter you in your hunt for a lab.