Part Two: Contacting Potential Supervisors and Recommenders

Contacting Potential Supervisors:

Once you have decided on a potential supervisor at a particular institution, it is generally advisable to email them and inquire whether they would be willing to supervise your project. Though reaching out to a potential supervisor before applying to a program is not mandatory for most graduate applications, doing so ensures that you a) establish the supervisor’s availability and ability to supervise your proposed project, b) gauge their interest in your proposed project, and c) start thinking about how to pitch your project, in conjunction with the supervisor’s skillset, to the department to which you are applying. Sometimes, but not always, interested supervisors will also volunteer to look over drafts of your application and recommend how to bolster your application to target their specific department.

Emailing a potential supervisor can be intimidating since the etiquette and format for doing so isn’t always clear. With this in mind, however, here are some best practices to remember:

- Always email the potential supervisor at their institutional email address, available through their departmental/university webpage, and not their personal email address. This ensures that all communication, from the beginning, is through official channels.

- Address your potential supervisor with their formal title such as Prof. Spivak. Some professors will tell you explicitly to address them with their first name, while others will prefer the formal title. It is always better to be more formal than casual, especially when you are talking to them remotely.

- Keep your introductory email short and to the point. In a few sentences, introduce yourself, your areas of interest and the specific project you want to work on. To this, also add a few lines on why you would like to work with the scholar. This email should not be a detailed cover letter or a resume listing everything you have done: the potential supervisor will ask for this later. At this point, you are simply proposing a project to an expert in the field you wish to study, and should wait for their response to see what materials and information they would like to see from you.

- Generally, you should email your potential supervisor two to three months in advance of the deadlines to their program. The school term is a hectic time for professors: the deeper into the term and closer to application deadlines, the less opportunity you will have for having a detailed conversation about your project.

- Once you have emailed your potential supervisor, give them at least three-to-five working days to respond. Do follow up (politely!) with an email if five working days have elapsed and you have not heard back.

- If possible, ask to meet in person or talk over Skype or phone with your potential supervisor. These meetings are more productive because they eliminate the waiting period that accompanies emails. Additionally, you can achieve much more in a span of a few minutes than you can over a few emails. If you do meet your potential supervisor in person or over the phone, do send an email afterwards to thank them for their time and to verify the next steps you may have mutually agreed upon. Will you be sending a new draft of your personal statement over? Will the supervisor provide comments on your writing sample? Making a list of concrete steps to take, if any, will smoothen the process for both you and your potential supervisor.

Contacting Recommenders:

Apart from your potential supervisors, the main other scholars you will need to be in touch with for your application are your recommenders. These will be professors with whom you have developed a strong professional relationship over your time at university, and who can speak well of your ability to succeed in graduate school.

Writing academic references for current students is part and parcel of being a professor. The most important thing in asking someone to write you a reference is a) giving them adequate time to write a detailed reference, b) providing them with the materials they need (your CV, your personal statement, a writing sample, and anything else that you have done previously for this professor), and c) giving them an opportunity to say no (they may feel that there are other professors who could write you a stronger reference, they may not be qualified to speak to the academic merits of your projects, etc.). Ideally, inform your professor, in person, that you are applying to graduate school and would be appreciative if they could write you a strong reference. Explain that you understand if it is not possible for them to do so. Even if the professor is unable to write you a reference, they will often recommend someone else who might write you a better one.

Identify the number of references you need for each school you are applying to and decide which of your current professors you are going to ask for a reference. If a school on your list requires two references and another school on your list requires three references, who is your additional reference? Generally, the strongest references come from professor whom you have worked closely with (perhaps in a small seminar, or as a research assistant) or the longest with (a lot of your graded work has been through their eyes). It is also beneficial if one of your referees can speak, with expertise, on your proposed project. For example, if you wish to work on contemporary South Asian Shiʿism, a scholar of Islam in South Asia in the 20th century can speak to the intellectual contributions of your project better than a scholar of Anglophone literature in South Asia. Ask you referees to speak explicitly to the project you are proposing, and why you are a qualified candidate to undertake the project. Feel free to flag, for your referees, relevant skills that they might not be aware of. For example, perhaps you worked as a research assistant for Prof X on topic A, and professor B is not aware of this. Similarly, if you professors are not aware of your linguistic skills, or your survey of specific literatures, flag these for them before they write their reference.

Once you have secured a referee, do email them your materials, a list of the deadlines you are working with, and the method of submission. For example, once you have sent over your CV, and personal statements and writing samples for schools X and Y, make it clear to your referees when and how various schools are expecting the references to come in. School X may request an electronic submission directly from the referee by deadline A; School Y may request a paper submission directly from the referee by deadline B. It is your responsibility to communicate these details to your referee, and to follow up with them as the deadline approaches.

Once your applications are in, do not forget to thank your referees. It is also recommended you inform them of the final outcomes of your admissions process, especially with reference to the school you have chosen to attend. They have taken out time from their schedules to write you a reference, and your acknowledgement is a small token of appreciation for their work.


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