How to apply for graduate student positions

Applying to Positions in Academia in Canada and the United States

Generally, when you want to apply to attend graduate school, there are two main ways. You either apply to a program and find your advisor afterward (often through lab rotations), or you apply for a direct admission with an advisor that you have already formed a relationship with. Depending on the type of program you apply to, there are different norms. Generally speaking, and there are exceptions, in the world of biology, ecology and evolution programs tend to be direct admit, whereas micro, genetics, neuroscience and other programs leaning toward the clinical, tend to be more rotation-based. Some programs even offer both options, just to make things extra complicated! Certainly, it is a good idea for programs to explicitly state expectations on their websites, but unfortunately, many do not, and this contributes to gaps between students who have access to this hidden knowledge, and those who do not.

Either way, it's always a good idea to reach out to prospective advisors beforehand, regardless of if their labs take students in direct admits or not. If you are the right candidate, professors sometimes have influence to take you in.

To apply to graduate programs, you will have to prepare documents like a CV and statement of purpose (or similar document), you'll have to collect your transcripts, some programs require GREs, and for foreign students, you may need to prove language proficiency and will have to contend with student visas. Many programs also charge application fees, but if you don't have the money, you may be able to send an email to the admissions folks to get a fee waiver. Hopefully, graduate program websites will have information about all of these requirements.

This page is all about how to contact prospective advisors. When contacting a prospective advisor, there are certain conventions that you should follow. Another professor, Dr. Sarah Evans created a similar and very thorough document covering some of the same information. Check it out here. I am a biologist, so I'm most familiar with how biology programs work, but the email to prospective advisors is pretty standard across all disciplines. Of course, I welcome feedback, and would be happy to update this page if you have any insights on how conventions are different for other disciplines.

Email

The email is your first point of contact with a prospective advisor, so make sure you spend time on getting this right. The email should be custom-written to show interest in that particular lab, including a bit of familiarity with their research. Your goal is both to make a good professional impression and to make an argument for why you in particular are a good fit. This takes some time, but that’s why it’s best to only email labs that you are truly interested in working in. Unless the advertisement specifically asks for a cover letter, an email will suffice.

Things to do:

  • Open your email with Dear Dr. [lastname of person] or Dear Prof. [lastname of person]

  • Explain why you are interested in being a graduate student in this person's lab. It's a good idea to refer to work that they have done, and why you find it interesting.

  • Explain what qualifies you for the position. Do you have research experience? Have you taken classes that prepared you?

  • Bonus: give specifics about what you would like to study, or project ideas. This is not mandatory for entering a new lab, but will certainly help boost your application.

  • Make sure to proof-read your email. Give it to someone else to read over. If you type it up, don't send it right away. Sleep on it and read it again the next day before sending it.

Things not to do:

  • Do not use salutations that imply the professor's gender. In North America, the custom is that you refer to professors by Dr. or Prof. Do not use Ma'am, Ma, Mr, Mrs, Ms, or Sir. Also do not refer to the professor by their first name. If they reply to you and sign their email with their first name, you then you can use it, but it's still generally good to lean toward the formal rather than the informal.

  • Do not send the same email to every potential advisor. If you follow the things to do above, you will be writing a unique email to each prospective advisor. Yes, this takes some work, but this potential advisor will be investing a lot of resources (money, time, energy) in you, so the least you can do is send a custom email.

  • Try not to take it personally if you don't get a reply, or if you get a rejection. If you don't get a reply, it's ok to send a follow-up email (wait a week or two before the follow-up), because yours might have been missed. If you get a rejection, it's hard, but it's also just a part of life. The more you do this, the easier the rejections become. Resources are limited and professors just can't take everyone into their labs.

CV

The CV is what shows the prospective advisor the things that you described in your email or cover letter.

Things to do:

  • Send this as a PDF

  • Follow these general guidelines

  • Make sure to proof-read

  • In addition to publications, if you have manuscripts that are in progress but not yet submitted, include them in a separate section.

Things not to do:

  • This is not a resumé, so keep in mind that the format should be a bit different. Follow the guidelines in the link above.

  • Do not include personal information. In some countries, this is the norm, but in Canada and the United States, personal information such as religion, gender, marital status, and country of origin should not be included.

  • Do not include a photograph. Again, this is a regional cultural thing. In many places around the world photos are often included in applications, but not in the US and Canada.

Other pieces

In your email you may want to include PDFs of your publications if you have any (at most three). This saves the prospective advisor time and effort in having to track them down. Note that it is not an expectation that undergrads applying to grad school already have publications, but if you do, it's a plus, and a good thing to highlight.

Cover letter

This section added, per request.

Some positions that are more formal will require a cover letter from you. This is different from a "Statement of Purpose", which is usually something a graduate program will require, and for which there is plenty of information online. So here are some suggestions for a cover letter if you are reaching out to a prospective advisor. Follow the main points that I made above regarding the initial contact email, but with some more details. The following is a general template followed by some additional notes. Please note that these are just my suggestions and you'll have to use your judgement for the particular position you are applying for. Since I would not require a cover letter from prospective students, it's hard for me to know for sure what a professor is looking for when they ask for this.

Official Letterhead from current or most recent institution

Date
Department
University

Salutation

Opening statement, saying who you are

Introduction - Paragraph outlining why you want to go to graduate school, your research experience, and potential as a scientist.

Paragraph on why you are interested in joining this lab. Good to include something about the prof's research that you found interesting and some sort of idea of what you would be interested in studying in their lab.

Wrap-up, follow-up, and thank you.

Sincerely,
Embedded electronic signature
Your full name

* This section was inspired by the fantastic cover letter outline for faculty positions by The Broad Institute

Letterhead - Critical contact information: name, degree (graduation date if still a student), current position, email, and phone number

Date, department, and university name and address of the place you are applying to

Salutation – “Dear Prof. [Lastname],”

Opening statement - My name is [Something Something] and I am currently a [senior/4th year (indicate how close you are to graduating)] at [blank University], majoring in [this field]. I am writing to apply for a position as a graduate student your lab at BLANK university.

Introduction - Show enthusiasm/passion here. Why do you want to be a scientist? Why would you be a good graduate student (summarize either some successful research experience, success in courses where you had independent projects, or something that sets you apart as a great graduate student candidate)?

Why this lab? - This is pretty much summarized in the template. Convince the professor that they are the right research mentor for you.

Wrap-up, follow-up, and thank you - You can find my CV (and any other additional documents they may have asked for) attached. I look forward to hearing from you, and thank you.