How to contact faculty

If you are a student or a prospective student interested in doing research with a faculty member, don’t be afraid to reach out. We don’t bite!

That said, academia has some communication norms that can be hard to navigate, especially for students and prospective students who have little or no prior exposure to them. The goal of this page is to make some of those norms explicit. My hope is that it will help you recognize that there is some strategy to the task of finding a research position, avoid spending your time and effort on a strategy that is bad (e.g., sending long emails with lots of fluff to dozens and dozens of faculty) and instead spend it on a strategy that is good.

Note: This page is my general advice to students who want to send emails to CS/HCI faculty based in the United States.1 For specific instructions about how to apply for positions in my lab, see the For Students page.

Addressing professors

This advice is specific to the United States. Please don’t assume it applies to other parts of the world. It’s also a generalization; there are definitely faculty in the U.S. who have a different view.

How should I start an email to a professor?

Most faculty members prefer to be addressed as one of the following:

  • Dr. LastName
  • Professor/Prof. LastName
  • Professor/Prof. FirstName
  • FirstName

But which one should I use?

If you’re a student contacting a faculty member with whom you have no conversation history, it never hurts to start with a Professor LastName. They may tell you how they prefer to be addressed after that. If they tell you to call them by their first name in the future, it is really, truly okay to do so!

What about honorifics?

Aside from degree credential-related titles (“Professor” and “Dr.”), we do not go by formal honorifics. Additionally, there’s no need to add an adjective (such as “respected”) before someone’s title.

Gendered terms like Sir, Ma'am, or Madam are really only used to get the attention of someone whose name isn’t known (imagine saying “excuse me, sir” to ask someone sitting next to you on the bus to stand up so you can get by). Even in those scenarios, those terms are being phased out as more people adopt inclusive and gender neutral language. We do not use gendered honorifics in professional academic contexts. An email that begins with one of these, whether or not it matches the recipient’s gender, can be unconsciously off-putting as a first impression2, even when the reader consciously knows that it’s intended as a sign of respect.

A good way to start an email to me is:

Hello Prof. Reig,

Body of your message

What should I say in the email?

Most faculty have websites, and most of those websites have information about the person’s publications and research. Read their research! Nobody will expect you to have expert knowledge of their papers, but it is usually possible to develop a basic understanding of the high-level areas a professor works in and the family of approaches they apply. If you have no exposure to the topic, spend at least a little while getting your bearings, and come up with some specific questions and/or ideas. This way, when you email, you will have something meaningful to say.

Some faculty have pages on their websites (like this one!) that are meant to help students understand what, if anything, is going to be effective in a cold email. If a professor provides specific instructions about whether/how/when to contact them, follow those instructions. If you’re asking me about research positions in my lab, make sure you have read the For Students page so you know what information to include.

In general, it is a good idea to be explicit and concise about what you’re looking for (independent study credit? paid RA position for the upcoming semester? support for simply exploring your interests on your own time?) and how much flexibility you have in that.

Should I email a bunch of professors with the same text?

No! It is extremely obvious when students copy-paste the same message, attempting to cover several different topical bases in one go, and send it out indescriminately. Messages like this are easy to categorize as “mass-email spam” and are swiftly ignored. If you are genuinely interested in working with multiple professors, you can of course work off of an email template that you create for yourself, but your message needs to send make it clear that you have put more thought into reaching out than simply discovering the professor’s existence and looking at their keywords.

  1. Note about course permission number-related emails: If you are a UMass Lowell student trying to obtain a permission number to enroll in a course, you can simply email the instructor with the course name & number and a statement that you would like a permission number. Generally, it’s fine to keep this message short and to the point. In courses with limited seats and/or prerequisites, it is sometimes helpful to include some information about why you want to take the class and what relevant coursework you’ve already completed. 

  2. I receive a lot of emails that begin “Dear Sir”. It is relatively easy to determine that I’m a woman who uses she/her pronouns by looking at my website, UML faculty page, and/or email signature. While we all make mistakes and I always extend the benefit of the doubt, this greeting reads as the student not having done their research, and it is unlikely I will respond to it.