How to land on a faculty’s radar before applying

From Chris Highley, Member of the Graduate Admissions Committee, Department of Biomedical Engineering, University of Virginia

In my view, advice on connecting with faculty before joining a graduate program comes in two parts. One addresses the question of whether it makes sense to make a contact and how it relates to the application process/grad school. The other is how to go about it.

To address the first question: Does reaching out make sense and how might it affect admissions? The answer to this depends on what you hope to get out of the effort to reach out. Your contact should be sincere. If you email, that email should reflect your genuine enthusiasm for that person’s research. This might be reflected through an insightful comment or question, but the most useful inquiries will convey more than passing knowledge. If your interest does not yet go beyond broader interest in the field, that’s perfectly fine, but you will likely receive a more generic response. Our faculty make every effort to respond to thoughtful emails from interested students, but what does it mean if a faculty member does not return your email? It probably means that he or she is quite busy with other things. By no means should a lack of response deter you from applying to a program.  If you are interested in our program, apply—your faculty of interest will see your application and consider it carefully during admissions.

In-person interactions are always a great opportunity for direct exchange, so when you have the opportunity to chat with someone whose work you’re interested in at a seminar or a conference, go for it. These interactions are well worth overcoming any nerves to introduce yourself, ask a question or comment on research. Generally, the more knowledgeable you are of a researcher’s work, the better the chances of having a discussion that establishes a relationship. If you plan to attend the BMES Annual Meeting, our faculty have a strong presence there every year, and regardless of whether you are presenting work, we’d love to meet you and hear about your interests. 

So, how do you go about making connections that are durable and impactful? There is no particular formula here. As a budding researcher and potential grad student, you should be intellectually curious and not hesitate to express interest or ask questions when you have the chance. It’s worth emphasizing that you can help yourself a lot by getting to know the lab through published work and webpages that the lab uses to share information. You might then use your contact as an opportunity to ask specific questions about the research group or faculty member that you couldn’t find answers to elsewhere. All such interactions that help in determining a match between a student and PI are a critical element of joining a graduate program (this topic is addressed elsewhere in this guide). The pre-contact “season” typically runs from summer through fall. Earlier contact allows for more time for you and a faculty member to learn about one another, but you should reach out with your inquiry whenever you have it, even in November or December.

One closing note, if you are thinking that contacting faculty is a prerequisite to admission, this is not true. Taking my own group as an example: none of the students in my lab contacted me prior to applying to UVA. We found we were good matches for one another during the regular admissions process.  I always welcome the opportunity to exchange ideas and share our work with curious undergrads.

Chris Highley, PhD, Assistant Professor of BME