Choosing MPH programs to apply to was daunting. Not being tied to a particular location and planning to study epidemiology – a concentration I’d bet every school of public health offers – I decided to narrow my choices by the areas taught (theory vs. research vs. skills), by my preference about places to live, and by research potential.
I could read websites until blurry vision set in, narrowing my focus to five schools, but that could only tell me so much. What is the content and style of classes? Would professors conducting research in areas of interest to me have any interest in working with a MPH student?
Enter the cold call email.
Six months before applications were due, I started with a person who wasn’t actually a faculty member at a school, but an alumnus who had done research in an area of interest to me. I saw his name and email address on Berkeley’s website and reached out. I asked him about Berkeley-specific programs, areas of research, and opportunities for public health practice that interest me, and I provided a paragraph of information on my background. I didn’t really expect a response, but lo and behold, one came! I learned plenty to narrow my interests and questions, short-listed Berkeley, and built up some courage to write more emails.
My nervousness, wondering why in the world a professor would bother to respond to an email from an applicant they didn’t know, drove me to look up professors by research area at all the schools I was considering, reach out to my social network to see if I had any connections to these professors, and read recent or impactful literature by these researchers prior to sending each email. I honed my “elevator pitch”, admittedly in written form, and modified it to match each professor I contacted. Starting three months before applications were due, I emailed 1-2 professors at each school who were doing or had done research in areas of interest to me. The response amazed me – almost everyone wrote back. From assistant professors to department heads, people were happy to talk with me. Some asked for my CV, some asked for in-person or skype meetings, some referred me to additional resources, and of course some said they didn’t have any opportunities that match my interests.
Through these conversations, I narrowed my list of schools to three and set up potential research opportunities for during my MPH. I learned what really made each school a match for me, enabling me to reflect on the content of these conversations in my statements of purpose. Even if I don’t get accepted this time around, along the way I got to talk to people doing research in areas that I find awesome – very cool to get to talk to people whose papers you have read and whose research you follow.
Here is a quick guide to writing these daunting emails (these are just my suggestions and by no means guaranteed to be the best):
Timeline: Ideally contact professors 3-6 months ahead of your application deadline. This way you aren’t reaching out last minute, but you also aren’t contacting them so far in advance that they don’t know what research will be happening when you start your degree program.
- Greeting (I use Dear Dr. ____)
- Why you are contacting them
- e.g.: “I am reaching out to ask about your current research projects (enter social network connection here if you have one). I am applying to (this program at this school) for entry fall 2015, and I am looking to learn more about current research being undertaken or that will be in progress 2015-2017. I have a strong interest in antibiotic resistance and infectious diseases, and your work with drug resistance, HIV and women’s life events, and bacterial vaginosis is of particular interest to me. I am also interested to learn about any TB work you might be doing.”)
- Elevator pitch (your interests, your background, what you want to do).
- Signature with contact info
Follow-through: Make sure to follow up quickly after they respond! It is helpful to have your CV or resume handy, as they might request it. I haven’t heard back from graduate schools yet with admissions decisions, but after I do, I will be contacting professors at schools I don’t go to so that I can thank them. Of course, I will contact professors at a school I do attend to see what research opportunities we can arrange.
Best of luck!
Tip: The cold call email could of course also apply to a job search.