The Dreaded Cold-Email

Photo credit: University Archives, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University Libraries

So you need to cold-email a professor. Perhaps it’s someone you’ve had a large lecture with but never spoken to one-on-one, or someone you’ve been directed to by another professor—or maybe it’s someone you’ve truly never met. I’ve sent a good number of cold-emails in my time as a Columbia student, and I have a couple of tips I’ve picked up along the way. The most important thing to bear in mind is that however freaked out about cold-emailing you may be, the professor on the other end of the email isn’t likely to be surprised or read into the specific wording of your email too much. Professors receive a lot of email, including from people they don’t know. 

Keep your address formal and your subject line to the point. Professors might not chafe at an email that begins with “Hi” or “Hey,” but if you don’t know them, you don’t know what they prefer. (This is also good to bear in mind for emailing professors more generally.) “Dear Professor XYZ” is a safe bet for a way to begin. Make sure your subject line has to do with what you’re emailing about: even things like “Looking to learn more about your research” or “Seeking cell biology research assistantship” are more explanatory than “A few questions” or “Asking a favor.” 

The first line of your email is like what you would say when you shake someone’s hand upon first meeting: it sets your intentions. Ideally, you have a clear idea of why you’re emailing this professor in particular, so use your first line to get them on the same page. (Hopefully you’re not just sending emails at-large to every history professor at Columbia: if so, you probably need to step back and reconsider your approach.) You should explain why you’re emailing them specifically, referencing specific components of their work that align with your interests. An opening like “I’m a sophomore majoring in human rights, and I’m hoping to learn more about your work with commerce archives from the Antebellum south” shows that you’ve taken the time to familiarize yourself with the professor’s work. If you can mention specific papers or book chapters that you’ve looked at, all the better. I like to make the first line its own paragraph so that it’s easy to read, and my opening doesn’t get lost in a mass of text.

As you move on to the body of the email, expand on that first sentence. Whether you’re specifically looking for a research assistantship or just curious about what they do, frame your email as a request to have a call or Zoom appointment to learn more about their work. After all, if you’re looking for a research assistantship or supervision with a professor you don’t know, you do want to learn more about them and their work before you commit. Plus, you’ll still learn useful things for your research endeavors from talking with a professor who doesn’t have an opening for a research assistant at the moment. 

Keep the body of your email on the shorter side, between 2 and 4 sentences, and use that space to outline your past experience that demonstrates your engagement with their academic field, and your excitement for topics aligned with their interests. This shouldn’t be a whole cover letter: if you end up speaking, you’ll get to cover the laundry list of reasons why you might be a great fit. Instead, focus on that experience and excitement, and close the paragraph with a request to speak further. 

Signing off is as simple as “Thanks for your time” and your name. If you don’t receive a response within a week, send a respectful follow-up email: again, professors get a lot of email, and you may have gotten lost in the flood. If you don’t receive a response to that email, it’s up to you whether to bump them one more time, but stop after two follow-ups: they may just be trying to give you a soft no. 

Cold emails aren’t something to dread! They’re just part of being a student, and part of trying to navigate a university where you can’t possibly meet everyone. You aren’t the first student to cold-email this professor, and they won’t be weirded out by it. Being respectful, concise, and persuasive should be your focus, rather than writing a perfect email. 


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