How to Contact Potential Supervisors

Last year we published the series "So You Want to Go to Grad School." In the second post, "So You Want to Apply to Grad School: How to Apply," I suggested emailing potential supervisors early. However, I did not provide advice on how to phrase that initial email. As a current co-supervisor of 8 honors thesis students, I have learned that not everyone knows how to approach writing these first emails. So in a similar manner to how we recommended how to contact archivists in our post on De-mystifying the Archives, I will give advice and a letter/email template below.

When you are contacting a professor to ask them to supervise a large research project, whether that is your PhD dissertation, MA thesis, Honors thesis project, or even your Postdoc you want to:

1) Introduce yourself
2) Concisely explain your proposed project/ research (you can attach a word document with more information, but in the body of the email keep it concise)
3) Demonstrate that you have already done the initial legwork (and thus demonstrating that you will not be burdensome but rather a pleasure to work with)
4) Show your knowledge of their work
5) Explain why you want them in particular to supervise your work (your letter should be specifically tailored)
6) Explain what would be required of them (this is for projects that are not regularly supervised/ part of the professors' normal supervision tasks)
6) Offer to provide more information upon request


Dear Professor X,

My name is _____ and I am interested in applying to ___ program for my PhD/ MA
My name is _____ and I am an honors student writing my thesis next year.

Then describe what you have currently been working on or a quick note about your research interests/ academic history.

My name is Alex Ketchum and I received my PhD from the Department of History at McGill University. My dissertation focuses on feminist restaurants, cafes, and coffeehouses of the United States and Canada in the 1970s and 1980s (more information is available at my website:

Now Concisely Explain the NEW PROJECT that you want to do with them
For my postdoctoral research, I am interested in ... (keep it under 4 sentences)

This section should show that you have already done initial research and know that this project is feasible.

Now explain why them.

Example:I've found your work, particularly ___ article/ book, helpful to formulating my ideas on the subject and was wondering if you might consider supporting my developing this project as a postdoctoral fellow at the ____in the Fall of 2018. I plan to defend my thesis in the spring of 2018, but wanted to speak with you now as SSHRC and other funding applications are due by the fall of 2017. 

Notice how in the above example, the email writer has given the potential supervisor a sense of the timeline and ample time to respond?

If you are interested in hearing more about the project, I have attached more information to this email.
By placing more details in a word document, it shows that you are prepared but can also be concise. We all receive so many emails, you don't want the potential supervisor to see a very long email and feel overwhelmed. 

Thank you so much for your time and consideration. I look forward to hearing from you.

WEBSITE (for full CV)

As Tyler Yank and I discussed in our powerpoint about Alternative Academic Platforms, having a website with your CV or publications is very useful.

Other Notes:
Depending on what stage you are in of your academic career, you might have fewer details for each section. That's okay. Being concise and specific is key.

Remember, you want to show to the potential supervisor that you are very organized and will be easy to work with. In academia, so many of us are extremely overwhelmed. Supervising students and other service work is given less credit in the academy than other academic work such as publications. No one wants to have a flakey student.

You need to be accountable to your supervisor. Complete your tasks when you say you will. Hold yourself responsible.