In talking with applicants preparing for applying to PhD programs in North America, a common stumbling point is the initial contact email. This email functions as a basic introduction to yourself and your research as well as a formal expression of interest in applying to a particular PhD program with the aim of working with one or more professors. This email is not a required component in the PhD application process, and your application will not necessarily suffer if you do not contact professors beforehand. In fact, one of my friends never heard of emailing a potential advisor before applying, and she was not only accepted, but was also a sought-after candidate.
That said, there are at least three reasons why it’s good to reach out to potential advisors:
It gives them a heads-up that you are applying. Hopefully, they will review your CV and get excited about working with you. This could give you an advantage at the selection process if they remember to look out for your application. They may even give you tips and suggestions about ways to improve your competitiveness (including to reapply after your MA is finished) or alternative departments and sources of funding to apply for. For example, my advisor recommended I apply to a different department than the one I was originally intending to pursue.
You can start to get a feeling for a person who could be your future advisor. Are they helpful? Do they respond to emails quickly? Does their working style seem compatible with yours? Do you feel like you could easily talk with them? You will be working with this person for many years, and you want this to feel like a good, respectful, supportive relationship.
It opens a channel for discussion. It invites them to tell you if they or their department aren’t accepting new PhD students the following year, if they will be on sabbatical, if they are retiring or changing universities, etc… They may say they are no longer interested in your topic and could recommend a different professor or school for you to work with. If you choose to wait to apply until a later year (or reapply if not accepted previously), you can build upon this previous email exchange (be prepared for them to not remember you; you may want to reiterate some of your research interests and mention what you've been up to in the meanwhile).
There is no proper or “correct” way to structure this sort of email, but here is a template you could at least use as a starting point if you feel lost or intimidated.
Sample Contact Email:
Dear Professor So-and-so
To Professor So-and-so
Name and current status
Example: “I am a 2nd year MA student in the East Asian Languages & Cultures Department at Columbia University;” “I am a recent graduate from the East Asian Languages & Cultures Department at Columbia University.”
Any additional pertinent information (current or related work or language program)
Your current or recent advisor (especially if this is someone that would be known to your potential advisor)
Reason for contacting (interested in applying to PhD program)
List department and exact program/field
List when you are applying for entrance
Explain why you are interested in working with this person
Mention if you are contacting them on another professor or student's recommendation
Ask if accepting students for the upcoming application year
If they respond that they are not, it’s OK to ask if they could recommend another department or potential advisor
It’s also OK to ask for advice or even just to keep them in mind for a future application cycle; email again when you are ready to apply/reapply
Background & Research interests
Discuss the kind of research you are doing now and where you see that evolving in the next stage of your academic career (this project can and should change over the course of your work with this professor, but this gives them an idea of your research interests and potential work trajectory).
There should be an obvious connection between the professor you’re contacting and the research you want to do (i.e., don’t contact a modern Japanese war historian if you want to study clothing references in the Tale of Genji)
Note: keep it brief! (Example: “For the next stage of my academic studies, I will build upon my Master's work on early Japanese women writers. I am interested in developing a project to examine clothing references from works such as the Tale of Genji and The Pillow Book and the role of dress in Heian-period courting behaviors. In particular, I want to connect literary references to contemporaneous works of art as well as remaining pieces of clothing.”)
Any generic “thank you” is fine
Ex: “Thank you for your time, and I hope to speak with you soon.”
“I appreciate your taking the time to read this email. Please let me know if you have any questions or concerns.”
You may want to reiterate you are looking forward to hearing from them about whether or not they are accepting students for the upcoming year.
They should want to see your CV, although a resume will also suffice. You can send it with your email, or wait for a response. But you need to have one ready.
If you have any publications or a thesis you want them to see, you can attach them, but it may be better to wait to submit them with the application (they should be listed in your CV/resume)