Proto-Astrophysicist | Scicomm Enthusiast
Throughout undergrad, one of the greatest tools I had in my arsenal was the ability to write an effective cold email. So much so, that I wanted this to be the subject matter of my first post on this blog. In my experience, academia is often a big game of “you might as well ask,” and a properly articulated and respectful cold email is often the best way to do so.
There are a number of contexts in which you may want or need to communicate with someone with whom you have either no or tenuous professional contact. These cases can include (in my experience), but are certainly NOT limited to:
Regardless of why you’re sending such a message, the general structure and expectations are fairly generally applicable.
Stealing this idea from a meme I saw online years ago, I like to outline the general structure of an effective cold email via the “Inigo Montoya” format. Those who have seen The Princess Bride will be familiar with the courageous Inigo Montoya, most commonly recognized for his iconic introduction:
“My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”
This piece of pop culture serves as a great example, because in these few lines, Inigo illustrates the three main points that you want to put forth in a cold email. Namely:
Another thing to note about the classic Inigo line is it’s brevity. The people you are interacting with are most likely going to be incredibly busy, and do not have the time to read paragraphs of your life story. Depending on context, one way you can expand upon the information you provide in these emails is by attaching your CV or an abbreviated Resume.
So, for example, if I were a first-year undergrad reaching out to a potential research advisor at my university, that may look something like this:
Dear [honorific] [last name],
My name is [name] and I am a freshman [subject] major here at [University] (Intro). I am interested in conducting undergraduate research in [subject], and recently came across your work with [subfield/topic]. I have some experience with this topic from [past experience] (Relevant context). I was wondering if you would be looking to take on any undergraduate advisees in the near future. If so, I would be very interested in applying (Expectations).
I appreciate any information you may have to offer!
While the above example has been written to generally illustrate the structure you are looking for, it is very important to remember that there is NO one-size-fits-all cold email. In reality, in the given context you may want to expand upon why a given subfield of reserach is of interest to you, and (if applicable), include a CV with relevant experience! The relevant introduction, important context, and your expectations will change from email to email. Additionally, cultural context can very much change how a cold email ought to look. For example, in my experience, when I moved from the US to the Netherlands, I quickly found that I needed my emails to be much more direct and brief.
If you are hoping for a response and do not recieve one, the general rule of thumb that I use for follow-ups is to wait at least a week during the school year, or two weeks in the summer, and making sure to alter that timeframe for holidays! If you recieve an out-of-office message, wait the allotted timeframe from the day the message says your recipient will return. You do not want someone coming back from holiday to find that you have sent them a cold email AND a follow-up since they last checked their inbox! If you do not recieve a response from the follow up, that is often a sign to let the topic go (context dependent, of course!)
Additionally, it is nice to consider time changes and seasonal differences, if you are contacting people internationally. It can often be a good idea to use your email provider’s “schedule send” feature(s), if they exist. Some people don’t mind getting emails whenever, some very much only want to be emailed during typical working hours. I tend to schedule emails for between 9am and 4pm in my recipent’s timezone, though I admit this is overkill more often than not.
When writing a cold email, many will say that it is important to “remain professional”. While this is not bad advice, it often fails to account for how ideas of professionalism vary greatly amongst cultures, as well as from field to field, university to university, or even department to department. For example, astronomy, as a field, tends to be much more casual and places somewhat less value on stereotypical professionalism (YMMV). That is why, in contrast, I always prefer to stress showing respect in one’s professional communications.
For example, as a general rule of thumb (in the United States), it is considered respectful to refer to a person in the way they have asked you to. However, when contacting someone for the first time, you will not know this. I generally refer to people with their honorific and last name: Professor, Dr., Mr., Ms., Mrs., Mx., etc. My parents taught me to ALWAYS refer to a more senior person in this way, until they explicitly tell you otherwise, though now I more commonly use context clues, like one’s email signature. This is admittedly a difficult thing to get a read of, but I am of the personal opinion that it is almost always better to err on the side of over-formality.
I feel it is important, too, to stress that this sort of initial respect ought to be shown to everyone equally. Sometimes, this will include using resources such as LinkedIn to try to determine a person’s correct honorific, job title, etc. This is, first and foremost, because people deserve to be treated with respect; it is the ethical thing to do. Secondarily, however, it is the smart thing to do, especially as a young student. Nobody wants to work with a condescending jerk, and while the department head may make important decisions, you will quickly find that it is often administrative assistants who run the show.
In addition to the way you address someone directly in the greeting of your email, it is equally important that you mind your word choice throughout the body. There is a huge disclaimer to be made here: anyone who has spent any time in academic circles on Twitter will be able to see that some phrases which seem fine to some are often considered rude or “pushy” to others. In general, if you are genuine and otherwise respectful in your communications, most people will give you some leeway, so try not to stress too much about it.
That being said, though, in writing a cold email, it is important to look out for words and phrases that may come across as passive-aggresive, or like you are asserting a decision that is not yours to make. The prime example of the latter being the phrase “thank you in advance.” From what I can tell, this is a very devisive phrase. Folks who think it is rude will argue if you are sending a cold email, that often means you are asking a favor of someone, and “thanks in advance” makes it sound as though you are saying “yes” to that favor for them. Do I agree? Not necessarily, but knowing that many folks do feel strongly about this, I often choose to avoid it regardless.
People also have varied and strange opinions about email outtros. I’ve found that “Sincerely,” is usually safe.
In general, I’ve found that young people (myself included) often tend to equate professionalism to dullness. While this works perfectly well for some, I’ve found my emails to be much more effective when I show enthusiasm for my work, and earnest gratitude when I am in need of help. Sometimes this means using the occasional exclamation point! As a PERSONAL rule, I like to represent myself accurately in my communications. I am deeply enthusiastic about the work I do, and I am okay with other people seeing that. It takes some getting used to, and you don’t want to over-do it, but try to strike that balance, if you can!
Do you have any tips on writing a cold email? Things you think I missed? Things I said which you disagree with? Please consider using the github utterances extension to continue the conversation below!