# A Guide to Cold Emailing

Everyone should be sending more cold emails (that is, emails without a prior contact) as a way of becoming more connected with their research community. As I tweeted once (ze tweet), almost every good opportunity in my research life is either the direct or secondary outcome of a cold email. To put some numbers on this the outcomes of my cold emailing have been

• two papers with new colleagues whose work I had admired for ages and had always wanted to work with (they probably know who they are)
• two internships
• several additional internship opportunities that I have declined
• working with my PhD advisor. Dunno how much this counts though, I assume everyone cold emails their advisor.

The problem is that people stress out about cold emailing too much. Yes, people will ignore many or most of your emails (a 10% response rate wouldn’t be unusual). But importantly, no one will hold those emails against you unless you either sound like a huge jerk in your email or get mad at them when they don’t respond. Let me stress this point: either you’ll get a response or they’ll forget you ever emailed them at all. You matter much less than you think. As a consequence of people forgetting, it’s basically something with only upside. You might have an interesting discussion, open up a new collaboration, learn something new. It’s a great way to build a network with researchers you respect and appreciate.

What makes sense as a cold email in a research context / what sort of emails am I talking about? Generally, they have something to do with trying to get a new project off the ground or to understand a paper more deeply. Most of the time it’s one of these options:

• Questions about research papers I’ve found interesting
• Telling someone about a project I’m working on that build on their work and asking if they have some time to give some feedback / give some pointers / discuss
• Requests to discuss someone’s paper with them
• Telling someone I really appreciate a paper or blog post that they’ve put out. This is one of my favorite things to do and I wish people do it more.
• When I was an undergraduate I did contact a few labs when applying to graduate school. This was only helpful when those labs were directly aligned with my undergraduate research topics. Otherwise, mostly got radio silence,

Sometimes these emails lead to interesting conversations, sometimes they lead to collaborations, and occasionally they have led to internship offers. There’s no real plan, I’m just looking to get answers to my questions and sometimes the subsequent discussion leads somewhere interesting.

It’s important to keep in mind that the format of these cold emails has varied significantly throughout my career and are a strong function of how established I am in the sub-field of the person I’ve emailed. The formula is something like:
$$\text{level of specificity} = \frac{1}{\text{how established you are}}$$
. It definitely does get easier as you get further into your career; I’d say I currently have a 25% response rate on my emails but it used to be more like 10%. What content should these emails contain?

• a clear indicator that you are familiar with the work of the person you’re emailing
• some specific questions or a specific ask i.e how can the person help you and why are you asking them specifically as opposed to someone else?
• If you’re not particularly senior, it’s worthwhile to provide some form of credential demonstrating your actual interest in the topic. For example, a link to some code you’ve written indicating that you’re forging ahead with or without a response. Or perhaps some research ideas you’re considering that demonstrate a good understanding. It’s hard to formulate a specific rule here, it’s going to vary from person to person. The key is you need to convince the reader that this isn’t some generic email you’ve sent 100 other people.

Alright, but that’s too abstract. It’s useful to work through some examples and why I think they’re good or bad. Some examples, paraphrased for anonymity, that I have received, ranked from quite bad to good Quite bad:

• Hello, please take a look at my SOP and tell me what you think.

These are generic, do not even attempt to provide a reason why I might want to help them or a connection, and have approximately zero chance of getting a response. With some low probability p I will respond to an email like this with useful advice although that advice is likely instructions on how to send more productive cold emails. In the future it’s likely to just be a pointer to this guide.

Good:

• Hello, I’m an undergraduate at X. I’m interested in field X which I believe you know a lot about because of X paper that you wrote. Do you think X field is worthwhile to do a PhD in? What are some good open problems in X field? Any advice you have is appreciated.
• Hello, I’m X. I have X questions (listed below) which I think you might be able to answer because of X. If you prefer to answer them over email that’d be appreciated and I’m also happy to discuss over videochat if that’s more convenient for you.

These are specific to the reader and make them think that they are likely part of a small group of people that are capable of answering your questions.

Excellent:

• Hello I am X. I recently read your work X and was thinking about pursuing the following . If you have any feedback on whether this project makes sense, tips from your prior work on likely difficulties I might encounter, or would be willing to talk to me a bit about it, I’d appreciate that!

The latter email is probably the best variant because it demonstrates:

1. The author is familiar with the work and is actually interested enough to read a paper carefully
2. The author understood the work well enough to think of interesting extensions of it