Conquer the Cold Email (Hidden Curriculum #10)

For those of you who are new here, the hidden curriculum includes a set of things we’re expected to know how to do, from attending a conference for the first time to applying for funding to going on the job market, without actually being taught them. This month’s installment is all about sending cold emails!

Raise your hand if you absolutely loathe sending emails? Raise your other hand if you especially hate cold-emailing people you’ve never met?

If you have both of your hands in the air, I bet you probably look pretty silly.

But I can tell you that I’ve been where you are, and just the thought of sending any kind of email (especially to a large audience or to someone I don’t know) gives me a little bit of anxiety.

I can also tell you that, like most things, it gets better with practice.

In this post, I’m sharing a few tips for how to make you a cold-emailing pro.

Create a template                             

…or multiple templates, depending on the reason for the email. The number of cold emails I’ve sent for various things has exponentially increased over the last few years. Some of the topics that I’ve addressed have included:

  • Inviting panelists to participate in an event
  • Asking someone to serve on a thesis committee
  • Following up with someone whose talk you attended

That might seem like a lot – but I sort of have templates for all these things. I say “sort of” because if I need to cold email to someone and I’m feeling stuck, I’ll go searching through my outbox to find a previous email to adapt. It’s really that simple. Just don’t forget to change the specifics (especially the name of the person you’re addressing!).

If you’ve never sent an email on that subject before in your life, don’t panic.

The answer still revolves around a template – in this case, you’ll need to find or create one yourself. I usually go with the first option, and this can come in many different forms.

Google is a trusty option in these situations.

Another option is looking for emails that other people have sent to you and adapting them to fit your specific context and needs. While you’re at it, don’t forget to…

Introduce Yourself

…or ask a mutual friend/colleague/acquaintance to make an introduction for you.

The latter option can seem daunting, and honestly, I’ve only ever experienced it once or twice (and recently). In most cases, I simply email the person I want to connect with directly. When I do this, I always begin my email with who I am, where I’m studying, and what I’m working on.

Want bonus points? Find something that you can use to connect yourself to the person you’re emailing. Did you meet briefly at a conference? Have you recently attended one of their talks? Did one of your colleagues (who was their former student) suggest that you should reach out to them? Mention that! It’ll make the interaction about 10% less scary.

Pro tip: if you’re like me and you are terrible with names (and networking in general), keep a running list somewhere (like in your phone) of who you meet and in what contexts. It might come in handy later when you need to reach out to them for something.

But if you’re not feeling so bold, I’d recommend finding a mutual colleague to get the hardest part out of the way for you.

Attach Relevant Documents

This is especially important if you are asking someone to do something for you.

If you are asking for a letter of recommendation, include any application materials that you have ready. These can be drafts – in fact, if you attach drafts, you can include a request for feedback on those drafts.

Something that I’ve recently cold-emailed someone for was to invite them to be on my dissertation committee. This was a decision I made later in my PhD career, after I’d already written a few chapters and received feedback on them.

In my email to this person, I made sure to include a draft of a chapter that I had been working on, so that they’d be able to see my work and evaluate it themselves. It’s one thing to describe what you’re research is on in a couple of paragraphs, but quite another to have someone read your work firsthand.

Other documents you might want to include as attachments to cold emails:

  • Your updated CV
  • A description of the event and/or a list of questions for a panel discussion
  • Dissertation abstract (if you haven’t written any chapters yet)

Consider rationale

In other words, ask yourself “Why am I reaching out to this person in this context?

Once you’ve figured out the answer, make sure you include that rationale in your email. This is important in a lot of cases and can help to limit confusion on the part of the recipient of your email.

Did you want to ask a question after attending a talk by a professor you admire, but there wasn’t enough time? Are you interested in the work a faculty member is doing and feel they have something to contribute to your own work? Or did someone else see that connection and suggest you reach out?

Whatever the reason, make it clear in your email.

I can’t tell you the number of times someone has reached out to me to do something and hasn’t explained why I was selected. This has happened most often with requests to talk about things that I don’t know anything about, like African American burials in North America.

Although cold-emailing, like all networking, can be scary at first, it often pays off in the long run. Most people – and especially faculty members – don’t just blow off scholars who reach out to them with a genuine, well-meaning question or request. In most cases, they love talking about their work and would relish the opportunity to talk about it with you.

In rare cases, though, people do fail to respond. It’s okay to follow up with a gentle reminder that you’re waiting for a response. But if you never get one, don’t beat yourself up about it. There’s no way to know why that is – it’s best to just move on.

It’s not you, it’s probably them.

(But if you’re on the receiving end of a cold email, don’t be a jerk. Even if you’re going to say no, do so in a timely fashion.)

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