Cold Emails

I’ve written on here before about my frustration with unsolicited (student) emails. We all get inquiries about the graduate program, requests for letters from current and former students, and the occasional “I’m a high school student in [insert place], writing a report on [something vaguely related to your research]. Can you tell me what I need to know to get an A? Thx.” I don’t mind any of these, in principle. I’m still green enough in the job that it tickles me when someone wants my opinion. But there are better and worse ways to ask.

GN recently posted a link to Thomas Kortke’s “guide to cold emailing” and I’ll re-post & adapt parts here, because it is that good (but assume the important ideas are Kortke’s).

  • Who are you and where are you located?
    Hi Dr. Lena,
    I am a sociology student at Penn, I will graduate in 2010 and ….
  • How do you know me or who introduced you?
    … I saw your presentation about “types and trajectories of music genres” when you visited Rutgers in 2008….
  • Why are you writing to me? What is your idea/ product/ vision/ request?
    This is your elevator pitch – do yourself a favor and spend $9 on the Pitching Hacks book.
    … Inspired by your presentation, I started to work on a case study of German folk music, in order to see if there are important cross-national variations in music genres. I found that…
  • Give me more info (in the attachment)
    … Attached is a presentation/ document/ thesis/ article that explains the idea in more detail…
  • How can I help you and why do you think I can help you?
    … I am currently looking for data that exhaustively documents folk music in the United States, or books that contain exhaustive social histories of the same.
  • What do you want the next steps to be?
    I thought you might be able to provide me with some information on where such data might be housed, or a list of illustrative texts to get me started.
  • (Extra Credit) Get me excited!
    … If I can identify comparative data in the U.S., I feel that I might be able to produce a publishable article that illustrates your claims about the attributes of avant-garde genres holds only in cases where at least two members of the community had personal ties to artists working in other genres.

Apart from cold-emailing me, you should consider this:
1. Get introduced to me by someone I know, your chances of getting a response are very high.
2. Get to know me before contacting me: read my articles (right there, linked on my department home page!), my class web pages, and my blog.
3. Respond to my posts, comments and other creative outbursts – start an online conversation with me.

And remember:
  • Keep it short and interesting – no one reads long emails (unless they come from your boss)
  • Put your best foot forward, but don’t stretch the truth
  • Brevity and precision are important
  • Use whole words (not abbreviations) and whole sentences. As a writer, I appreciate good writing.


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6 responses to “Cold Emails

  1. OMG. I just got an e-mail from a girl at a local high school. She’s “currently doing a research paper on the positive and negative effects movies have on society” focusing on three movies — Natural Born Killers, American History X, and Requiem for a Dream.

    Of course, I would have no trouble documenting the affects that these three films have had on society, but maybe I should forward the message to someone who knows much more than I about the sociology of culture. Hmmm.

  2. Jenn Lena

    One of the things I neglected to write (after all, it was directions on the letter, not on what response to expect), was that I will not respond to your request if I deem your project idea to be utterly implausible, biased, ignorant, uninformed, or malcontented.

    By the way, what are the “positive effects” of these movies?

  3. i think the most important thing is that the request be clear, focused, and tractable. i’m much more likely to respond to a question like “can you suggest a dataset that has both education and cultural taste” than a question like “i’m interested in the effects of media on society, can you tell me about that”? another way to put it is that if i can answer a question with two sentences or a link, then i’ll do it, but if the question is too vague to be answered even in principle or would require me to write pages on it then i won’t. jay’s example is a great case of a profoundly bad question.

  4. I had an example of a positive one, to be sure extra points for not really asking for much. I include it both in the spirit of modeling, but also because JL you might like her stuff.


    I just came across your blog via Mike/Rortybomb’s blog, and I really like it. A great mix of different issues, personal and academic stuff.. inspiring to come across as I’m in the later (last?) year(s) of a PhD in interdisciplinary sociolegal studies (technically, it’s Jurisprudence & Social Policy).

    Your work looks really interesting! I’m especially interested in your exploration of how people value art in markets and out of it. That overlaps with my own research on music-making and copyright law in Jamaica – I’m in the middle of my dissertation research doing an ethnographic study of musicians/engineers/producers and how they use, value and understand ownership of music. I’m going through your archives and finding some great sparks for further thought – I wish I had come across it sooner!

    So, I’m just saying hello and hooray. I have a blog here where I have been posting from Jamaica when I can, and musing about these issues and others. I’m also a DJ myself, so that shows up on the blog too.

  5. I respond to everything, as long as the request is polite. If high school or college students do not know how to craft the type of email that Jenn describes, I generally assume it is a lack of cultural capital. I model the appropriate type of communication in my response and often explain a better way to request info in the future.

    And the day that I get annoyed by these kinds of requests is the day that I hope someone gives me a beatdown for having my head stuck too far up my academic ass.

  6. cold calling SCOTUS
    “I told Dan he was nuts. I told him his letter would be placed in the circular file. And then Scalia wrote back. Personally.”
    i think it’s worth noting that the request was brief and focused.

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