If you’re thinking about going to graduate school in geography and you’re a regular reader you know I promote the idea of finding the right professor to advise you rather than only looking for a good graduate program. I also suggest contacting potential research advisors as part of your admission campaign.
Dear Dr. Q,
I have read your papers X, Y and Z and have a few questions about how the work might be extended. Should I send these questions to one of your Ph.D. students or may I send them to you directly?
Your name here.
In two sentences, you have demonstrated that:
1. You know what the professor is working on and you have a significant interest in it.
2. You have the capability to read peer-reviewed papers
3. You have the capability to think beyond what’s in the paper to what future papers might look like.
4. You understand that the professor is a busy person, and that a graduate student might be more responsive. If you impress the graduate student, the professor will hear about it.
5. You have the tact to develop a bit of a relationship first before asking about coming onboard as a Ph.D. student.
You might object that you don’t know what kind of research you want to do. If that’s the case, why would an advisor take you on?
You might object that you don’t really care what work you do, you just need admitted into a Ph.D. program. Again, why would an advisor take you on, especially if the choice was between you and someone who had a passion for their research area?
Finally, you might object that having to read and think hard about three papers just to find out that the professor doesn’t have any funding for students is not a good use of your time. As reading papers and thinking hard about them is something you’ll be spending the rest of your career doing, raising this objection might indicate that a Ph.D. is not a good fit.
To sum up all of the above: promotions are an external validation that you’re already doing the work required by your new job description. Getting accepted into a Ph.D. program is just another promotion. You don’t need to be great at research (there are further milestones to demonstrate that), but you should be able to show that you have the capability of doing research. To demonstrate that to a particular professor, read their work and comment on it intelligently.
Very few prospective students do this (perhaps because very few prospective students are able to do this). But the ones who do get noticed.