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It is great to hear from you but…

It is great to hear from people out there interested in OR, but there are a couple types of email that I don’t like to get. I think lots of faculty have the same peeves. Jeffrey Ullman of Stanford (founder of much of database theory) has a nice page on this, which I will essentially copy here:

One class of email can be summarized as follows: “You don’t know me, but I have the following credentials and I would like you to arrange for me to be admitted to Stanford, in preference to someone with equally good or even better credentials.” I’m not sure why so many people think I, or any other faculty member — at Stanford or elsewhere — would decide to favor one unknown person over another. Sometimes their argument is that they want to work in my area. They seem to fantasize that there is some competition among areas at Stanford, and that I would push for the admission of someone just because they claimed to want to work in an area that I favored. However, it doesn’t work that way at Stanford, or any other American university that I know about.

Admittedly, there are some countries where PhD students are in effect hired by a faculty member and selected by them, but that’s not how it’s done here. At Stanford, a committee examines all applications and picks the ones with the most promise for study in Computer Science. The process is honest and objective. It is impossible to influence it through individual faculty, regardless of whether or not they are on the committee. In fact, I know of some faculty who will count it against you if you send this sort of email.

Whenever I get a “please treat me specially” letter, I respond with the following:

Thank you for your interest in Stanford. All admissions decisions are made by a committee of faculty and graduate students, and there is no point contacting individual faculty in the hope of bringing your case to their attention. Questions regarding admissions should be sent to admissions @ You may also find out more about our department from URL

Added Nov., 2003: A more recent variation is people asking for “summer internships.” Unfortunately, the same principle applies. You can’t get a student job at a university without being a student at that university. Faculty have a responsibility to serve the needs of the students at the school that pays their salary.

The second sort of email I get a lot of sounds like: “I really like your book on [fill in the blank], and I’m learning a lot. But I just have a doubt about the solution to Exercise 4.5.6. Could you please tell me the answer?” In a slight variant, it’s not a book exercise, but another problem whose solution they would like to see. I’m not that stupid. The chances are 98% that this is a homework assignment, and I’m not going to do your work for you. I therefore have developed a policy of responding to questions about material in my books only to bona-fide instructors. I rarely hear back when these email writers get the following stock response:

Thank you for your note. When I get these sorts of questions, I like to know first what school you are attending, what class you are taking, and who the instructor is (email if possible please). I suggest that first you discuss the problem with your local instructor. If they can't help you, then please ask them to get in touch with me.

Exactly. The doctoral web page for Carnegie Mellon’s doctoral program is . All information on applying to the program is available there.

{ 2 } Comments

  1. Ying | November 29, 2006 at 9:58 pm | Permalink

    It is interesting that admissions decisions involve graduate student at Stanford.

  2. Michael Trick | November 29, 2006 at 10:18 pm | Permalink

    Ying, I agree. I also was surprised by that! We don’t have graduate student input here at CMU, but I think it is a good idea. Part of what we do in training graduate students is prepare them for faculty life. Since evaluation is a big part of what faculty do, getting them doing the evaluation early seems like a good idea. I wonder what other schools use graduate student input.

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  1. […] is probably the economically efficient choice, since I don’t take on summer interns, and have even written about it.  I don’t know where this myth of summer internships for people from around the world comes […]