This is an excellent and very mature question often asked by grad school applicants. First a little bit of history and a lot of explanation before my suggestions…
For the previous generations of graduate students (perhaps around 30 years ago), most students entered a graduate program by first connecting with a specific scientist doing research that the student was interested in. Thus, it was essential that graduate students talk with professors as potential mentors during their graduate school search.
Today, most graduate students find their mentor after choosing a program. You probably know that most biomedical graduate programs require rotations during the first year of study. This is so that students can find their scientific passion while also determining if they can anticipate working well with a potential mentor (check out our content on how to pick and perform in rotations). Therefore, because of rotations, you don’t have to know exactly whom you’d like to work with or even what specific topic you want to work on before entering a graduate program.
Although rotations are now an almost ubiquitous part of graduate education, you should absolutely get an idea of the specific research done in perspective programs. Whether you have a very specific research focus or a very broad interest in the biomedical sciences, you should spend time analyzing faculty members doing research that interests you in any graduate program you apply to. For example, perhaps you are interested in studying molecular aspects of HIV infection. The focus of an immunology department may differ from school to school, and although it is a good idea to explore other areas of study, you might want to ensure each department has one or more labs studying what your original interest is.
Now, back to the question: once you’ve found specific faculty members that interest you, should you contact them before or during the application process? My suggestion is that depends on your goals for reaching out to faculty members and the potential benefits it might provide. Here are two major reasons most students want to reach out: 1) Asking if one or more specific labs will be available to join and/or 2) Trying to improve likelihood of admission. My suggestion for this question depends on your reason for reaching out.
Finding available labs
If you are asking to see what labs will be available to you, think about how wide or narrow your research focus is: have you found several labs that interest you or are you banking on joining one specific lab? As you may know, in any given year, not every lab will be accepting new students. This may be because they don’t have enough grant money to fund another student or they don’t have the capacity to train new students. If you have really broad interests and many biomedical questions excite you, you can probably find a very large number of faculty in a particular program whose research fascinates you. If this is the case, then you will likely be happy with the selection of labs that will be available for you to join, even if they aren’t all accepting students. However, if you have fairly narrow interests, you may only find a very small number of faculty doing research that interests you in a program. It is likely that only some of them are actually accepting students into their lab. In the end, the number of labs that are available for you to rotate in is a statistical problem and it comes down to how broad or narrow your research goals are and how that matches the research focus areas of a program.
My suggestion would be that if you find there are a lot of faculty that interest you, then there really is not much need for you to contact faculty directly before or during the application process; likely several of them will be accepting students and you’ll have lots of options for rotations. If, however, there are only 1-3 faculty that interest you in a program, you may want to really invest the time in contacting these faculty before deciding if you want to apply to that program. This has the potential to give insight as to whether their lab may be open to new students in the coming year and maybe even if you might get along with this faculty member. The biggest gamble you are making is that a faculty member may not actually know if they are accepting students simply due to the number of factors involved (funding, speed that current students graduate, physical lab space, whether current first-year rotation students choose to join). Additionally, you are probably asking 1.5-2 years before you potentially actually join the lab (the application year + rotation year), which makes predicting if the lab will be open even more challenging.
In summary, you really only should ask research faculty if their lab will be open if there are only a few faculty you may want to work with in a program.
However, let me expand on this point a bit more. Because the number of open labs can be a statistical question, perhaps the best approach would be to simply keep your interests broad while applying and limit your applications to programs where there is a healthy number of faculty whose research generally interests you. An important point here is that many graduate students’ research interests change dramatically from the time they apply to when they join a thesis lab. It is not uncommon for our students to enter our program stating that they want to continue researching in an area similar to their previous research but soon discover a new passion while they are in our program (In fact, I did this! and about 50% of all of our students significantly change their area of interest during their first year of study; keep an eye out for a post about this topic coming soon). Because of the power of rotations, you do not need to know what your thesis question will be, so why would you limit yourself to a few faculty up front? Rather than pigeonholing yourself to a small number of faculty, recognize that interests mature, stay broad during your faculty searches, play the statistical game, and keep the odds in your favor by applying to programs where you see several areas of interest.
Can I get my name out there to improve my admission chances?
What if you are thinking about reaching out to faculty in an attempt to improve your chances of admission? First, let me be honest with you, there is a low probability that contacting or not contacting anyone at a school will have a dramatic impact on your chance of admission. If you’re a fantastic candidate, graduate programs will want to accept you! If you clearly have several weakness in your application, reaching out will not strengthen your application. Instead, spend time strengthening your application, as I suggest in my blog entries here. If you have genuine questions about your application, and are not sure how strong of a candaite you are, definitely reach out, but make sure you contact the person in charge of admissions. The faculty whose research interests you may not have any role in any admission decision so contacting them will not increase the strength of your application. In the end, a program will accept students based on merit, not applicant name recognition.
I would like to be clear that most research faculty do sincerely enjoy getting to know prospective students! It is a great joy for them to discuss the current work in their lab and have eager students ask thoughtful questions about it! However, they tend to enjoy these discussions most during interviews when they can actually meet students face-to-face. This is also the best time for you to get to know faculty rather than through impersonal email exchanges while you are applying.
So, when should I contact faculty I’m interested in?
Most of my advice suggests you shouldn’t contact a lot of faculty while applying to graduate school. This may be in stark contrast to other advice you’ve gotten. Yes, it is definitely important for you to actually get to know potential thesis labs before picking where to attend. If you don’t do this before applying, then when is the appropriate time? Of course you’ll meet a lot of faculty during your interviews if your graduate program offers in-person interviews (read more about interviews here). Use this face-to-face time wisely and even ask about other faculty in your research interest area. After this weekend, if you like the program and have gotten a favorable admission response, before you accept a position, you should absolutely make sure you are comfortable with the number and personality of faculty doing interesting research. Don’t be afraid to reach back out to the admissions contact and ask to be in touch with specific faculty. This is a great time to try to get more of an idea of which labs may be open and if you’ll have a healthy number of rotation and thesis lab options. You definitely want to enter a program where you are happy with your choices in the next step—just make sure you do it at the most appropriate time.