I am certainly not an expert on this topic, but I did just go through the grad school application madness last year (2016). Experts, I welcome you to chime in! I remember the intensity of deciding who to contact and my uncertainty around what to say to them. This post is essentially a recap of what worked for me. Some stats: I applied to three PhD programs, I was hosted by all three programs for a campus visit, I received official offers from two of the three programs. Everyone has unique grad school application experiences, you should reach out to multiple people for advice as you embark on this process. Most importantly, you should start early!
How early? I started contacting potential advisors in April 2016. I was applying for a Fall 2017 start date. This is pretty early. I wanted to set up in person meetings with each potential advisor at a conference I was presenting my undergraduate thesis work at. This worked really well for me. I even eliminated some potential advisors based on not enjoying my in person interactions with them, or after realizing our research interests were not well-aligned. After the conference, I maintained email contact with them throughout the application process. I asked them questions and updated them on new my accomplishments, scholarships received, etc.
What if they don't email me back? Academics get A LOT OF EMAILS and not just from potential grad students! It is possible your email just got buried in their inbox, or they opened it and intend to reply when their schedule is less intense... of course there are less desirable reasons they haven't replied. So, I waited two weeks to a month and sent a follow up email. If they didn't reply to the follow up email, I scratched them off the potential advisor list! I'm convinced that your application experience, including communication with a potential advisor, is a reflection of your longterm interactions with that institution and that advisor.
What do I say? Ok, well before we launch into this one, you HAVE TO HAVE DONE YOUR HOMEWORK! You can't be lazy about finding and investigating potential advisors. You should look at their faculty page and write down ANY question that pops into your mind. If they have a research website, look it over several times. Take note of what interests you about what they work on AND what doesn't. Be honest with yourself during this process. On their research website or faculty page, look for their current and previous students. Contact some of them and ask questions about their experience working under this advisor. Also, don't underestimate the power of just googling their name plus "geoscience", lots of additional information may pop up. Check out their ResearchGate page. Check out their LinkedIn account. DON'T ADD THEM ON FACEBOOK, it's just weird. Think about this investigative process like you are interviewing them for the job of advising your academic career, does it feel like the right fit to you? OK, so now you are feeling great about this advisor, their research excites you, and their students have great things to say about them. You are ready to reach out. Receiving emails the length of this blog post SUCKS! Even as a grad student, I have a hard time getting through a long email, and half the time I don't even read them if the point of the email isn't immediately evident to me. Keep it concise while also demonstrating who you are. Here is the rough outline I used to email potential advisors:
Subject line: Undergraduate student from XYZ University, interested in joining XYZ research group
I am contacting you with interest in discussing upcoming projects within the XYZ research group. I am intrigued by your work in [insert one of their current research topics that interest you].
I am in the final year of my B.S. of XYZ at XYZ University. My undergraduate [research and our internship] experience have motivated me to pursue my [masters or doctorate] degree. My ultimate goal is a career in [industry, academia, state or fedral survey, etc].
Here is a brief summary of my [qualifications or background] (make it brief, I mean super brief, just the catchy stuff you are most proud of. They can read your coursework off your CV or your transcript)
B.S. XYZ, XYZ University (GPA ###/4.00)
I welcome the opportunity to further discuss my qualifications and research interests over the phone. I have attached my [resume or cv] for your consideration.
OK, so edit this template so it sounds more like YOU. It's going to be REAL awkward if a bunch of people start sending the same introductory email. That would be like canned cover letters all over again, barf. Alternatively, end this email by mentioning an upcoming conference you are presenting at and that you would like to meet them there for a coffee should they be attending (huge points!).
Our email exchange was kind of awkward, what should I do? Intention and tone of voice frequently get lost in the written word. If you are really jazzed about this person's research, you should request a phone call (or better yet, a Skype chat!). Obviously, you are going to have to have something to say to them. Prepare some questions on their research interests, advising style, the department they are in etc. If the call is still awkward as **beep**, I think you have your answer! How are you going to work with that person for 2-3 (MS) or 4-6 (PhD) years? Having a strained relationship with your advisor is quite literally the worst. Keep looking.
I'm not having any luck hearing back, what do I do now? People you already know are your BEST resource. This is why you always hear that networking is key. Students you know that went on to grad school: email them and ask for recommendations on potential advisors to contact. Ask them if they feel comfortable sending an email introduction to that professor with you CC'd. Talk to your current professors: They know lots of other professors in their discipline, they can help you meet people and make introductions. Go to annual meetings (AAPG, GSA, AGU, etc.), and introduce yourself to people. Make a business card that has links to a webpage with your CV and your LinkedIn account. Remember, even as a scientist, you have to brand yourself. Who are you? What do you want to do? Why does that excite you? Why are you the best candidate to do that work? Why do you want to work with them specifically?
Start with a big list of potential advisors and whittle it down based on your interactions (or lack of interactions) with them. Starting early means if you aren't having any luck, you still have time to think about what you can do to make yourself a more desirable candidate.