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Asking for Research; Aloof Prof.

  • #1

Main Question or Discussion Point


I'm an undergraduate physics/applied math major hoping to go to grad school. I have a professor in my school who I'm interested in doing research under because the subject of his research is, well, interesting to me. Also I'm consider it in graduate school.

I had him last semester and got an A in his class, and he seems to have no reason to hate me, but it seems awkward:

I emailed him a few weeks ago (over the Summer) asking about tips for studying for the GRE subject test, as I had another professor suggest that I get multiple opinions. He responded very tersely, almost insultingly so. It may very well just be his way of communicating, but it made me doubt myself here.

So my (kind of stupid) question is this: how can I go about emailing him about a research position now? Is that right to do? I don't want to be annoying to someone who may or may not like me that much. I'm hoping to get a publication and a rec. letter out of this, if possible. I'm really interested in the material.

Thanks for all your input!

Answers and Replies

  • #2
He probably answered tersely because there is a lot of information online about studying for the Physics GRE, as well as other subject tests. Emailing him is better than not emailing him if you really want to work with him. Just email him normally with no mention to your prior email.
  • #3
Well I'd be annoyed too to have someone bother me with GRE questions. That's something you need to do on your own, and asking grad students/seniors and people online is a better resource anyways.

I agree with the above poster, but I would first do some reading on the subject area. If you claim you're interested in the subject, but have no actual knowledge of it, then you're not going to appear very sincere. Try to educate yourself a bit, then approach this guy with a bit of knowledge in your pocket to demonstrate sincere interest.
  • #4
It's kind of a "you won't know if you don't try," kind of thing. Sometimes you have to risk being a little bit of a pest. If it fails, don't take it personally. If you can't do research with your #1 choice of professor then see who else you can do it with (might not be exactly your interest, but better than nothing). You might even ask him what he recommends in terms of research if he doesn't have anything for you himself.

As for the approach - just go with professionalism and courtesy regardless of *his* manner (which may be unprofessional and discourteous!)
-Dave K
  • #5
Staff Emeritus
Science Advisor
Gold Member
I agree with other posters here, your question was quite general and that may have ticked him off. Profs get tons of emails and they have little time to answer open-ended questions.

You should email him, but it should be short and precise. Something like: make a reference to the class you took (may not be necessary if you're in a small school), make a reference to his research, and then a very specific question - like, "I'd like to do a research project in <whatever that area is>, can we meet to discuss this?" Or something similar.

Be very specific about what you want from him.
  • #6
I agree with the other posters in that an email about the GRE probably wasn't your best opening move.

When I wanted to do research with a professor at my university I read some of his published papers. One of them in particular was interesting and I was able to understand some of it, so I referenced that particular paper when I wrote to him.

Make sure that your email is professional, not written like you would write to your friends. Address him with respect, say a line or two about what interested you in his paper, and ask if you can meet with him to discuss his research further. I also stated right up front that I was an undergraduate (because my particular professor usually doesn't have more than 1 undergrad at a time in his labs), and said that I was interested in working with him. Everything else is saved for the in-person interview, which you should treat like a job interview. Be prepared to listen carefully, ask intelligent questions about his projects, and get a feel if this is the type of person you really want to spend long hours working for. If he is terse and less than helpful in his conversations with you, he might not be helpful as a research mentor. Spending potentially years in that environment might be a waste of your valuable time, so consider his style carefully before you commit.

Final point, be prepared to volunteer as an undergrad. You most likely will not get any money, or even any credit, when you first begin as an undergrad. Use this time to prove yourself and your value to the projects. Then, when you approach him later about the graduate program, you will probably be at the head of the line.

If this professor is not the one, keep looking. You will be surprised at the riches of learning available to you just by working in the lab with experienced researchers, even if it isn't in an area that originally interested you.
  • #7
He might just be busy. Some people don't have time to give a thorough response to all the emails they get.

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