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Contacting Professors for Research

  1. Oct 31, 2006 #1


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    So, my question is how do I go about talking/asking about research opportunities?

    For professors at my school, it isn't a problem. I can just walk up to them and ask, since they pretty much know me.

    The real question is, how to you go about this for professors in other schools?

    I'd like to get an NSERC Research Grant at a different school than mine. I think it would be a nice experience to go somewhere and maybe just to get away for a bit. Get to know new people and such.

    I'd like to e-mail them about my intentions to try and find a research position. Then ask them if they might have any openings, and possibly find out what it is that they are doing. I'd be willing to meet them in person, but that's after the e-mail since I don't really want to go driving around and walking up randomly to professors I don't know.

    Anyways, suggestions?
  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 31, 2006 #2

    I'd say just go for it! We are very lucky in the days of e-mail. It worked for me very recently, and it seems to be working for one of my recently-former labmates (to graduate next term -- trying to post-doc at a national lab or military lab). The worst that can happen is that they don't have a spot (or the grant was already allotted, as for some grants that have limited numbers/location), you move on to the next... and the best that can happen is that they get really excited and you write something up for the grant along the lines of some discussion. If you don't get contacted... at least try to give a quick call, follow-up (even mention that you will be doing so in your cover-letter). Then you'll know if they just didn't have a spot, weren't interested, or just were out of town... but now ARE interested.

    In my case, I contacted the people I was interested in, kept my e-mail short (not even mentioning my status as a grad student) and attached a formal cover letter (which DID mention I was close to defending) and CV, then followed it up with a phone call. In the case that is working out, I knewthey were looking for someone with my experience, so I actually only wrote a short e-mail with the most important info... I was called back within an HOUR, we talked for an HOUR, and within the next day sent the requested CV and a referenced research prosceptus (that I wrote overnight... be prepared, this could happen... but is actually really easy and fun if you're really excited about doing your own project). Then I went to go visit and it was instant "love"... they had to get me there even if there wasn't yet funding.

    Do your contacts at your school have any suggestions of particular groups? Is there any group/professor whose work you referenced in a paper? Those are good places to start and make it easy to justify your interest.

    Above all... be ambitious but realistic in your choices, and then make sure your letters, CV, etc. reek of CONFIDENCE. If you portray that you can do the work, they'll probably think you can too... and possibly want you grant or not (after the grant-writing process they'll have some investment in you already).

    Good luck! Have FUN! (It's really actually more exciting than scary once you get into it).
  4. Oct 31, 2006 #3


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    I am excited. :tongue:

    I'm an undergrad though. I'm going for the NSERC Undergraduate Summer Research Grant.
  5. Oct 31, 2006 #4
    Undergrads are even cheaper... therefore professors like hiring them even better! :)
  6. Oct 31, 2006 #5
    Does your school have any kind of career website? I just got lucky and was browsing said website and came a cross a position for an undergrad in a cancer research lab, two days later I was hired. Failing that I would just tend to send off an email to a prof with a research description I liked and see what happens, all they can do is say no.
  7. Nov 24, 2006 #6
    You have to be lucky. Last year I sent out five e-mail messages around this time of the year, and I got a reply from two of them. This year I sent out 15 e-mail messages and I haven't gotten a single reply.
  8. Nov 28, 2006 #7


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    Make your email personal.

    I get emails all the time - particularly from China and India, bigging up my work and asking for internships.

    If I read the opening paragraph, and I could see that it wasn't a blanket email, sent to all experts in my field, then I may read the rest.

    A better alternative would be to contact the professor whos reserach you're interested in via another method - eg. letter or telephone his secretary. I'd be much more willing to read a printed letter than an email which I would consider spam.
  9. Nov 28, 2006 #8
    It may also help to be familiar with recent papers by the researcher with whom you are corresponding.

    It's probably the case that as an undergraduate you don't have the background necessary to understand the material, but do your best to slog through it. It's more impressive if you can ask an intellligent question about their field.
  10. Nov 28, 2006 #9


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    I agree. I also get a lot of emails that reading the first line or two tells me the person hasn't even bothered to look up what I do before sending it. Especially if it only starts out, "Dear Professor:" with no acknowledgement that they even paid attention to my name before sending their email to a huge list of people, I immediately delete it without replying.

    I will much more readily respond to a phone call. Also, if I get an email that talks about a specific interest in my research, such as talking about a few of my publications and why that interests them, then I will respond. Even if I don't have funds to hire them, if someone shows real interest and not just mass spamming everyone, I'll reply and let them know I don't have a position available and suggest other people doing similar work. It also helps if you attach a resume or even just a list of relevant coursework you've taken so that the recipient has some idea where your skill level is.

    In general, it also helps to start thinking about getting research experience sooner than later. I'd rather hire a sophomore who can continue to work part-time or during recesses over several years once I've trained him/her in some of the lab procedures than a senior who I will spend a lot of time training just to have them graduate and leave before they can do much of anything useful.
  11. Nov 28, 2006 #10
    When I was an undergrad looking for research opportunities I emailed a couple of professors that I had classes with that did research I was interested in. One of them responded immediately that I was more than welcome to come do some projects with his group and that I should stop by the next day. So, I did at the appointed time. The professor asked me to come in and sat me down at his computer and started explaining some problem he was having with his computer. I was very confused, but not wanting to blow my chance at some research I attempted to help. As my computer skills on a Mac were not up to par, he asked "could the help desk possible send someone more familiar with Macs?" I then explained I was there for a research possibility.

    It turns out, he thought the person who emailed him about research was someone else with a similar name to mine and since I wasn't who he expected, he assumed I was the computer person supposed to stop by later that afternoon just appearing early. After this huge mixup, I ended up getting some publications as an undergrad out of this complete misunderstanding and doing my Ph.D. with him.

    So, what I am trying to say is that just get your name out there. You never know how things are gonna work out.
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