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Etiquette approaching math professors for research?

  1. Aug 18, 2015 #1
    How exactly should an undergraduate approach a professor to ask about research opportunities? Would it be preferable to send an email or go talk about it during their office hours? A call perhaps?

    Also, out of curiosity, is it annoying when an undergraduate wants to do research in math? In other fields, undergraduates are at least somewhat useful because they can help maintain the labs and such, even if they don’t completely know what is going on. In math, however, one can’t really do that, unless the student is some kind of Grothendieck-esque genius. It seems the knowledge of an undergraduate is so trivial that any research they could churn out would probably be unpublishable. Isn’t this sort of imposing a burden on the professor to try and manage this student, especially when he/she could be helping graduate students or be working on his/her own research?
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 18, 2015 #2
    I cannot assist you with the second park of your question, since I am not in the mathematics field, but I can offer you some insight on etiquette about talking with professors.

    I worked as an undergraduate research assistant for almost two years in the civil engineering department of my school. As I was not doing my OWN research, I did development a friendship with the professor and the group of students I worked with. From my experience, I feel directly talking to the professor in his/her office hours is the best way to go. Emails go over-looked and phone calls get put off- not out of disinterest, but because professors are very busy and pre-occupied with their own doings. If this is something you're highly interested in, directly talking to a professor face-to-face about your research proposal, perhaps with a one page outline they can look over while discussing would be a great idea. I don't feel professors ever feel a passionate and focused student would ever be a burden. Most professors that I've talked to view student's as an investment and love when they're engaged in their own work. I can't speak for all professors, but this is my experience.
  4. Aug 18, 2015 #3


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    Speaking to them in person is good. I always made an appointment via email first, but if they have office hours, that also sounds good.

    From what I understand of undergraduate mathematics projects, they tend to take the form of reading projects more than anything. In my experience of being an undergraduate research student and supervising undergrad research students in physics, most of the time they produce more work than actually be useful. It's a fairly rare student that is actually useful. However, academics don't mind. Training and producing new researchers is part of the job, and most academics enjoy it.
  5. Aug 18, 2015 #4
    Email or in person during office hours can both work. Provide a CV/resume either way.

    When I was a Math Prof at USAFA, I may have supervised more undergrad research than any other prof at USAFA. I always had more projects than students to work on them. I gave a lot of thought to matching the talent to an appropriate project. I still keep a list of projects bouncing around in my head and/or on paper just waiting for a student or colleague to express an interest.

    If you have a good work ethic, you will find opporutnities.
  6. Aug 19, 2015 #5


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    Maybe it seems trivial. But be sure to state to the prof exactly what it is you want. If you just go to his office and visit, he may be happy to talk to you all day about his research. Or he may be busy and try to ease you to the door. But you need to say something like "I want to know if you have a possible research spot for me." Or however you prefer to word it. But be sure to actually *SAY* it, or you won't get anything.

    If he says there is no possible job, then thank him and excuse yourself. Unless you are keen to learn about his research.

    If he says there might be, then ask him for details. Find out what the job includes. Be sure to find out about duties, time (how many months etc.) you would be there, hours expected, and what if anything it pays.
  7. Aug 19, 2015 #6
    Either approach him during office hours or send him an email asking for an appointment. Be sure to be prepared: know a bit what kind of research the professor is doing so you know for sure you would be interested.

    Research at the undergrad level is indeed not comparable to actual math research. But this does not mean that you cannot do research at the undergrad level. It is certainly possible for a math undergrad to publish a paper where the undergrad did a fair share of the work. Depending on your current level, you might have to do a lot of background reading however.

    Don't think the professor will find you annoying. If they would be annoyed by an undergrad doing research, they would just say no. If they don't, they won't mind. They will only get annoyed if you don't put in the work.
  8. Aug 19, 2015 #7
    Thanks for the advice guys :)

    Life is going to be a bit hectic as I first move into my dorms, but I'll see what I can do after I adjust in a few weeks.
  9. Aug 19, 2015 #8


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    as micromass said, the only annoying thing is asking, getting permission, and then not doing the work, or not showing up for appointments.
  10. Aug 20, 2015 #9
    I suggest you learn to code. Find someone in the department that is doing very applied research. At my school we have very few pure mathematicians. I have a friend in the physics department who works with a mathematician on wind turbine simulations, and he gets his hands dirty with real data. I also know 2 mathematics students who work in a biology lab. You really don't have to restrict yourself to pure mathematics.
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