How to ask a professor about research?

  • Thread starter Magentacat
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  • #1
Magentacat
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Hey everyone. I was wondering if anyone here could help me please?

I've been struggling for several months now trying to find an opportunity to do research with a professor.

I've sent emails to several professors. In the email I would ask directly if they had any positions available for undergrads. I have not gotten a single response yet.

I went directly to a professor's office once, only to receive a VERY rude "NO!" Need I say that it scared me from going to another professor's office?

Now I am thinking that it may just have been a rude professor. Since I am getting no responses to my emails, can I just go into their office and ask them? Isn't it kind of rude? I do not know these professor's office hours because on their website they have office hours for Spring 2009.

Anyway, does anyone have any suggestions? I am going to be a senior next year and I don't exactly have a lot of time left to do research. I want to get into Master's program but they all want research experience of course. :(
 

Answers and Replies

  • #2
cristo
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Now I am thinking that it may just have been a rude professor. Since I am getting no responses to my emails, can I just go into their office and ask them? Isn't it kind of rude?

It depends whether you know these professors or not. If not, then I wouldn't just turn up at their doors without first either emailing or phoning to make an appointment. The "very rude no" that you received could either be becuase that professor is rude or, more likely, because s/he was busy doing something else, and you interrupted them in the middle of their train of thought. It's also exam time, at least in my part of the world, so professors have a lot more work to do than usual!

So, to reiterate, I would either email or phone to arrange a meeting, or ask at your department office for the office hours of the professors you are interested in talking to.
 
  • #3
Magentacat
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It depends whether you know these professors or not. If not, then I wouldn't just turn up at their doors without first either emailing or phoning to make an appointment. The "very rude no" that you received could either be becuase that professor is rude or, more likely, because s/he was busy doing something else, and you interrupted them in the middle of their train of thought. It's also exam time, at least in my part of the world, so professors have a lot more work to do than usual!

So, to reiterate, I would either email or phone to arrange a meeting, or ask at your department office for the office hours of the professors you are interested in talking to.

Hey cristo, thanks for replying!:)

But that's what I did, I emailed them. But no reply :(. Can I just email and ask what their office hours are?

I asked that one professor like a month before exams (which ended a week ago), but he might have been busy with something else you're right. I did email that professor before showing up but no reply of course.

I think I will just go to the department and ask about office hours then.
 
  • #4
eri
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Have you tried talking to your academic adviser in your dept, or a professor you know well? Even if they don't have anything for an undergrad to do, they might be able to recommend someone who does and the best way to approach them about it. It would help if you didn't need to be paid for doing the work, and you mentioned that to them - most paid positions would have been taken months ago. My university offers REUs, so all the undergrad summer research positions went to students mostly from other universities, and were all taken by Feb.
 
  • #5
Magentacat
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Have you tried talking to your academic adviser in your dept, or a professor you know well? Even if they don't have anything for an undergrad to do, they might be able to recommend someone who does and the best way to approach them about it. It would help if you didn't need to be paid for doing the work, and you mentioned that to them - most paid positions would have been taken months ago. My university offers REUs, so all the undergrad summer research positions went to students mostly from other universities, and were all taken by Feb.

I never actually thought about getting paid. I hope that is not what the professors I emailed to thought I was after. I don't want to get paid, I want experience :)

I think I might talk to a professor I know well. He's not doing research but you're right he might know someone.
 
  • #6
ExactlySolved
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Doing research involves being independent. The burden is on you to find out what a professors research is about and think of what you could do to assist before contacting that professor. Also if you are willing to volunteer you should say so explicitly.
 
  • #7
Pengwuino
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Doing research involves being independent. The burden is on you to find out what a professors research is about and think of what you could do to assist before contacting that professor. Also if you are willing to volunteer you should say so explicitly.

This, along with the entire situation to be honest, is university/department dependent. At my department, we can barge in (ok not literally knock down the door) and ask what research they're doing and if they have any available spots, they're usually glad to tell us what they're doing and how we could start research with them. Professors are kinda people too! Sometimes they're really busy, sometimes they'll actually go out of their way to help someone really interested in research, some will actually ask you if you want to do research with them, it all depends on the department and people. Until a massive bout of laziness seemingly came over our department, we would have a pizza party every year or semester where faculty talked about their research a bit. I guess sometimes it pays to have a small department. The best part is that when you do research with professors at my university, some of them really treat you like a colleague instead of slave labor.

The person to see if you're having problems is the undergraduate adviser. They should know what people are doing and how you can go about getting research done in the department and with whom.
 
  • #8
Magentacat
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I am curious. How can every undergrad out there who wants to get into graduate program get research experience? There are only so many professors in one's department.

If I will not be able to find a professor who will let me do research with them, am I doomed from master's programs?

Pengwuino, thanks!:) Actually my current advisor is an a***. I'm not joking. The guy is some kind of grad student who does not give a damn about anyone and never helped me. I will see about getting a new advisor. I think I will go on Tuesday. yep.
 
  • #9
Pengwuino
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Well remember, not every undergrad wants to go to a graduate program. Also not ever undergrad who wants to go to a graduate program feels research is necessary or wants to do it (not that it's advised obviously...). Of course, there's always other departments that you could work with. Universities love interdisciplinary research. I was actually toying with working with our chemistry department for a while but decided against it.

You're not doomed from a masters program if you don't do research. To be honest, if you're simply looking at a masters program, they aren't going to go overboard that you have no research experience because they won't expect much research out of you. In a PHD program, it's a different story.

Also, I didn't really think students would be allowed to be actual official advisers. There should be an actual professor who is in charge of undergraduate advising. Maybe not though, who knows... snoop around.
 
  • #10
Magentacat
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I don't "not" want to do it nor do I feel that it is not necessary. I am just terrified that I will not be able to get it.
 
  • #11
turbo
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You might want to approach the prof on neutral ground and see if you can make an appointment to talk to him or her when they have a break in their schedule. "Needy" students are a plague to profs who want to continue their professional careers and continue to publish. I once asked a professor if I could audit a seminar-type course (3 hours late Friday every week) that he was offering to grad-students and advanced seniors, and he gave me 15 minutes of his lunch-break to plead my case. 3 hours later, he apologized for ending the meeting and told me that I could take his course for full credit. Since he was the head of his department, I never had to take a 1xx or 2xx course in that department - I could ask for any course that interested me and the profs and instructors always accepted me. BTW, emails are cold and easy to ignore, and unscheduled personal visits are a sure way to get blown off.
 
  • #12
Magentacat
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You might want to approach the prof on neutral ground and see if you can make an appointment to talk to him or her when they have a break in their schedule. "Needy" students are a plague to profs who want to continue their professional careers and continue to publish. I once asked a professor if I could audit a seminar-type course (3 hours late Friday every week) that he was offering to grad-students and advanced seniors, and he gave me 15 minutes of his lunch-break to plead my case. 3 hours later, he apologized for ending the meeting and told me that I could take his course for full credit. Since he was the head of his department, I never had to take a 1xx or 2xx course in that department - I could ask for any course that interested me and the profs and instructors always accepted me. BTW, emails are cold and easy to ignore, and unscheduled personal visits are a sure way to get blown off.
So what you are saying is, go to a professor and ask to make an appointment and do not say a word about research? Isn't that still an unscheduled personal visit? What if they ask what the appointment is for? :D
 
  • #13
turbo
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So what you are saying is, go to a professor and ask to make an appointment and do not say a word about research? Isn't that still an unscheduled personal visit? What if they ask what the appointment is for? :D
The point is to make the meeting non-confrontational and plead your case. You may have to take a course in sales to see why this might work.

Edit: Let's try a bit of personal engineering. You find out that your prof's wife is a big fan of opera and he attends to "be nice". Great time to schmooze up and give him a chance to think about his specialty for a bit. You find out that your prof is interested in white-water kayaking or fly-fishing, or something that you already know something about... good chance to be buddies.
 
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  • #14
Choppy
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Just keep trying.

One professor was rude about it - that's fine. Personally, I don't think there's any excuse to be rude about such things, and as a person coming forward to volunteer your time, you have a right to be treated with a little courtesy.

If you're not getting anywhere with emailing the professors, you may want to try talking with graduate students. They often have the inside scoop on who to approach and how to approach them.

If you don't get involved with a project, it's not the end of the world. Lots of graduate students are accepted without any prior research experience.
 
  • #15
malawi_glenn
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I would just wait 2-3 weeks til exams etc. are over.
 
  • #16
AUMathTutor
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Use this line:

"Hey buddy, you need a no-pay winged monkey to do your research dirty work?"

That should get you a response. Your more easy-going professors will probably appreciate the frankness or may mistake it for humor.
 
  • #17
Vanadium 50
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Let me see if I understand this correctly. You say you have been "truggling for several months now trying to find an opportunity to do research". In that time you have sent one round of email around, and made one unannounced visit to a professor's office, where he was rude to you. You are not interested in any specific research for its own sake, but you want to use this to pad your resume to get into graduate school. Is that it?

Does this sound like the sort of self-starting go-getter that a professor simply has to have on his or her research team? If not, you might think about how to project a different image - one specific thing would be to show an interest in the specific research that is being done rather than just research in general.
 
  • #18
Theelectricchild
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Let me see if I understand this correctly. You say you have been "truggling for several months now trying to find an opportunity to do research". In that time you have sent one round of email around, and made one unannounced visit to a professor's office, where he was rude to you. You are not interested in any specific research for its own sake, but you want to use this to pad your resume to get into graduate school. Is that it?

Does this sound like the sort of self-starting go-getter that a professor simply has to have on his or her research team? If not, you might think about how to project a different image - one specific thing would be to show an interest in the specific research that is being done rather than just research in general.

Agreed, but it is also important for him to start somewhere so he can figure out what he wants to do when he graduates.
 
  • #19
j93
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Agreed, but it is also important for him to start somewhere so he can figure out what he wants to do when he graduates.
Seconded.
Is it reasonable to expect him to know what field he is interested in as a early undergrad when many seniors and some entering graduate students arent sure.
 
  • #20
Vanadium 50
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Agreed, but it is also important for him to start somewhere so he can figure out what he wants to do when he graduates.

That's fine; he's not making a decision that's binding for the rest of his life: but he should show some interest.
 
  • #21
atyy
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It's quite ok as an undergrad to just ask professors if they have a research position and be quite clueless about what they do. I did that myself, and was turned down because (i) they didn't have any projects an undergrad could do (ii) they didn't have money to pay me. Everyone was very nice though and quite willing to spend time talking to me. I got some (ii) on my own, but that didn't change (i). However, one professor was nice enough to invent a simple problem to which he didn't know the answer and which an undergrad could do, and my project with him turned into my senior thesis.
 
  • #22
Theelectricchild
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OP, would like to read your response to our suggestions.
 
  • #23
millitiz
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hmm, the only time I ever asked a prof for research posit via email, I did not get any response. I think email, almost by its own definition, is a bit informal, and sloppy.
I got my current posit easily, just by dropping by my profs office and ask, I would like to work during the summer, do you have any spot available? And he said yes, he would like to have me in his group. Although I do need to mention that I was in his class at that time, and he thought that I was brilliant (which is not quite true...). I asked another prof that I had a class with (advance lab), and he accepted me easily.
So I guess the moral of the story is, go talk to the prof you know well first (and if you did well in his/her class, it would be a plus).
 
  • #24
Moonbear
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As a professor, here is my advice...
CALL.

Too many students send poorly written emails inquiring about vague interests in doing research. Unless they really show some specific interest in my work, I either send a quick "Sorry, I don't have anything available" response, or don't reply at all (especially if it's clearly a mass email to multiple faculty).

Showing up without an appointment can also be disruptive.

But, when a student actually makes a phone call, even if I'm not in when they call and they leave voicemail, just taking the time to make that added personal contact will get me to call them back. I still might not have anything to offer them, but if I learn more about their interests, which is easier through a phone conversation than email, I can often recommend some people they should consider talking to who might have a position available...and then give that other person the heads-up that this student is referred by me.
 
  • #25
Andy Resnick
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I second Moonbear and others- I ignore email messages from students (undergrad, grad, postdoc) when it is clear they are sending mass emails.

Conversely, when the student tries to demonstrate they generally know what I do- then I always respond.
 
  • #26
phoenix78
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Most departments will have a research information night, or some sort of event that will tell you how to go about applying for research. There will also be professors at these events and you can mingle with them during the tea break.

Also, some professors have webpages with information on how to apply.

I also know of several students who have been matched with a professor in the same/different university by their honours project supervisors. It is important to get a reference or a recommendation in many cases. Its not just about grades... it is also about your personality and determination and passion for the subject matter. Grades will open the door, but other factors will let you through the door.

It is a huge bonus in applying for postgrad study if your honours (or your main final year undergraduate project) is related to the field you want to continue working in. You might get a paper out of it or the work may give you a significant amount of knowledge in that area. If it doesnt, then the project sux and you will have wasted your time. You need something to separate you from other students who are applying.

What I am saying, is that applying for research isn't just an ad-hoc process. Maybe youd find a few professors who occasionally operate this way. But really, just follow the process as presented by the department you want to go to.

All the best :-)
 
  • #27
In my university -and Egypt in general- there isn't much research going and therefore there are very limited spaces for grads, let alone undergrads. Therefore, I need to travel every year to have a research with a professor. Now, as you might guess, I have no contacts that I know in foreign universities. However, I am still deeply interested in conducting research in my field (electrical engineering). Now how do you suggest I go about asking professors (who I don't know) for such an opportunity?
 
  • #28
Choppy
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It is a huge bonus in applying for postgrad study if your honours (or your main final year undergraduate project) is related to the field you want to continue working in. You might get a paper out of it or the work may give you a significant amount of knowledge in that area. If it doesnt, then the project sux and you will have wasted your time. You need something to separate you from other students who are applying.

I strongly disagree with the point about the project being a waste of time (or suxing[?]) if it is not related to the field you want to pursue in graduate studies, or if it does not result in a publication.

Getting involved in research at the undergraduate level allows you to learn skills that will help you later on in your career. Even the experience of working as part of a research collaboration (even if the collaboration is just you and a supervisor) is valuable. Further, it allows you to explore a field that may be of potential interest, which has value even if you decide that you want nothing to do with that field (ie. it is much better to find out you don't like something over a summer rather than once you're two years into a PhD).

Admission committees recognise that not all undergraduate research will necessarily lead to publication. This is why they place weight on reference letters.
 
  • #29
Choppy
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In my university -and Egypt in general- there isn't much research going and therefore there are very limited spaces for grads, let alone undergrads. Therefore, I need to travel every year to have a research with a professor. Now, as you might guess, I have no contacts that I know in foreign universities. However, I am still deeply interested in conducting research in my field (electrical engineering). Now how do you suggest I go about asking professors (who I don't know) for such an opportunity?

It does become more difficult to network when you're looking outside of your undergraduate institution, but it's not impossible.

One thing you might try is attending conferences if that's an option. Poster sessions are great places to chat informally with researchers as well as find out about the cutting edge of research.

Again, polite email and phone calls can still be effective. However it's best to learn as much as you can about what researchers do before contacting them so you can have an intelligent conversation if they want to chat with you.
 

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