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How Can I Do Research? - Reaching out to Professors

Updated: Mar 28, 2021

It is that time of year again, spring. The flowers blooming, the midterms hurting, and of course, the terrors of getting an internship returning. As we step into April, we also step into the last push of rejections, anticipated callbacks, and just a madhouse of scrambling to get summer internships.

However, quite often, this can be a challenge to fail due to nothing but a little lack of luck. As much as this can feel discouraging, you have nothing to worry about, as there is always RESEARCH!

But, how does one get research? How do I reach out to a professor? How do I find professors? How do I understand any of what they are working on?

Finding a professor

Finding the right professor can be challenging, as at first you can feel overwhelmed by the number of opportunities. It's also a crucial part of your experience, as all professors are different when it comes to their research. Therefore, here are the main things you should make a list of before beginning to reach any one of them.

  • How do you wish to work?

  • Hands-on: Good option if this is your first time doing research, and feel very uncertain. This way your professor/ grad student will give you specific tasks to complete, and check on your work quite frequently.

  • Hands-off: Good option, if you like to figure things out on your own, feel more comfortable being challenged with your work. In these cases is it mostly up to you to contact your supervisor and ask them for feedback, meetings, etc.

  • Remote/ In-person: This is especially important in today's world with the pandemic. This can easily be decided where you wish to stay over the summer, but it's also important to weigh ideas such as how much theoretical vs more hands-on work do you wish to do.

  • What is your main interest within a field?

  • Your department/ NOT your department: This is something you should immediately decide when you start your hunt. It's not mandatory that you have to research in your field. I recommend that you do look there first, however, you can always just research whatever interests you. A great way to balance this is by doing a search in our department and chosen field, and one that may be completely unrelated on a volunteer basis.

  • Within the field - High Level: When you first start college it may be a little hard to recognize the many specific paths within your department, however, this can quickly be done just by looking at your classes, tracks, or just a good old Google search. Of course, this will still be hard, and I am definitely not telling you to choose the specific area you want to work on. You have all 4 years to figure it out, or even beyond, so no rush!

  • IF You know the specific: Good job! I definitely wish I was in your shoes on some days, but if you have a pretty set idea of what you want, write it down!

Now that you have a shortlist containing about 2- 3 ideas, we can transfer over to the part that I like to call: Get To Know Your Professor

  • Go to the Department Website: Go to your college's website and click on faculty, and start reading about your professors.

  • Look for these:

  • What classes do they teach?

  • What is their area of research?

  • What is their Lab?

And once you have collected enough information, and a few matches with your 2-3 ideas, here comes the actual deep dive part of our operation.

Read Their Research!

Find their papers, and actually read them. I know this may feel terrifying but we will use this information later too. Hunt them down on Google Scholar, and any other work you may find by a simple google search of their name or their lab.

Writing THE Emails

After you have scouted high and low and found about 2 or 3 professors that you would be honored to work with. It's time to continue our operation.

SUB-STEP! --> If you know any upper-classmen ask them if they have any experience with/ know these professors. Get to know more about them, and if they would be an optimal fit for you!

  • Who do I write this email to?

  • Professor: Of course, your number one goal should be trying to reach the professor. However, many professors are hard to reach & have very competitive research opportunities, and if you are reading this, you are most likely an undergraduate student making your situation more challenging.

  • Graduate Student of the Professor: A very great trick if the aforementioned happens, is to reach out o the grad student of the professors. This ensures that you have a better opportunity at getting a chance, and to form a better connection too as you are quite likely to aid their work!

  • Format?

  • Short: Keep your email as short as possible, so you will get your point across with no extra fluff!

  • Formal: Be as respectful as possible.

  • Signature: This should be straight forwards, but make sure you sign your emails!

  • Outline - What to Include?

  • Dear Dr.X: If they have a doctorate/Ph.D. and have that on their work, make sure you address that! They have put years of work into that title, so honor that.

  • My name is, and I am: Again, very shortly and to the point, quickly mention your FULL name, and what year you are, what you are studying.

  • Currently, I am looking for: Be very precise about this, mention all of the following:

  • Research (well, duh)

  • When

  • Remote/In-person

  • In your X paper, I read about Y and this connects to me Z: One of the most important if not THE most important part of your email will be these 1 or 2 sentences that explain why you want to work with them. It also shows your commitment, and that you aren't just randomly reaching out to professors. Lastly, it makes the narrative about them, drawing a conclusion about you and your interests.

  • Would be honored: Make sure you let them know that you would be honored to work with them and help their research.

  • Attachments- What do I send along?

  • Resume/CV: Tell them you attached it hence they can learn more about you and your work.

  • Unofficial Transcript: Prove your school knowledge as well.

  • The Goodbye

  • Leave an exact path: Ask them as your closing of the email, would they be free to meet and talk about this in the following week or so- ADD EXACT DATES HERE!

Remember

  • Keep it short

  • Be very exact and precise - no fluff

  • Be confident in not knowing much YET

  • Show your drive and commitment

  • Reach out to one professor at a time & wait for their response

And there you go! You are ready to send that email! Good luck and have fun in your research endeavors!


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