Landing a Research Position: Get Your Foot in the Door
Updated: Jul 30, 2020
By Komal Patel
Conducting academic research is a great way to learn about a specific field in-depth, and can demonstrate your curiosity and dedication. But if you don’t know any professors or don’t have prior experience, it can be daunting to get a position! If you don’t know where to start on getting your research position, you’ve come to the right place.
Ask a TA
If you’re enjoying one of your courses, ask a TA whether they know of any openings for volunteers in their department. Your TAs will typically be master’s students, and might be easier to approach than your professor! Don’t ask for a paid position right away, as it might make you seem like you’re looking to make money instead of a genuine learning opportunity.
Drop Into Office Hours
If you want to work with a professor for one of your courses, stop by their office hours to ask about their research. You can also ask for them to recommend ways for you to get involved with their work or department.
Chances are, you’re going to have to send at least one cold email when hunting for a research placement. Don’t let the idea of cold-contacting a prof or graduate student stop you from getting a position! Here are a few steps to make the process as easy as possible:
Do your homework. Every university will have faculty pages where you can find out about professors, and sometimes list master’s students as well. Typical information will include academic degrees, contact info, and publications. Skim a few of their recent abstracts to determine whether you’re interested in their work, and if you are, it’s time to draft your email!
Start formal. You’ve never met this professor before, so don’t leave a bad impression with an informal start. ‘Dear’ and ‘Hello’ are standard, and if the professor has a PhD or MD, always address them as ‘Dr.’ If not, use ‘Professor.’ If you’re reaching out to a master’s student or TA, feel free to use their first name.
Introduce yourself. What’s your name, program, year and major?
Why did you pick them? How is their work related to your future pathway? Why did you find their papers interesting? What questions do you have about their research? Are you in one of their classes?
This is the most important paragraph, where you have to demonstrate your interest in what they do by asking questions. The ‘homework’ that you did earlier is crucial to this step.
The ask. Don’t ask for a position straight away - most professors won’t give you one anyway, considering that they’ve never met you before. Ask for a chance to discuss their research and field. Offer to attend their office hours (if you don’t know when these are, check your syllabus or ask if you’re not in their courses) and include availability in case the professor wants to schedule a separate meeting.
Don’t include everything. Leave your CV, grades, and prior experience for when you actually ask for the position - right now you’re simply trying to express interest and get a meeting.
Chances are, your first draft will be way too long. Your email should be concise and to the point - can they read it on a phone screen without scrolling? The longer your email, the lower the chance that a professor will actually read through to the end.
Ask for a sanity check. You’ve been staring at your email so long that you might miss grammar mistakes, misspellings, or other small errors that can make you look unprofessional. Get someone else to take a quick look before you send it off!
Once you’ve finished all of these steps, take a break and grab yourself a snack - you’ve just written a great cold email!
Know in advance that you might send out 50 cold emails and receive 2 replies. Professors are often bombarded with emails, and your carefully crafted letter can easily get missed or forgotten. On that note, follow up after two weeks. This not only reminds them to send you a reply, it shows that you’re interested in their research because you bothered to send a follow up email after giving them adequate time to respond.
Check out my next article on what to do when you get a meeting with a professor! And if you want any more advice, feel free to message our page @thementorshipspot or dm me personally @kom.patel on instagram.
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