How to email professors about finding undergraduate research
Looking for undergraduate research opportunities? Here’s a good Quora question about emailing professors. https://www.quora.com/How-do-professors-view-cold-emails-asking-for-research-opportunities
I’ll go over some of the top answers and analyze them. They all make different, meaningful points about this process.
The answer from Shaad M. Ahmad, Assistant Professor at Indiana State University is one you should especially pay attention to:
I cannot speak for all professors, but I will tell you how I view cold emails. I tend to receive two types of cold emails asking for research opportunities and have a very distinct response to each:Emails that are obvious cut-and-paste generic messages sent out to a large number of professors on the slim hope that someone may express an interest: These, I utterly ignore. I am not interested in students or postdocs who are not interested and passionate about the research questions that my lab is investigating.
Emails sent by individuals that demonstrate that they have looked into my research interests, read my previous publications, and are actually interested in my lab’s research program: I am likely to actually respond to the senders of these emails. That is no guarantee of my necessarily accepting them into my research program, but at the very least, we will have begun a dialogue.
This answer is very truthful and shows how important it is to email each professor one at a time. NEVER email more than one professor at a time, whether through different emails or BCC. If they see another professor is emailed, they’ll be insulted.
Then there is an answer from William Beeman, Professor and Chair, University of Minnesota, which I will make comments on.
These emails generally are ignored. They are often bulk emails sent out to hundreds of people without regard to any individual’s personal research interests or their ongoing research.
Even if you do everything right, you might be ignored, for reasons such as: lab is full, you’re not suited for the lab, etc. I just talked about how you should never send a research interest email to more than one professor, so the above scenario should not apply. Below is a very good example for a PhD candidate on how to join a professor’s lab. In your case, saying that you are an undergraduate student majoring in XYZ and attaching a resume is good enough. It is best to mention the professor’s prior research and show how you can use your skills in their lab, as this demonstrates interest in their lab specifically and not others’ labs.
Here is a much better approach in the sample inquiry below:
______________________________Dear Professor X (name the professor)I am completing my undergraduate studies and have read your work on (X subject). It has inspired my interest in a research career in your field, particularly in the (X specialty area—named specifically). I was especially inspired by your article(s) (books) (NAME THEM SPECIFICALLY). I plan to apply for the Ph.D. program at your university, and am writing to ask about the possibility of working with you if I am admitted.
(Then list your research experience, your credentials, etc. and attach a curriculum vitae)
We then have a nicer professor who understands the struggle of finding research.
Jason M Pittman, Professor of Computer Security & Computer ScienceA2A:I’m open to cold emails as long as I can tell that the message is an honest attempt to connect and begin a dialogue.
I think a semi-closed door policy on cold engagements is dangerous insofar as new researchers (especially undergrads) do not always have the means to engage otherwise.
But some professors aren’t as nice. We then have this professor from Germany that has some pretty high standards. To be honest, professors’ personalities are also important. You two have to have a professional synergy. Personally, I would never want to work with this professor because I might accidentally offend her by breathing. That being said, she makes some good points among her contempt. I’ll comment on how you can deal with difficult professors using her answers.
It is very hard to slip through the Spam barrier.
Wow, rude much? If you use your school email you should have no troubles with your emails being marked as spam. Look to fellow students for comfort and rejection support if a professor calls you a “spammer” and you were making a good-faith effort in the appropriate way.
Rule 1: Be very specific
Looking for an adviser on my Master thesis on XYZ
Tell them you’re an undergrad and what you’re majoring in.
Rule 2: Be very short
I will scan the subject and maybe first line of the email. Others have other email settings.
Yes, be concise and straight to the point. Professors don’t have much time to waste.
Rule 3: Tell me what you want and how much it will cost me.
Looking for a research project… I would assume that you are asking to be hired in some way. If I do not happen to have money, I immediately stop reading.
Doesn’t really apply; you don’t need to do a cost-benefit analysis because you’re not a PhD student.
Can I visit your lab?… Sounds fishy. What do you want?
As a general rule of thumb, just don’t ask for things you’re not entitled to. Visiting a lab will be a burden for some professors so just don’t. Let the suspense of what your future lab looks like arouse your passion for research.
Can we do research together?… You clearly don’t know how high-quality research works, so nope.
Some professors are elitist and don’t want lowly undergraduates in their labs. In that case just forget about them, Cee-Lo Green style. (jk don’t cuss at or insult them)
Do you offer research opportunities?… Nope. Actually, I am not clear on what that means exactly. Do you mean research job opportunities? Opportunities to do research? Topics for a thesis? Would I want to be adviser on a thesis? This is not me being confused, this is students seeming to think that this means whatever they happen to think it means.
Just be clear you want to join their lab. Assume they offer research opportunities and don’t ask indirect questions.
Rule 4: Don’t insult me. (Happens more often than you think)
Good example:Sub: Looking for primary adviser on Master thesisDear Prof. Mathiak,I am looking for a Master topic with regards Usability. I have read your paper “…” and would like to do something similar, but I am also open to other suggestions. Could we make an appointment? I am available …Sincerely, …Bad example:Sub: REsearch oppurtunityDear Mr. Mathiak,I have read all of your papers and I am very impressed with your academic prowess. I was wondering, if you could do research with me. I am sending you my c.v. I hope you can read OpenOffice, but I don’t believe in proprietary standards. If you can’t just send me an email and I will send you whatever format you prefer.Many regards, …
Basically just don’t make it a pain in the @$$ for the professor to facilitate looking over your credentials and making a decision. At the end of the day, your email is asking for a part of their day and you should be very appreciative of the time they spend for you. So make it easy for them to accept you.
At the end of the day, you will get rejected by some professors, even if you do everything right. And it’s okay. Just keep on trying. They might not respond, or they might not have space in their lab, or they might need someone more qualified. In any case, don’t sweat it! You’ll fit in somewhere. Just keep trying.
Anyway, hope this commentary helps. Good luck with finding research!