Riley Soward, founder of Campus Insights and student at Boston College
With deadlines for summer positions right around the corner, you might be thinking of emailing faculty members about joining their research group this coming summer. Working with faculty members is one of the most productive ways of spending your summer and taking advantage of your university's resources, including receiving recommendation letters, graduate school support, and mentorship that extends through and far beyond your college years. In my case, one of my favorite professors even invited me to a Thanksgiving dinner with his family.
Writing an email to a faculty member might seem hard, especially if you are just starting out and don't know what to say. Just remember: professors want to help students, and they especially want to help the ones that are genuinely interested and bright. Therefore, you must get acquainted with the faculty members' research interests, meet their colleagues and offer useful skills. Quality emails that show effort and care will yield quality conversations with faculty, a possible summer gig, and mentorship and support later on.
Faculty members are not inherently disposed against responding to your emails; they just typically receive bad emails, often mail-merged to more than one faculty member, with minimal customization, understanding of their work, or mastery of their subject. Professors have famously busy schedules, often tight research budgets, and, due to their teaching experience, an ability to identify fake interest -- therefore you should offer them objective reasons to consider you for a position in their group.
Since we are about to ask for a research position, we should approach this problem scientifically. Let us think of a strategy to maximize the probability of response.
Three key points will show professors you are a mature, interested candidate for a research position: researching the faculty members' most recent publications and classes, speaking with their graduate students and/or administrative staff, and displaying your own academic credentials in the email.
1. Thoroughly research their work
One of the most common complaints that students have is that faculty do not get back to them; faculty, on the other hand, counter that students do not send them emails that are sufficiently targeted. Let us look at the issue from the faculty perspective. I spoke with Professor Scott Fahlman, Research Professor of Language Technologies at Carnegie Mellon University.
"Try to put yourself in the shoes of the professor who gets hundreds of these mass-produced internship requests every year, mostly from India," said Prof. Fahlman. "Even sending an individual response to such a request costs the professor more time than you spent to send that message to the professor. So, as much as faculty members love to work with smart undergrads, they must treat most of these messages as a form of spam, and respond with a canned message, if they respond at all. If you want your message to stand out and maybe get a personal response, there has to be some indication that you spent some time preparing this specific request."
"Often the letter is not even minimally customized. It is addressed to "Dear Professor" and does not mention the project name or the university, even though you think my work is wonderful and desperately want to work with me. The letter gives no indication that the writer has spent even a few minutes looking at the online materials related to my work. And then these hard-working people, so passionate about my work, go on to say that they want to work with me on "algorithms, data mining, software engineering, and computer vision" -- not areas that I currently work in."
- Quora response by Scott E. Fahlman.
Therefore, your chances for obtaining a position with faculty member dramatically increase if you actually read their research papers and develop familiarity with their specific field before ever setting foot in the faculty member's office. The professor will not expect you to know everything, especially if you are an undergraduate, but you must put in your best effort to at least develop good questions and a sense of what the research process in the field is like.
I recommend starting your email with "Dear Professor LAST NAME", briefly introducing yourself, your year and major, and then stating specific research areas that interest you. As noted above, "algorithms and data mining" is not specific enough. It is best to avoid generic buzzwords that show a superficial understanding of otherwise complex areas of academic research, such as "big data", "machine learning", "computational neuroscience".
Mention a few recent publications (last year or this year is best) and projects the faculty is currently involved in. Intelligent, specific questions about their work are a brilliant way to signal genuine interest and technical aptitude: for instance, ask a question about data interpretation in a specific paper or think of an alternative experiment that could extend an existing result. You can also ask about the broader implications of their work in the field; read a few papers by other authors and think how they relate. Literature reviews, which are academic papers that cover recent advances in specific fields, are often written for non-specialists and are a great place to start.
Various fields are different in terms of the amount of technical expertise you need in order to make an independent contribution. For instance, very few physics laboratories would expect an undergraduate to already be able to design and implement their own experiments (although in such labs many undergraduates learn through working on parts of existing projects), while in psychology groups senior undergraduates often create and run experiments independently. Use your common sense and your understanding of the field to place yourself accordingly within possible future projects.
For research data sources, look at Google Scholar for publication search; National Science Foundation search of active research awards; and my start-up Project Lever for participating universities.
2. Mention their graduate students
According to Joe Stujenske, graduate of a neuroscience PhD program at Columbia University, many laboratories ask graduate students to help recruit undergraduates. Once the undergraduate is accepted, graduate students or postdoctoral fellows often serve as mentors and are the members of the group the undergraduate spends most time with. Therefore, it is in your best interest to initiate conversations with graduate students and postdocs, whose emails are often listed on laboratory websites.
Therefore, before venturing to email faculty members, speak to graduate students that work with this faculty member, and ask for their advice. Does the laboratory even accept undergraduates? What kind of projects can you expect? What types of training would be required for you to meaningfully contribute in the lab? Once you have the answers to your question, you will be much better positioned to compose a winning email to the professor leading the research group.
Once you spoke with a graduate student, mention it in the email to faculty. Say that you already touched base with a student and could see yourself assisting them with a project. The faculty will be very likely impressed with your dedication, and secretly grateful that you already found a place for yourself.
3. Display your own academic credentials.
I spoke with Yan Luo, professor of engineering at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, who receives hundreds of emails from prospective students, both domestically and abroad. Prof. Luo typically evaluates students based on their existing knowledge and credentials and asks to attach three pieces of evidence to the first email so he can gauge academic potential:
1) your resume;
2) your unofficial transcript;
3) optional writing sample of research work you have already done.
In addition, you should mention any classes you have taken with the professor you are emailing, provided you did well. Especially when teaching advanced classes related to their research, professors often like to recruit from their best students, having already invested in them in terms of the skillset they are looking for. If you are currently in a class with a professor you would love to work with, then stop reading this article and simply show up to office hours; bring good questions and show you have explored past the course material. Don't be afraid to ask them directly about possible openings in their group.
Always finish an email with thanking faculty member for their time, and state the ideal next step from your side. Would you like to come into their office for a conversation about a recent paper? Do you already know this faculty member and need a recommendation letter? Are you looking to explore the summer funding opportunities or thesis advising?
On average, if you put in the time to learn about their interests; spoke with graduate students, and prepared to show your own academic credentials, you are very far ahead of other students that mindlessly spam faculty members.
Good luck! Let me know how it goes.
Thanks to Tudor Giurgica-Tiron for his help on this article.