Just Ask!

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Co-authored with Patrick Ghadban.

"Just Ask."

I must admit, this sunshine-and-serendipity advice sounds more fitting from my friend who is an aspiring astrologist, than from a presumably cold-hearted data-driven engineering professor at one of the U.S.'s most prestigious educational institutions.

Yet, apparently courage, networking, and preparation lead far in any field. Last time, we spoke with student researchers from the University of Notre Dame and Boston University (want to work with Red Sox surgeons? Read about it here). Today, we decided to ask faculty members for advice on scoring the research project of your dreams. What do the winning students do? How do they prepare? What do they bring to meetings with faculty? (lucky charms, anyone?)

We spoke with Thomas Little, Associate Dean of Educational Initiatives in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Boston University, and Professor Yan Luo, Associate Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.

1. Realize professors want to help.

"Don't be hesitant to ask," Professor Luo started. Professors don't knock on the student's door; it's the job of the student to make themselves known. Professors typically want students of all years to approach them for research opportunities, not necessarily students that they are already familiar with. Professor Luo, for example, has a number of funded projects with PhD, master, and undergrad students. You'd be surprised at the number of options that are available if you go searching.

"We, as faculty, work to help students become better academics and people," confirmed Dean Little. Learning to approach faculty members is a hugely useful skill that transfers into the students' future career. The process of learning starts not in the research lab, but at the moment of outreach. Bottom-line: professors want to help. Just ask.

2. Prepare!

The most certain way to approach faculty members is to take their class and do well (our students also think it's true). Professor Luo is currently working with three undergraduate students, all of whom have previously taken his class and inquired about research opportunities.

Dean Little explains that almost all potential advisors have some type of minimum cutoff potential advisees are expected to meet before they can be accepted as an advisee. Depending on your specific discipline, research goals, and potential advisor these cutoffs can vary greatly. Some are standard, like a minimum GPA or test score cutoff. It is important that you are aware of these cutoffs before you go to meet with a potential advisor. Even if they are not advertised, or do not exist, keep them in mind when communicating with potential advisors. If you know that you are above said cutoffs, use this to your advantage.

But what if you aren't exactly killing it in their class?

3. Show Motivation

Even if you did not exactly ace their class, don't give up -emphasize your other strengths. Note, while it is important not to downplay the importance of these qualifying factors--as Dean Little says, "Of course I want the highest GPA, SATs, GREs,"--it is equally important to consider the qualitative factors that will swing a potential advisor one way or another. Dean Little seeks out motivated students, and it's up to you to find a way to show your motivation. Prove to faculty you will go above and beyond expectations, and you are worthy of their time. Keeping in mind, the impression you leave on them is the potential reference you'll be referred to as during career interviews.

A few suggestions for displaying motivation from Prof. Luo:

  • Bring a resume that is tailored to the particular lab, and advertises your relevant skills.
  • Research the professor and the lab website. Prepare specific questions about the projects.
  • Meet with the students working with this professor in advance. Ask them for advice on joining the team.

Good luck!

Question for you: how many faculty members have you asked for research opportunities this year? What did they say?

Let me know in the comments - I will reach out to the top commenters to interview them for the next story!