Guest Post: Tips on Emailing a Professor to Ask for a Research Opportunity


Guest Post: Tips on Emailing a Professor to Ask for a Research Opportunity

This guest post was written by Dr. Brandi Ormerod, Associate Professor at the University of Florida, Department of Biomedical Engineering.

Dr. Ormerod's research program focuses on understanding how to use transplantable or endogenous neural stem cells to repair neural circuits in the diseased or injured brain, and how changes in levels of hippocampal neurogenesis across lifespan impact cognition. She originally posted a version of this article on Quora and gave us permission to share this version here.

Congratulations on wanting to obtain a research opportunity. Some undergraduate (and Master’s) students do very productive research in laboratories that can occasionally even lead to authorship on a paper (the ultimate goal of all academic research - this kind of research takes a very serious time commitment).

Before approaching potential research mentors, it's important to be realistic about how much time you can spend doing research every week. If you can only spend a few hours each week in the laboratory, then you would be seeking a very different lab experience than if you could spend, for example, an afternoon each day through the week (on average) working on a project.

My answer was prepared for undergraduate and master’s students seeking ‘research opportunities’ rather than students seeking PhD positions (I would expect a rather high-level email about research experience and interests from potential PhD students).

Examples of emails that I do not respond to (and receive relatively frequently):

  1. Form emails that the name of any potential mentor could be copied into.These kind of emails tell me that you are just sending mass emails out to all professors with labs.
  2. Emails with embedded links to CVs or other information. These never look like authentic emails from students and I never follow random links that strangers send - ever.
  3. Emails with a lot of grammatical and spelling errors. If your initial email is sloppy, then it would be difficult for me to trust your science.
  4. Emails demanding an interview and/or laboratory tour that "would only take 1 or 2h of time." Professors can get several emails a day/week from undergraduate students seeking research opportunities. I only have time to meet with a few of the most promising candidates.
  5. Emails that just copy/paste a sentence or two about my research from my website. I would prefer that you include some information from my published work or from a talk that you heard me or one of my students give and then discuss why working in my lab would interest you. This shows specific interest in my lab and the kind of curiosity I look for in potential trainees.
  6. Emails that ask to meet me the day they are sent. Most professors need a few days or even a week to schedule a new appointment into their calendars between classes and meetings.
  7. One sentence emails that say “I am interested in xy research, please provide some guidance about how I would do that.” Most professors do not have enough time to write back a long generic response. This type of email also does not describe what information you are actually looking for in a response.

Emails that I do often respond to (if I have an available research opportunity) include information about your training and interests that fit with the kind of research that I do in my laboratory.You can get a feel for the kind of work that I do in my laboratory by reading some of my published work. You can usually find a professor’s published work on his or her website or through pubmed (or other discipline-specific databases) that can be accessed for free.

I don’t expect someone seeking a research opportunity to be able to discuss the topic area in detail with me, but I do expect the person to know whether they like and could perform the research methods we use in the laboratory (for example, we simply do not do any computer programming in my laboratory, so you would need to go elsewhere if that is what you want to do). You could also easily get this kind of information by attending a talk that I (or one of my students gives) or just by meeting with someone that works in my lab and chatting.

A good email will also tell me a little bit about the amount of time you can commit to research (I need to know if the investment that my people and I give you in training will be returned in the data you promise to generate), what your grades are (to get a realistic picture of how much time you can really spend in the laboratory) and what your goals after graduation are.

For tips on making a good first impression when emailing a professor, read Establish Your Professionalism in Three Seconds, and for a comprehensive guide on how to impress a potential mentor check out Getting In The Insider’s Guide to Finding the Perfect Undergraduate Research Experience