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I am currently a sophomore engineering international student at a relatively well-regarded university in Asia. I am planning to do an undergraduate research with a professor whose research area aligns with my interest. However, I was having quite a hard time deciding which research group I might go about. The following is my thought, in sequential order, after thinking about many factors:

  1. So I noticed that a lot of EE research groups I'm interested in (most are in traditional EE fields) have no international students in the lab. Even some lab websites do not have an English page, and for other labs, I'm afraid the environment wouldn't be friendly and that I wouldn't be learning a lot. (Yes, I've surveyed some of those labs. And I also agree that we should be able to conduct the research independently, but learning from professor and colleagues is one thing to consider.) So the final goal would be to study Master degree at other university, not here.

  2. The best plan now would be to graduate from here and apply Master degree somewhere else, probably in Europe/U.S. where the environment is more international. But I'm aware that my record is not outstanding to get accepted by a well-regarded (or maybe second tier) university in Europe/U.S., as I have two B+'s and one B0 in EE courses, quite a few B's in humanity courses (we are required to take ~8), and the rest are mixed of A's.

  3. So this means that I have to do something to compensate for my bad-looking transcript, and I would go about doing research.

  4. As most EE labs I'm interested in have no international students, I try to look for other EE labs that I'm less interested (or even neutral), but have internationals and more-supportive professors. Usually these are fields in modern EE, data analytics, robotics, and machine learning, and professors tend to completed his degree from top universities from U.S., and was told to be supportive to international students.

  5. In short term, if I choose this modern EE field, I might be able to do research in a supportive environment and might finally get a good letter of recommendation to apply for Master degree at a university in U.S. This is not the field that I was aiming at first, it is just a way that I might escape, knowing that if I were to continue Master degree here, in the field that I'm originally interested, I would be suffering through a bad time. In long term, I'm not sure for this path, as machine learning, data analytics and robotics haven't been my interest in the past. Just it is a field that a lot of EE students are now moving into and there are supportive professors.

  6. So I'm in the midst of choosing research area, weighting between the field that I'm interested but no international community and kind of inactive (I could be wrong) at my current university, and the field that I have less (or neutral) interest but has more international community and supportive professors which may finally give me a chance to pursue Master degree somewhere else.

Summary: How would one go about choosing research lab (as an international student) at a current university, if there is a conflict between your interest and other factors? The field you are interested in but lack of supportive environment, such as no international students in the lab or not very welcome, and the field that you are less interested but has more supportive environment for international students? What other factors would you consider?

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    In my experience, being able to work well with a professor, assuming he/she is responsible and competent, is key. What's the point of being in an environment that's toxic or the 'top' professor is never there? The only certainty is that you'll never finish. Doing a Master in newer EE areas does not mean the door is closed for traditional EE areas. Having a broad knowledge will serve you well. E.g., I prefer someone who has done a EE/CS + Math degree. Nowadays, everything is interdisciplinary; even power engineering now needs CS; check out energy Internet. – Prof. Santa Claus Apr 30 '18 at 3:04
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You are not forced to stay in your undergraduate research area forever. It is quite common to change directions when entering the master's, and again when starting a PhD. So don't worry too much about picking for the long-term.

If you are a strong self-directed student who doesn't really need an advisor anyway, you could pick solely for the topic. I have known people like this, they knew what they wanted to work on exactly, so they picked a random topically proximal prof as a signature-generating machine and then they shut themselves up at home or went on an extended holiday, showing up with a completed project and thesis at the end.

But as it sounds from your description you care quite a lot about having a supportive environment and interacting with others in your group. As someone who is also more of that type, picking primarily for a good relationship with the advisor was a more successful strategy for me. Of course, you should at least be somewhat competent in the area and not completely disinterested in the topic either.

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