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I am a new immigrant and my question is about norms in American universities. I have MSc degree from abroad and in order to improve my chances for admission to a decent PhD program I would like to get published. I would appreciate your answers about the following questions:

  1. Is it acceptable for someone outside a department/university to contact a professor and ask him/her for a research project (as a non-student)?

  2. I do not have journal publications. What else can make them convinced?

  3. Finally, what would be an ideal etiquette/strategy for contacting professors with a plan for making such a request, if it is sensible at all.

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  1. It is acceptable, but not the best strategy. Getting the attention of a top professor is like fishing a very picky fish: you need a good bait. In my experience, it is easier to approach them by offering something rather than by asking for something. Also, the approach should be genuine. This is, you approach them because you want to work on something that might fit his/her research interests not just because you want to see his/her name tied to yours in a paper.
  2. IDEAS: Professors salivate when they see an interesting idea.
  3. Just follow all the etiquette rules. Be polite and respectful as you would be with any other person. Also, try to be precise, they are busy people.

More importantly: Publications are not strictly necessary to be admitted to a decent PhD.

If you have some project in mind, write it and send it to the Professor in question. Tell him/her that you are interested in working on such project and that given his/her research interests, you think that the project would be greatly benefited with his/her ideas and that you would appreciate collaborating with him/her on it.

  • This is a helpful answer and I think will work out with young but successful professors that I am thinking of. In particular, having something to offer to each from the beginning is something I should keep in mind. Thanks. – trxw Aug 25 '13 at 7:58
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@Iron's advice is good, but you will probably get turned down. I get many such requests and none has worked out yet.

The best way for you to get to work with a professor is to first be admitted as a PhD student in his/her program.

  • So, then I'd assume that they will be very hesitant unless, as @Iron mentioned, I have something to offer. It's a good point and means I should prepare for rejections. Thanks. – trxw Aug 25 '13 at 8:03

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