Next year I'm going to college and would like to do undergraduate research in the second semester under the supervision of a certain professor, who I'll call Prof. M.

There are three points against me and three in my favor. They are the following

  1. Prof. M. works at another university, which is about 100 miles away from the one I'm going to. If he does accept to advise me, my plan is to travel to his university every week or every other week.
  2. I am worse than terrible when it comes to social aspects: I talk too fast, lack common sense, and I feel horribly nervous when talking to other people (specially people I don't know), often leading to awkward behavior for not knowing how to act.
  3. Prof. M. is a (local) bigshot. (I'm assuming he might be more selective because of this)
  4. I have self-studied math and physics more or less to have approximately the technical understanding a second year graduate student would have. Of course, while I know about e.g. locally ringed spaces or bosonic string theory (or insert buzzword here), I lack most of the skills and experience a real graduate student would have, such as being able to critically read research papers or having research experience. Also, this is a self-assessment, thus possibly a faulty one;
  5. The professor is welcoming and has a nice personality (I got this information from a friend that has a friend who was a phd student in the same university as Prof. M. and who talked to him personally);
  6. He has supervised* undergraduate students in the past (about five years ago);


  1. should I talk to Prof. M. personally or by email?
  2. should I mention a paper he wrote that I find particularly interesting and ask if he would accept advising me to do similar research?

In short, what is the best path to be taken here?

*Though all undergraduate students are from his university. See Professor Eldredge's comment below.

  • I have refeered to him/her by him/her to try to make this situation more anonymous Dec 25, 2018 at 5:47
  • Does Prof Bigshot have a history of supervising undergraduates from your university? In many fields, typically including math and probably physics, supervising undergraduate research is a net drain on the professor's time, resulting in lower overall research productivity. A professor has certain incentives to do this for their university's own students (to some extent it's part of their job), but unless some sort of special arrangement exists, they probably have no incentives to do it for someone from another university. Dec 25, 2018 at 6:30
  • @NateEldredge Dear Professor Eldredge, Thank you for the reply (all the more during Christmas (eve)). (S)he has supervised 8 undergraduates, all from his/her university. 1 out of 30 phds+masters+post-docs (s)he has supervised did her phd at my university, though. Best wishes. Dec 25, 2018 at 6:50
  • @DanRomik Dear Professor Romik, Thank you for replying (all the more during Christmas (eve)). I'm flattered to know you think so; thank you very much! Would it be better to try speak in person or by email? Also, I'll be sure to prepare for the quizzing, a small mini-qual, if you will. Again, thank you for your kindness. Best wishes. Dec 25, 2018 at 7:15
  • @UndergradResearch I have no idea.
    – Dan Romik
    Dec 25, 2018 at 8:59

2 Answers 2


For reasons completely unrelated to your own skills and background, I think your chances here are slim. The professor has little external incentive to take you on and doing so will complicate his/her already too busy academic life. There might even be rules forbidding it, though the chance of that is small.

But, you ask how you can maximize your chances, so I'll give some hints.

This is the sort of thing you want to do in person, not by mail/email. You certainly won't get a positive answer via an email exchange. You might get an invitation to visit, but that puts you face-to-face in any case.

This is the sort of thing you want to do in conjunction with an advocate/intermediary. If you were already established in "your" college, one of your professors would be good for doing that. Especially since the prof once studied there. But if you have a current teacher who knows this person (or is known) they might be willing to intervene on your behalf, perhaps even accompanying you on a visit to the other university.

I'm not sure that waiting until you are established at university is a good thing or not. You won't have a lot of time to become recognized before you need to make the contact. But it would give you the potential for finding an intermediary.

You will need to convince the prof that you have unique skills and that it would be a missed opportunity not to work with you. That is a pretty steep climb. It would help if some of your research interests align. So you need to demonstrate that you know something of the research of the prof and how you might fit in.

But I also have a small wonder about why you chose the university you did, rather than the other one. You would maximize your chance by going there instead.

Don't worry about being/seeming awkward. Lots of people in academia are likewise.

  • Dear Professor Buffy, Thank you for your reply. (Specially during Christmas!) From here on I will refer to the professor at the other university as Prof. M. Is the following a good approach? 1. Ask a welcoming professor of my university for advice 2. Inquire at some point of the conversation about having an advocate/intermediary 3. Ask if (s)he either knows Prof. M. or knows some other professor at my university who knows Prof. M. Or perhaps should I just ask to the point (but cordially) if (s)he knows a professor who is acquainted with Prof. M. as to save his/her time? Thank you... Dec 25, 2018 at 21:08
  • ...for your advice and for the time you put at answering. Best wishes. P. S. A side question: is it wrong or unnatural to refer to the university one studies at as “my college” or “my university”? Or did you use quotes since I don't study there yet? Sorry to bother you with this (somewhat unrelated) question. (Note: I'm not a native speaker) Dec 25, 2018 at 21:08
  • P.P.S. Thank you very much for the last piece of advice. Being awkward worries me a lot when I think about building relationships with professors, students, or (future) collaborators. It is very reassuring to know that I shouldn't worry about this. Dec 25, 2018 at 21:28
  • 1
    I do not agree with the first paragraph of this response. I usually do not take on random students from other universities - however, if a student comes with clear interest in a topic close to my specialty, good background preparation and ideally a concrete idea (even if it is not the final direction of the research), I will always at least give it consideration to find a way of making a supervision feasible. Don't worry about awkwardness - if the prof is capable and has a pleasant personality, they will be interested in your science, not your nervousness. Dec 25, 2018 at 22:20
  • @CaptainEmacs Dear Captain Emacs, Thank you for your reply. (Specially during Christmas (or during the Holiday season, depending on your time zone)) I'll keep in mind to have a concrete idea for research when I do meet Prof. M. next year. Could you elaborate on how concrete the idea should be? Thank you for reassuring me about my awkwardness. Best wishes. Dec 26, 2018 at 2:47

Another potential solution I don't think anyone has mentioned is to have an official supervisor at your own institution, and a collaboration with Prof M at '100 mile University'. A more limited scope of direct supervision (say 1/month contact with more frequent meetings with your local super to handle the day-to-day stuff) might seem like less of an additional burden if they are hesitant to add you to their workload. You would then have access to both their specialist knowledge and a local super for the more general stuff and university admin side of things.

  • Dear @The_Tams, Thanks for the reply (specially during the Holiday season). However, if possible, I would like to avoid following this plan for the following reason. There are no professors in "my university" closeto the area of Prof. M. (The closest being something like geometric topology and algebraic geometry, or data analysis and neural networks) I believe this clash of research interests might, in the long term, create a bad relationship between me, my local advisor, and Prof. M. I'm not sure if this would present a problem, so please tell me if you think otherwise... Dec 27, 2018 at 19:56
  • ...My reluctance notwithstanding, thank you for your answer. Best wishes. Dec 27, 2018 at 19:57
  • Whether or not something like that would work is in part up to their personailties. I have worked with wonderful profs whose egos wouldn't find this arrangement a problem. Perhaps consider it a Plan C or such-like to have in your back pocket when you speak to Prof. M.
    – The_Tams
    Dec 28, 2018 at 22:12
  • Dear @The_Tams, From what I heard about Prof. M.'s personality, I think he wouldn't mind this arrangement. I'll be sure to know a pleasant prof (with reasonable ego) working in the university I'm going to study at to have Plan C available. Thank you! Best wishes. Dec 29, 2018 at 1:25

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