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I am a currently an undergrad sophomore and am aiming to go to grad school for a PhD. I would like to do research with a professor at my school during the semester for (among many other things) graduate admissions. However, I have been able to secure a mentor or arrange for this research over the past ~year. I have contacted many professors by email (and sent polite follow up emails after a few weeks) but only a couple responded, and they said they were too busy to work with undergrads. After that strategy yielded no success, I tried to go to professors office hours and talk to them face-to-face; however, the majority said they were too busy, were already at capacity with undergrads, or did not have a lab/research area that was well-suited to undergraduate research.

The professors' reasons are of course completely valid, but I am very worried about finding a research opportunity and the attendant impact on grad school admissions. I have spoken with more than half of my school's faculty in my major (and many of the remaining faculty do not have significant lab groups and only work with one or two graduate students at a time). I believe that part of the problem is my school—it is very highly ranked in this field in the US, and the undergraduate population is very competitive. I am a slightly above-average student in the department, but I can't compete with the very top group for research positions. Would it be advantageous to transfer to another university with a lower-ranked department in order to increase my chance of finding a research position? Or should I just contact the professors again next year? I have also considered expanding my search to other departments, but I am less interested in those areas and unlikely to pursue them later.

  • Have you requested from them to "do research" in general or have you brought to the table a specific research proposal? – ncasas May 20 at 10:05
  • @ncasas I've approached them after having read several of their papers and discussed specific aspects of their research that I was interested in. – user6702438 May 20 at 10:11
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    Sadly, I think you have found a flaw that may be endemic to top level institutions. – Buffy Jun 19 at 12:12
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This suggestion is totally "off the wall" and "outside the box", but the underlying idea is that you broaden your perspective. I'm assuming a few things. First, you are at a top institution. Next, you are a top student - you are obviously dedicated. Next, you aren't alone and there are at least a few of you in the same circumstance.

Consider forming your own "research group". Become its leader. Find a faculty member who will give you a problem to work on and maybe give you occasional ideas on your progress. The commitment of the faculty member can be minimal and your research discussions are mostly among group members. Find someone, maybe even a postdoc, who can give you some ideas about research process in your field.

But if four of you approach a professor it is a different sort of thing than going alone. A junior professor might be an especially good "target".

Try to have your group meet a couple of times a week to share ideas and what insights anyone has.

Produce a group report at the end of some period of time, even if it only discusses directions, not successes. You can even discuss failures, since it was learning that was important and it is just as good to know what doesn't work as what does in many cases. Offer the report to some faculty member and ask for comment.

This will have two benefits. One is that it should enable you to learn something about research process even if it comes with small progress. Knowing how to go about research is an important skill in many fields and it is good to get some practice at it. But having formed such a group is, itself, a big plus when it comes to talking about grad school application.

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Personal Opinion

Would it be advantageous to transfer to another university with a lower-ranked department in order to increase my chance of finding a research position?

It would be advantageous to do so keeping your short-term goals in mind. However, since higher institutional prominence also leads to higher fund allocation, I would not have done so in your position (if a PhD at the same institution was my goal). From my point of view, if you as an undergraduate at the university have so much trouble finding a research group, how much steeped does the climb get when you are competing for a PhD position?

Or should I just contact the professors again next year?

Yes, contact group leaders until you find a group willing to take you. But, don't be a bother. If a professor has been indifferent towards you, it's highly unlikely they are going to change their opinion with ten more emails. Contact only those, who have shown slightly positive response, indicating that their lab currently has no open positions for UGs but will have new ones later.

What I would do

  1. Contact junior group leaders who are joining or have joined your institution in the current funding cycle.

  2. Contact the group leaders you have ignored

(and many of the remaining faculty do not have significant lab groups and only work with one or two graduate students at a time)

The above will provide you with better mentorship and growth opportunities, as you do not have to compete with 10 other people for their time. Furthermore, they might also be more inclined to take you on as a PhD scholar later on. In my field, joining a prominent group leader's lab hardly leads to good mentorship from the professor directly. You will be mentored by a Post-Doc or a PhD and at the end of your term, you will count yourself lucky if the professor meets you even once or remembers your name.

  1. If you are still desperate to work with the most prominent groups, then you should approach their senior PhD students and Post-Docs. Not the group leaders themselves.

This is my advice from experience. You must get a very good feel of the lab you are joining, before you join it. It is not the project, but interactions with your mentor that lead to you becoming a better scientist.

Finally, do not be swayed by the big articles that are listed on group websites. People tend to be envious of them, but they hardly notice the years of toil that goes into such article.

For some perspective, I have worked on average 10 hours a day, 7 days a week for the past 2.5 years to create an article which has now been submitted to a journal of some prestige. I have also met people who have worked for a decade on a single project but have not submitted the study.

  • Unfortunately the only positive response I received was from professors who said they were at capacity currently for undergrads but normally supervise them. However, (I know these undergrads personally) they are all going to continue to work in those labs next year, so presumably the lab will still be at capacity. – user6702438 May 20 at 10:29
  • Then, you may have missed the bus. But, people change their minds, so some of your friends may choose not to continue next year, because there are always those who figure out that they don't meld well with the lab culture. Whatever be the case, I would strongly suggest you think about the "What I would do" section. – FoldedChromatin May 20 at 10:41
  • Thanks; I'll consider those. The faculty who I didn't contact are high energy particle theorists and string theorists, who typically do not work with undergrads, but I'll have to give it a shot. My department only has one junior faculty member. I normally wouldn't consider transferring over this, but a lot of factors have converged to make this a very difficult position. – user6702438 May 20 at 10:46

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