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I am currently a freshman at an American university double majoring in CS and Econ. There is one professor in my university that I am looking to work with, as his main research focus is algorithmic game theory, something that for obvious reasons holds great interest to me.

However, I do recognize that it would be difficult for me to keep pace with his research, being highly theoretical in nature. However, I have written to him multiple time about meeting with me for a few minutes to talk about his research or to advise me about what next steps I may take to best prepare myself for that kind of research with no response. I even tracked him down once, after the 1st email, and asked him about this, where he told me to email him as he is busy. However, it has been months without any reply.

I'm at a loss for what to do; what further steps can I take?

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    He might be blowing you off. He might get 1000 emails a day and yours gets lost. The clever approach is to find one of his PhD students and ask them about it. Your TAs would be surprisingly helpful if they don't dislike you. – user120011 Mar 31 at 4:13
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    I'm a little confused; I was reading up on this and came upon this post that details how this is a bad idea. Are you suggesting something different than what the linked post suggests against? – user760900 Mar 31 at 7:43
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    @user760900: Talking to a PhD student about doing research with their advisor, how they are to work with, good ways to contact them: fine. Involving the PhD student in your research project, or taking the PhD student as a de facto advisor in place of the professor: not fine. – Nate Eldredge Mar 31 at 13:09
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    I'm unclear what you actually want. Your title suggests working with him, but the body suggests you are looking for less than that, at least initially. It is likely that there is some sort of seminar series in the Department. If there is, go to any that are given by any members of his research group. That will expose you to their ideas and show you what they are working on. – JenB Apr 1 at 8:12
  • @JenB I mean the idea is to work with him, even if it takes a semester of doing less so that he may warm up to me – user760900 Apr 1 at 15:36
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Well, faculty-student research is a two-way street, and for whatever reason, it certainly doesn't sound like this professor is showing a lot of interest in working with you. This is not necessarily anything about you or your abilities; he may just be busy with other things, or not very interested in working with undergraduates in general, or too disorganized to keep track of potential research students. But any of those would suggest that this is not someone that would be a good research supervisor for you at this time.

If you did start a research project with this professor, you'd be counting on him for actual supervision: advice on what to learn and what to work on, feedback on your progress and on your products (papers, code, etc), availability to meet to help get you unstuck when you are stuck on a problem, signing necessary university paperwork, collaboration in writing and submitting papers if you get that far, and so on. You can see from many questions on this site how frustrating a research experience can be if this sort of support is not forthcoming, and it will be especially important in your case since it's apparently your first time getting involved in research. And the fact that he is already so unresponsive to something as simple as "I'd like to talk about research opportunities" is reason for serious concern that he'd be similarly unresponsive when you really need his participation.

I would suggest that, at least for now, you move on and look for research opportunities with other faculty members - ideally, someone with a record of working successfully with undergraduates, and who shows clear interest in working with you. I think these are more important than a perfect fit of research interests.

You have plenty of time to consider approaching this professor again in a year or two. In the meantime, you might try to talk to other students he's supervised (either undergraduate or graduate) and find out how the experience was. This may give you some ideas about how to get his attention more effectively, or it may convince you that you don't want to work with him at all.

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  • I have been struggling with this exact dilemma, as I am extremely interested in algorithmic game theory. Given the circumstances, I came to much the same conclusion you did, yet it still feels wrong to give up on this topic and move to one that doesn't interest me. To give some background, the prof in question just became a prof and is trying to establish himself (although he recently became a bigshot due to a recent paper). I figure this is probably why he doesn't want to waste time on undergrads. However, I did contact other profs in the theory group (albeit once), and none responded. – user760900 Mar 31 at 7:31
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    @user760900: As I said, I really don't think it has anything to do with whether you're "good enough". All I'm saying is that working with a professor who isn't responsive or forthcoming with their time is likely to be a painful experience, no matter how interesting their research is. That's why I'm suggesting, at least for now, that you focus instead on finding someone who is good to work with, even if their research area isn't your first choice. – Nate Eldredge Mar 31 at 13:00
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    @user760900: It's also a good way to explore other areas that you may discover a stronger interest in, and even if you don't, the breadth of research experience is valuable; what you learn here may connect to other things you are interested in, down the road. Conversely, there is some danger in focusing exclusively in a single area too soon. – Nate Eldredge Mar 31 at 13:02
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    @user760900: The process of developing research relationships will get easier later in your undergraduate career, after you've gotten to know more professors (and how they are to work with), built up a stronger background of general knowledge in your field, and generally continued to mature as a student. – Nate Eldredge Mar 31 at 13:05
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    @user76090 it still feels wrong to give up on this topic and move to one that doesn't interest me -- don't give up! The beauty of research is that you can pursue one thing, unrelated, but keep your interest in this area. For your long-term goals, it makes sense to (hopefully temporarily) get research experience with someone else if this professor isn't being receptive. Also, it would be good to find a trusted mentor in the department you can talk to about this, maybe one of your other professors. – 6005 Mar 31 at 17:05
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One option is to take a class he teaches and do a fantastic job there, especially if it is a graduate-level one. Those classes often involve projects that deal with the actual research in the field. Very often those projects are open-ended and can potentially result in publications. I even suspect that some professors deliberately use their class projects to look for new students. If you can make yourself stand out from the crowd there, it is likely to open some doors for you. But since you are a freshman, make sure you are actually well-prepared to shine in such class before enrolling. Sometimes it is better to be patient and prepare well.

Another thing is to not get fixated on a particular sub-field. Research interests evolve over time, especially at an early stage. It is likely that in a couple of years you will be super hyped about doing something else. So enjoy your time at the university, learn as much as you can, and be open-minded about what you can do with your knowledge and intellectual abilities!

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    I tried to do this, but he keeps switching the classes he's teaching and he dropped the one I planned to take with him next semester (he's not teaching a class next sem ಠ_ಠ). But thank you for your response - I will continue to try this. – user760900 Mar 31 at 7:06
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    @user760900 You describe this professor as somewhat highly valued by society. If that is so, make it worth his time to meet with you. Proving yourself is one way to do it. Offering an inexpensive gift that recognizes his person or talents is another, along the lines as a well-prepared, home-cooked meal, or some cookies; Or, offer to be a guinea pig for his research, if that is applicable, Talking to TAs will give you more insight into how to approach him. – jpaugh Apr 3 at 20:03
  • @jpaugh Would you be able to expand more on how to offer him an inexpensive gift? To me it seems to come of as slightly nepotistic, to offer an essentially random professor food (it may be that I am slightly socially awkward, but I don't see any way of smoothly doing this). I am fine with being the guinea pig for the first half year or so, but even getting into contact with him is proving to be difficult. I will try the TAs. Thank you! – user760900 Apr 5 at 1:43
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    @user760900 I think that making gifts in this context is a very bad idea. – laola Apr 5 at 15:17
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    @jpaugh Given the fact the OP has already contacted the professor in question, a gift can be considered as a bribe or an attempt to ingratiate which might backfire. – laola Apr 14 at 18:42
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I'll just guess that he doesn't think you are ready and that he doesn't have the patience to deal with you at your current state of development. But, just a guess, as I said. You might have better luck in a year when you have a few more courses under your belt and some "seasoning". If you close the intellectual distance a bit you might have a better chance.

But another option, that might work, is to work through a different professor who has a high opinion of you and might be willing to get you connected to the "big guy". A recommendation from a colleague holds some weight where an email does not.

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    I see. Thank you. Considering you are a CS prof, that this is a theory based research prof, and my understanding that most theory groups take only grads, what can I do to increase my competence? While I do understand I am a freshman, I think, hopefully not narcissistically, that my current level is approximately equal that of a mid year junior to give you some background. – user760900 Mar 31 at 0:32
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    @user760900 I guess you basically need some proof that you are competent -- e.g. research experience with someone else, or some important graduate-level courses under your belt. If you are a freshman and cold email someone, they may just ignore it unfortunately, as there is no proof you are competent. – 6005 Mar 31 at 17:07
  • @6005 I would assume the same, but I simply cold emailed asking to talk about their research. In no place did I mention my competence level, which is more my cause for concern; a response saying I am incompetent leaves room for joining later, but no response gives me more concern towards even future viability – user760900 Mar 31 at 18:32
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    @user760900 The fact you did not mention competence is exactly why they may not respond. Moreover, no response is not cause for concern in the way you think. It just means they did not make time to respond, the reason they are not interested at this time is not stated. It isn't necessarily true there is no room to join later. – 6005 Mar 31 at 18:34
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    You may have heard, "It's publish or perish in academia." His time is limited. – historystamp Apr 1 at 22:18
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As an economist, my suggestion would be to move on and focus on course work, then come back to this idea later, or in graduate school.

First and foremost, professors are often facing more students wanting to work with them than they have room for. This is especially true if they are

  • More senior
  • In a trendy field
  • Well known in their field
  • In a department where not a lot of other faculty are in their field
  • Teach graduate classes

As a freshman they don't know, you haven't passed any of the gate keepers they likely use to help filter the load of interested research assistants. This is going to make it very difficult for you to get your foot in the door, so to speak.

Another reason that an economics professor is highly unlikely to be interested in performing research with undergrads is that undergraduate economics education really isn't much like graduate/professional economics research. As just one example, you can achieve an undergraduate economics degree with just calculus 1, and sometimes not even that. You often can't even get into an economics PhD program without differential equations and real analysis, but at the bare minimum multivariable calculus (usually calc 3).

Even if you're somehow a shockingly experienced freshman, go back to the point that this professor doesn't know you, and is therefore judging you by what he knows of freshman in general.

So specifically, my suggestion would be to do the following:

  1. Take a class with that professor
  2. Do well in that class. Go to office hours. Make sure they know who you are.
  3. Take more classes relevant to their field, particularly anything to do with research methods.
  4. Try again as a junior or senior, when you've got your eye on grad school.

I applaud your enthusiasm for research though. Good luck.

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